Toby, my Border Collie/Weimeraner/Jindo/Other Various Breeds mix, died on Thursday. He was almost 14. He had a good long life, and it was his time to go. Lucy, 11 years old, is now The Dog of the House. Lucy knew Toby since she was 6 months old. She was a rescue, as was Toby. It seemed like Lucy equated living the "good life" with Toby. Before Toby, she was living on the streets. After she met Toby, she was fed and walked every day. She followed him around like a shadow. She modeled her behavior (or lessons on "how to be a dog") from him. So when Toby died, I naturally was concerned about Lucy.
Here are some tips that are helping us with her reaction to Toby's death:
1. Ignore unwanted behavior and reinforce positive behavior.
Yesterday Lucy stood at the door and cried a little. It broke my heart, but I didn't say anything to her or approach her. If you comfort a dog when they are having unwanted behaviors, you may be reinforcing that behavior. If I continually comforted her when she cried at the door, it may have continued or even increased. Instead, I comfort her at other times, like when she is quiet and lying on her bed.
2. Keep your routine as similar as possible.
I still give Lucy the same treats every morning, and she wants to still walk the same route as we did when Toby was alive. We also keep the same time schedule - up at 7, food at 7:30. She likes routine, and it is important that I keep her schedule the same as when Toby was alive. It is enough change as it is!
4. Pets' grief reaction can be very different that of their family members.
You may notice your pet having a delayed grief reaction or no grief reaction. You may also have a pet that grieves more than his or her family members. Pay your pet more attention than usual, and make sure they get their regular walks and exercise. Also, beware of projecting, or putting your own feelings, onto your dog. You may say to your family, "she/he looks so sad" when she is, in fact, just eating her food.
5. Expect a change in social order.
If you have more than one surviving pet, it is common for them to vie with each other for alpha status. You may see more "challenges" between pets. One pet may try to eat the other pets' food, or steal their treats. You may also see changes in the general behavior of your pets. Lucy now has taken over "porch patrol". The total amount of times she barked when Toby was alive: 10. Total amount of times she has barked since he died last week: 25.
6. Keep your dog busy.
If your dog is home alone for the first time, get them a toy that stimulates their mind. A treat-hiding toy is great for this purpose. If treat-hiding toys aren't your dog's thing, try a new squeaky toy. If you are walking your dog regularly and for an appropriate amount of time, it can help reduce his or her anxiety level when you aren't home.
7. Remember that your dogs have different personalities.
Toby loved treat-hiding toys. I tried to get Lucy interested in one, and her response was an expression of "What am I supposed to do with this??" Lucy likes squeaky toys. Toby thought they were idiotic. So all squeaky toys it is. It's been interesting and fun getting to know Lucy as herself, not just as Toby's pet dog.
8. Keep an eye on your pets' health issues.
Just like humans, pets can react with physical symptoms to grief. It can be common for your pet to be more tired than usual, to eat less than usual, or to not be as playful as usual. Go with your intuition about this behavior. If you feel the behavior is going on too long or if your pets' health is compromised, see your vet.
9. Be careful about being overprotective of your surviving pets.
As people, once we've experienced a loss, we tend to hold our surviving family members and friends closer to us. You may do the same to your surviving pets. Just make sure you aren't overdoing it. If you aren't letting your pets leave your side when they are at the dog park, as yourself if you are doing it for you or for them.
10. Be careful of not bonding to your surviving pets.
Just as people tend to hold on tighter after loss, people also may distance themselves from the people around them, and their pets. If you find yourself not attending to your pets' needs, please ask for help from trusted family members or friends. If your pet is being neglected, their grief may increase and also misbehaviors may increase. Also consider attending a pet loss support group.
For more information on pet loss and grief:
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
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