Dogs offer an unconditional type of love we don’t always experience in our human relationships. When it’s time to say goodbye to such an integral part of our families, it can be a traumatic experience.
Not everyone respects grieving the loss of a pet the way they would a human family member—there isn’t always the same level of sympathy or understanding. It’s not uncommon to hear non-dog owners say things like, “why are you so upset? It was just a dog” or “just go out and get another one.”
Of course, welcoming another dog into your family can be part of the healing process, but there isn’t a set time for when it’s best to do this. Grief is an extremely personal journey. It isn’t a linear thing, and allowing yourself and any other family members time to process these feelings is sensible before making a decision.
It Will Be Different For Every Family
Dr. Mary Gardner is a veterinarian and co-founder of Lap of Love. Geriatric medicine, the aging process in animals, and teaching families practical ways to care for and manage their elder pets are her passions.
She describes how the right time to introduce a new dog to the family will be different in every situation. “Processing grief can be very helpful in general, and the distraction of a new pet may be good, but may also take away from memorializing the first dog.” The last thing you want is to resent your new dog because you haven’t grieved enough.
“Not everyone goes through immense grief after the loss of a dog that prevents them from opening their heart again sooner,” says Dr. Gardner. “Sometimes the silence in the home is too much for a grieving owner, and filling the void is helpful.” She believes it’s a very personal decision, and “there’s nothing wrong with getting a new pet right away—or waiting for months or years to love again.”
There isn’t a universal approach for handling the complicated grief process. But taking time to acknowledge rather than minimize feelings of grief and memorializing the pet you have lost can help you better understand if you and your wider family are ready to consider a new dog.
Bereavement counselling can be beneficial for people struggling to cope with the loss of a much-loved dog. Brenda Brown, MA, FT is a grief specialist and owner of Grief About Pets. She offers support services to owners before and after losing their pets. She also agrees that grieving is a very individual process and explains that “as a grief specialist, I always totally focus on my client’s story and relationship with their deceased pet. We talk about their grief symptoms and how they can cope with each one, whether it’s physical, mental, spiritual or social.”
“Self-care can be so difficult in the early grieving stages. Healthy eating and drinking, along with sleeping, are crucial. I encourage my clients to keep talking and sharing their grief story with other trusted and understanding friends and family,” she says.
Brown encourages her clients to visit online pet loss groups. “Hearing and learning from other pet loss owners can be so helpful. Also, it’s great to know that you aren’t alone on the grief journey.”
There’s an AKC Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook. The private group offers members a place to grieve and comfort one another.
Some common ways of remembering your pet include planting something in their memory, creating a photobook, journaling, or commissioning a portrait. Brown explains that “in the early stages of grief, I suggest keeping many of your pet’s keepsakes (toys, collars, dog dishes, pictures, etc.). Eventually, as owners heal, we discuss ideas for keepsake treasures they can make or purchase (jewelry, urns, tattoos, figurines, stuffed animals, etc.). These special items can provide a great deal of comfort.”
Consider Other Household Pets
If you have another dog or other pets in the family, it’s important to consider them before introducing a new dog to the household. Throwing an excitable young puppy into the mix when you have a senior dog that’s choosy about who they socialize with may not be a fair decision.
However, dogs can experience grief at the loss of their furry friend too, and, sometimes, having a new dog around for companionship can help them feel less lonely.
Dr. Gardner says you need to consider how the new pet can change the dynamics in the house. She recognizes that “the existing pet may enjoy a new friend to play with,” but if they have high care needs or will stress with the introduction of a new pet, then the timing might not be right.
Try Not to Compare Your Old Dog to Your New One Too Much
Dr. Gardner thinks it’s common for grieving owners to compare their new dog to their previous one—she admits she has even done this herself. While it might be difficult not to do this to some degree, don’t be disappointed or frustrated if your new dog doesn’t behave the way your beloved previous dog did.
If you have a passion for a particular breed or opt for the same breed as your last dog, you might compare them even more, since they look alike and share similar breed traits. But every dog is unique.
“It can be a problem when someone sets expectations for the new pet. It’s important to just let the new pet be themselves and develop their own awesome personalities,” says Dr. Gardner.
A dog you shared your life with will never be forgotten or replaced. But, when the time is right, and another dog comes into your life, you can create new memories together, and building a relationship with them can continue to help heal your heart.