Have you recently experienced the loss of a pet and feel slightly foolish for being so emotionally distraught because after all “it’s just a pet”? Well, studies show that our relationships with our pets (especially dogs) have a profound impact on us, and can actually register in the brain similarly to the death of a loved one.
In an article for The Conversation, psychology professor Frank McAndrew said that “research has confirmed that for most people, the loss of a dog is, in almost every way, comparable to the loss of a human loved one.”
The research he references looks at how pets play a similar role to their humans as a child in a child-parent relationship, which elicits love and caregiving. Other mechanisms, like attributing human-like thoughts and motivations to your pet, can “cause pet owners to derive more satisfaction from their pet relationship than those with humans, because they supply a type of unconditional relationship that is usually absent from those with other human beings.”
Our relationship with our pets can be happier compared to our human relationships simply because of their unconditional love and the lack of conflict (minus the time Fido chewed up your favorite high heels).
For most people, the loss of a dog is, in almost every way, comparable to the loss of a human loved one.
Dogs Have Special Social-Cognitive Skills
Whether you’re a cat person or a dog person, pets actually possess social traits not found in their wild counterparts. Let’s look at the research on domesticated dogs to illustrate this fact.
Duke University professor and anthropologist Dr. Brian Hare conducted The Domestication Hypothesis which assessed the social cognition of dogs. It graphed the evolution of domesticated dogs over time, proving that they share emotional resonance with their owners. The study said, “Dogs are more skillful than great apes at a number of tasks in which they must read human communicative signals indicating the location of hidden food. In this study, we found that wolves who were raised by humans do not show these same skills, whereas domestic dog puppies only a few weeks old, even those that have had little human contact, do show these skills. These findings suggest that during the process of domestication, dogs have been selected for a set of social-cognitive abilities that enable them to communicate with humans in unique ways.”
Even more so, dogs have been bred throughout generations to pay attention to people. MRI scans show that dog brains respond to praise from their owners just as strongly as they do to food, despite critics who believe that the bond between dog and owner is simply due to food sourcing dependency. In some cases, praise was even more incentivizing than food, demonstrating the strength of the bond! Dogs recognize people and can learn to interpret human emotional states from facial expressions alone. Other studies also indicate that dogs can understand human intentions, try to help their owners, and even avoid people who don’t cooperate or treat their owners well.
Dogs can understand human intentions and even avoid people who don’t treat their owners well.
For humans, dogs become a source of unconditional love due to their loyal companionship. Owners respond positively to a dog’s assistance, affection, and protection. Dog owners even score higher on measurements of well-being, showing they are happier than peers who own cats or no pets at all. There’s a reason dogs are known to be man’s best friend!
Grieving the Loss of Your Dog
All to say, dog moms, we see you! Your feelings are more than justified. Here are some ways to cope emotionally during these challenging times to honor a pet who “felt like family.”
1. Create a Custom Gift
We all appreciate honoring our loved ones by reminiscing on the good times we shared. One of the best ways to do this is through a customized keepsake that will place them in our consciousness for years to come. Some ideas include a portrait, tree ornament, window display, screenprint, coffee mug, jewelry, or any other small item that will serve as a reminder (you can find lots of cute and unique ideas on Etsy!).
2. Host a Service
Just as we mourn our loved ones with a burial service to find peace and closure, the same holds true for pets. Invite your close friends and families over for a small service to share your favorite memories and pay your respects to the valuable life your pet had.
3. Create a Photo Collage
One thing everyone seems to say when loss occurs is “I wish I had more photos.” These moments in time become so meaningful when our loved ones move on from the physical world. Therefore, take what photos you do have and create a collage for your room, save them as an album on your phone, or design a scrapbook. Use it as your instant feel-good boost when grief feels especially heavy.
4. Be Gentle with Your Processing
While there is a booming rise in pet mom privileges, mourning openly hasn’t yet made its way into the mainstream. Don’t let this deter you from honoring your feelings fully. Move through grief by recognizing it, talking to a trusted friend, and seeking other support when necessary.
5. Write a Letter
Oftentimes writing can serve as a relieving outlet to alleviate thoughts. Take some time to write a letter to your pet. This can be a beautiful way to pay tribute to the role they had in your life and also allow you the space to release stored grief.
While loss at any level is never easy and we all experience it differently, remember the most important part is to show up for it. Instead of feeling like you need to “get over it'' quickly, let yourself embrace the experience. Embracing is the gateway to healing. Leading by example will simultaneously give others permission to do the same.
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