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Helping Dogs Cope with Death
Left: Sheila & Willy Right: Willy mourns at Sheila's burial
Left: Sheila & Willy Right: Willy mourns at Sheila's burial

A recent event reminded me of how different dogs cope with the death of an animal or person they are close to and how we can help them. Our local Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue where I’ve volunteered for many years had two rescued wolfdogs (commonly called wolf hybrids) and gave them a wonderful life at the sanctuary as part of the education display. The older wolfdog, Sheila, passed away recently of cancer and her companion Willy howled endlessly at her loss. The rescue does a fabulous job with the endless sick, injured and orphaned wildlife that pass through their doors and I was impressed with how they handled Willy's response to Sheila’s passing. Willy was allowed to see and spend time with Sheila’s body and was present for her burial. After investigating her body he seemed to be able to understand that she wasn’t coming back and he stopped howling for her.

I’ve always had multiple dogs and I allow my surviving dogs to spend time with the bodies of my other dogs when they pass. The dogs and I sit together with the body for a while and huddle close and grieve together in whatever way feels right in each case. In my experience, my remaining dogs have ranged between intense interest for some and barely a passing sniff for others. There is no right or wrong response and in each case I give them as much time as they want to be with the body. Usually after a few moments of close investigation, they seem to have all the information they need and move on to other things. In some cases it isn’t possible for the other pets to see the body and most will eventually find ways to cope as well.

I’ve also seen dogs after their human companions have passed. In one case I removed a small dog from the arms of the deceased owner. The person had died peacefully at home in bed and the dog stayed curled up against the owner. I was told that the little dog was normally very snappy and noisy with strangers but in this case she quietly allowed me to lift her from her person. She was likely subdued from the event but it may have been helpful for her to spend time with the body as well. Another dog I picked up had witnessed the murder of their person by another member of the household. That dog was one of the more traumatized dogs I’ve ever picked up, but he too eventually recovered in his loving new home.

Regardless of whether you are able or willing to allow your dog see the body of another pet or loved one, there are things you can do to help them cope. Dogs respond differently to loss just as people do so try to take your cues from your dog. I do think it’s ok to cry and grieve in front of your dog, but also do your best to reassure your dog and spend extra time doing things they enjoy. For some dogs extra exercise and playtime are helpful, while others may want more cuddle time. Dogs that really enjoy other dogs might enjoy a new canine friend if that’s feasible. Although many dogs grieve deeply, most are able to recover well with our love and support. 

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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.

Photos courtesy Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.
Photo of Sheila and Willy nuzzling (left) by Joshua Asel.

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