In his delightful book, Off the Leash, about a grown man’s very first year with his very first, very beloved puppy, author Matthew Gilbert asks, “Why get a dog when its life will end, probably before yours?”
He then goes on to answer the question: “Because it’s worth the pain of loss.”
Like so many others, he had, as he puts it, “begun to understand and accept the bargain.” He acknowledges that his yellow Lab, Toby, “would leave…someday. But,” he says, “I was blocking that fact as much as I could, successfully, rather than obsessing about his death so much that I forgot to enjoy him. I was not pregrieving him, just savoring him.”
We all know the deal. We live it every day with our pets, and many of us have already been through the whole cycle—more than once.
That doesn’t make letting your loved pet go any easier. But it’s good to remind yourself that on balance, the pain of the loss doesn’t stand up to the years of joy a loved dog gives.
Other ways to remind yourself that dog love trumps dog loss
There’s not one among us who doesn’t remember all the dogs he’s ever had and their impact on his life. To bring a dog into your home is truly to add a family member. Some dogs hang out with you on the couch to watch favorite TV shows. Some love to hike with you or go hard at it with Frisbees and rubber balls. Others joke around, staying just out of reach with a glint in their eyes and a literal smile on their lips as they challenge you to try to take a toy from their mouths. Still others sit mournfully with you when you cry, or even rub their muzzles against you to try to make you (and them) feel better. All of these memories, these patterns in relationships that go on for a decade or more, stay with you forever. That affords much more of a profound impact on the texture of your life than your loved dog’s death, as hard as that juncture may be.
Of course, it’s not only you who’s benefiting. Dogs have evolved and also been bred to be in the company of people; they love being your family member. And by your responding to their innocence and unconditional love with warmth, care, affection, and yes, resources like food, shelter, and health care, you are giving them the most wonderful time here on earth.
In other words, by being willing to put yourself through the grief of your dog’s eventual demise, you are also making a selfless pact to take care of an animal who would not be able to take care of himself, certainly not so richly and with the reward of such a strong cross-species bond.
A next dog?
Most people don’t feel right about taking in a new dog while they’re still grieving for the one who has passed. Their instincts are right. There’s too much emotional dissonance trying to bond with a new pet while the loss of the one you have loved for perhaps a decade or more is still raw.
Rushing things with a new pet won’t “replace” your other dog, either. They’re all very different, and will have very different relationships with you, just as you have with each of your children. Fast-forwarding to a new dog will most definitely not make it feel like you have what you lost, even if the new pet is the same dog bred. So take your time. There’s no “right” amount of time to grieve. When and if the time is right to get another dog, you’ll know.
Words of comfort
Many people find comfort in a short book written more than 75 years ago by the great playwright Eugene O’Neill, who penned Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Desire Under the Elms, and other dramas that earned him the Nobel Prize in literature as well as three Pulitzers.
Called The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog, it’s essentially an elegy inspired by the death of his own dog, Blemie. Writes one Your Dog reader, “Any time a friend’s dog dies, I give them a copy as a gift. I just found out that some of those books are being passed along to friends of friends. It helps in the grieving process and also gives people ‘permission’ to get another dog. It really is a sweet, beautiful work. One of my friends refers to it as ‘The Book.’ It’s that special.”
The dog in the book asks his people “to remember me always, but not to grieve me for too long,” adding, “it is painful for me to think that…in death I should cause them pain.”
The little tome also makes the point that dogs do not want to be alive once all quality of life is gone and that there does come a point when choosing euthanasia for your pet is the compassionate decision: “…now that I have grown blind and deaf and lame, and even my sense of smell fails me so that a rabbit could be right under my nose and I might not know….I feel life is taunting me with having overlingered my welcome. It is time I said good-bye.”