Owning a dog is a rewarding experience that is good for our physical and mental health. Dogs give us unconditional love, companionship, force us to exercise, make us more sociable, increase our cognitive function and reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
It is a proven fact that petting an animal reduces our blood pressure, lowers heart rate and increases the love hormone oxytocin. They are also great fun!
We have always had dogs, all rescues or strays as we have a large garden and field for them to play in and our dogs always live in the house and become members of the family, which is why it makes it so unbearable when one of them dies.
Sometimes there would be dog fights, messy accidents to clear up and chewed possessions, but they gave us a lot of joy over the years and, as each passed on through old age or illness, the pain of losing each dog was difficult to cope with.
We recently lost Kodiak. My daughter and I fell in love with Kodiak the moment we saw her at the Donkey Sanctuary over 12 years ago. As we entered the gate, an enormous fluffy puppy came bounding up to us and we were instantly besotted, deciding there and then that she had to join the family – despite us already having various rescue dogs at the time. After all, what was one more?
Kodiak was named after the Alaskan Kodiak bears because she looked like a bear cub. We like big dogs, and we envisioned her to grow up looking like a Burmese mountain dog. However, whilst her body certainly grew very big, her legs did not keep up and so she was relatively short for her body size. She was a loving placid dog, unless one of the other females started a fight and then she always won!
Did you know that studies have shown that dogs have many of the same emotions as humans? They show signs of feeling happiness, grief, sadness, anger, fear and possessiveness. They can become depressed, and dogs usually also feel their owners’ emotions too.
When Kodiak was two, we adopted a puppy, Harvey, our Rafeiro Alentejano, and they became a pair, always together. Harvey, like us, is feeling immense grief as he clearly misses his companion. After all, they had the equivalent of 60 human years together.
Harvey cannot tell us how he feels, but we have noticed a change in his behaviour. He wants more affection, which is totally out of character for this huge, somewhat wild, independent dog.
Studies have indicated that when dogs lose a ‘sibling’, they may become more lethargic and depressed, may become destructive and lose their appetite because they feel the loss just like we do, but perhaps they do not understand why.
However, I think Harvey understands that Kodiak has died because he has been disappearing at night and we find him lying on her grave, which just breaks our hearts.
Euthanising a dog is the hardest thing I have ever done and, even knowing that it was the best course of action, it was so hard, especially as it all happened so unexpectedly when Kodiak suffered a massive stroke. She had been extra clingy for a week, which retrospectively makes me wonder if she knew.
Choosing to euthanise a pet is a difficult decision, even when made to end their suffering if they are in pain or no longer have a good quality of life. It is important to be guided by a vet and ours was extremely compassionate and, despite having been called out in the middle of the night, she was able to talk to us patiently and calmly about our options and what was best for Kodiak.
We have had to make this decision for various dogs over time, yet, even years later, I still find it hard to get over the guilt and grief that can come from such a decision, despite the fact that an owner should not feel guilty when it is in the dog’s best interest.
It was an unbearably heart-breaking situation as we sat holding Kodiak and talking gently to her throughout the very quick procedure. We never really had time to process it all in advance, which I guess was good, but it also made the whole situation even more emotionally and physically draining, and we were traumatised and in shock for days afterwards.
Our dogs have all had different personalities and quirky habits, and it is these that make Kodiak’s loss more evident: seeing the bed she shared with Harvey half empty, not hearing her barking to go out in the morning or barking excitedly for her dinner to be put down, in contrast to Harvey sitting quietly and patiently waiting for his. Not sharing my breakfast toast with her.
The grieving process is hard, and I find my tears triggered at unexpected moments not just for Kodiak but for all the others I loved and lost too as old wounds are reopened. It is unfair that dogs have such short lifespans.
As an owner, we are responsible for the wellbeing of our pets and that means making hard compassionate decisions about their welfare and ultimately their life, no matter how hard it might be for us. Some people who never owned a pet may not understand the grief felt by the loss of a pet, but talking about it or joining a support group can help those grieving.
Equally, anyone not ready for another dog could choose instead to help at one of their local animal charities, by fostering or walking dogs that are looking for a forever home. This way they get the joy of interacting with a dog but hopefully without the heartbreak.
It is said that getting another dog helps humans and dog ‘siblings’ to deal better with their grief and even though a new dog does not replace the one lost, it can be a healer. Harvey does not particularly like other dogs, so this is not an option for us and, besides, it is too soon.
Over the years, we have had many dogs, most of which chose us by turning up in the garden and yet it never gets any easier when they die.
I read that “dogs leave paw prints on our heart” and, if that is the case, mine is completely covered as I still miss every one and they all have a special forever place in my heart.
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
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Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.