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A Dogs Grief

When Malachi was first captured and brought to Dogwood Animal Rescue Project, he was a feral wolfdog who had been living wild and on his own for some time. He was terrified of people but he bonded tightly and immediately with our rescued Great Dane, Tyra. Tyra was frail and struggling with Wobblers Disease and other health problems but Malachi adored her.

Tyra was incredibly helpful in being a stable role model for Malachi’s interactions with people. Although he’s still somewhat feral, he’s made a lot of improvement and would come inside the house, lie near us and even greet us, just to be near her. As Tyra’s health worsened she fell often and Malachi would always rush to be with her and hover around her frantically as she waited for me to help her up. While the other dogs loved Tyra, they never seemed to notice her struggles. Malachi however was so distressed by her falls that he would get as close as he could, lick and kiss her mouth, curve his body around her and all but pat her back. At 120 pounds it was always a challenge to get Tyra up and as soon as she was on her feet again, Malachi would bound around her in delight, so happy to see his great love out of distress.

Tyra continued to decline and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for Malachi to lose her. He had lots of other dog friends in the other permanent canine residents as well as endless fosters and visitors and he played with them by the hour but Tyra had his heart. Finally the day came where we couldn’t keep her comfortable any longer and my own heart was breaking as the vet came to the house to help us say good-bye.

The other dogs were out of the room as Tyra slipped away gently in my arms with my tears bathing her sweet face. She was in her favorite bed in the living room and a cat purred quietly on my lap as I sat with her for a few moments after the vet left. Finally I got up and let the other dogs in. In the past my dogs have shown a variety of reactions to the body of one of their companions ranging from intense fascination to little interest. But those dogs were more tightly bonded to me and Malachi was bonded to Tyra. She was his everything.

I was surprised to see the other dogs bounce into the room happily and carefree as ever. They literally leapt over Tyra’s body as they raced to grab their favorite toys or the most comfy spot on the couch.  Malachi who is so hyper-sensitive to every mood and nuance of behavior didn’t seem to notice a thing. After a few minutes of play he went over and lay in the bed next to Tyra but he seemed relaxed and happy. He flopped over near her and even wormed his way a bit closer. In the past she would have corrected him for getting in her space and he acted as if he were getting away with something when she didn’t. A few minutes later he was fast asleep next to her.

The dogs weren’t present when I buried Tyra and a couple of days went by where all seemed normal. I was thrilled that Malachi seemed to be coping so well. A few nights later Malachi refused to come back inside after the last potty break at bedtime. That’s not unusual as he occasionally prefers to sleep outside instead of in the bedroom with us. But the next morning when I let the other dogs out he wasn’t on the back porch waiting to greet them. Our property has a spacious fenced area so I assumed he was just distracted by something. As I went into the kitchen to make my coffee I glanced out the window. To my surprise, Malachi was in another of our yards, frantic and upset, running the fence. In my sleepy state I had trouble processing what I was seeing. How did he get in there? Had I left a gate open? I walked out to the gate and let him back into the regular dog yard. There was a huge hole under the fence where he had dug under, but why?  As I walked back to the house I glanced over at Tyra’s grave. To my horror, the dirt was pulled away and I could see a flash of black fur. I turned away, sick to my stomach. The shock of seeing my girl’s body again was so painful that I felt nauseous. I had buried her tightly wrapped in a sheet, lay flowers on top and covered her thoroughly.

After a moment or two I pulled myself together and walked over to the grave. Tyra’s body itself was undisturbed but the sheet had been ripped away until her shiny black coat was visible. In the soft dirt next to her was the imprint of Malachi’s body where he had lay next to her. I stood there for a long time with the tears slipping down my face and a lump in my throat. I was so saddened and touched by Malachi’s devotion to her. It must have taken half the night to dig a hole big enough for his 100 pound body to fit through and then another to reach his love.

I blocked access to the grave itself and made it so he could lay nearby but the next day when I was at work he ripped the back porch steps off and tunneled under the house toward the grave. He spend days under there and rarely came out. Eventually he stopped trying to get to Tyra but he grew more and more skittish and depressed as the days passed. Grieving is an important process and we wanted to honor his pain while helping him cope but it was hard as he didn’t allow us to comfort him. We brought his favorite dog friends to play each day and for a while he would seem joyful and carefree but afterwards he would go into a depression again.

We tried medication and herbal remedies to help him but didn’t see much improvement. People suggested getting him a puppy but we have endless puppies. We are a rescue and it’s rare that we don’t have puppies here to play with along with half a dozen or more dogs in need. Malachi loves other dogs but just as we cannot just replace a loved one, neither can Malachi. He has lots of playmates but Tyra was more of a mother figure, leader and teacher all in one and Malachi worshipped her like no other.

As time goes on Malachi seems to be happier again although like the rest of us it’s up and down. At times Malachi seeks attention and cuddles close as I massage him from his face all the way down to his tail and other times I can’t get anywhere near, let alone touch him. A friend reminds me to be more like Tyra in my interaction with him. Tyra wouldn’t have felt sorry for him, or herself. Tyra would have led him firmly and gently guided him through the pain. I’m hopeful that, with time, I will be able to take a role similar to Tyra’s in Malachi’s life. 

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Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.

Images courtsey Shirley Zindler

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