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How mindfulness can help you cope with pet loss grief

When you’re grieving for a much-loved pet, it can be hard to know how to cope or to visualise a time in the future when you’ll be able to get through the day without crying or feeling intense emotional pain.

Many people find that mindfulness exercises can help them.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is perhaps best described as the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever you’re doing at any given moment, free from distraction or judgement. When you’re in a mindful state, you are aware of your thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them.

Why is mindfulness so important when you’re grieving?

As you know from personal experience, grief can be intense, painful and complicated, bringing up a range of strong emotions.

For most of us, our instinct is to think, “How can I ‘get over’ my grief as quickly as possible?” or “What can I do to stop feeling like this?”

It’s completely understandable that we feel this way. Grief is possibly one of the most distressing states to experience in life, even though it is an inevitable part of being human.

In order to cope, many of us try to avoid our feelings of grief altogether or, on the flipside, get stuck in how sad we feel without our precious pet.

Mindfulness can offer a third option that is healthier in the long-term.

The practice of mindfulness isn’t designed to take your pain away or end your grief. However, it can give you some tools to sit with the truth of your loss in a non-judgemental, self-compassionate way.

Accepting the impermanence of life

In many ways, mindfulness is about accepting that nothing in life is permanent, nothing lasts forever.

The painful truth is that, as soon as someone has life, their death is inevitable and unavoidable. 

Equally, when you love someone, you will eventually lose them in some way, either through death or a change in circumstances. Therefore, grief and loss are an integral part of love.

It’s incredibly painful to think about this. We want to go on forever with our loved ones by our side.

The problem is that when you start to think about situations or emotions being permanent – of them going on forever – you can become stuck. If you see the past as permanent, you can get bogged down by always looking backwards and trying to return to a previous stage in life when your pet was alive and well.

If you believe the future is already fixed and permanent, it becomes easy to believe that your grief will exist in its current, intense state forever. This can feel hopeless.

Mindfulness challenges these beliefs.

It tells us that impermanence is at the core of our existence. Things are constantly changing, so all we can truly know is what is happening here and now, in this exact moment.

If we can accept impermanence within our grief, we can embrace the idea that we won’t always feel as heartbroken as we do right now. This perspective enables us to recognise that, with time, our grief might change and soften and make room for other things in our lives.

Mindfulness exercises for beginners

We’re not mindfulness experts here at The Ralph Site but we do know that simple mindfulness exercises can help you to move through your grief rather than getting stuck where you are right now.

Here are a few ideas for you to try:

  • Mindful breathing

This is an exercise that you can do at any time, anywhere.

Mindful breathing is designed to bring you back to the here and now, connecting you with your physical being and letting thoughts flow in and out of your mind without getting caught up in them.

With this exercise, you need to breathe from the diaphragm, paying attention to the rise and fall of your chest. Breathe in slowly through your nose and then breathe out through your mouth, feeling the warmth of your breath as it leaves your body.

Try to focus on counting your breaths rather than thinking about anything else. Thoughts will pop into your mind and that’s OK – you’re not trying to avoid them. Acknowledge anything that you think. Don’t tell yourself off for thinking about your sadness, guilt or anger. They’re natural feelings when you’re grieving.

If you find your thoughts focusing on your grief, try to shift what you’re thinking about by going back to counting every breath and concentrating on each number.

Need more guidance? You might find this mindful breathing meditation helpful.

  • A mindful visualisation

Some people find it helpful to couple mindful breathing with a visualisation exercise called ‘Leaves on a stream’.

As you concentrate on your breathing, close your eyes and imagine a stream flowing through a forest. Leaves are falling from the trees surrounding you. When a thought pops into your mind, grab a falling leaf and attach the thought to it. Then, let the leaf fall into the stream and watch it float away.

Any thought counts – from what you plan to cook for dinner tonight right through to memories of how your pet died. The key here is to recognise the thought, name it and then let it flow away from you.

  • Mindful nature walk

Doing some physical activity can be a great way to lift your mood when you’re grieving. A walk somewhere in nature is even more beneficial because it’s a visual reminder of the cycle of life and death.

Walk through the woods in the autumn, for example, and you’ll see the leaves falling from the trees and decaying on the ground where, only months before, they were green and plenty. It’s a gentle way of reinforcing the impermanence of life.

You also recognise that spring and summer will come again. There are happy times ahead.

Before you start your walk, spend a couple of minutes standing still with your eyes closed. Pay attention to your senses. What can you hear? Perhaps children are playing in the distance or a dog is barking. Maybe you can hear the wind blowing through the branches of the trees.

What can you smell? Does the ground smell damp? Is there a fragrance from nearby flowers in the air? Maybe someone nearby has lit a bonfire or, if you’re walking on the beach, can you smell salt from the sea?

What can you feel? Is the breeze blowing on your skin? Is your hair dancing about in the wind? Maybe your cheeks and toes feel cold or you’re so warm that you can feel a trickle of sweat running down your back.

Is there anything you can taste in the air around you? Maybe it’s raining or the breeze tastes like sea spray.

By concentrating on the things you can experience in your immediate location, it will help to ground you in the present moment.

Open your eyes and take in what you can see. Notice the different colours, shapes and textures. 

Once you start walking, try to notice how it feels each time one of your feet hit the ground. What is the path like? Can you hear your shoes crunching fragile leaves? Are you walking on soft sand? If so, what does it feel like to sink into it with each step?

Every couple of minutes, try to switch your focus from one sense to another. For example, you could spend two minutes thinking about what you can see, then two more thinking about what you can hear, and then what you can taste and so on.

  • Mindful self-compassion

As we’ve explored in past blogs, it’s common to feel guilty or angry when a pet dies. These emotions can make it hard to be kind to yourself, especially if you feel you were in some way responsible for your pet’s death (see our blog about self-forgiveness).

This mindfulness exercise encourages you to practice self-compassion.

When you’re grieving it’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts, a loop of blame and feelings of loss. This exercise aims to break the cycle and replace those difficult thoughts.

Choose a short, kind and meaningful phrase to say to yourself. It could be “I am not my thoughts”, “May I find the courage to move forward without you” or even “May I forgive myself”. 

Try to repeat this phrase multiple times a day – you can say it in your head or out loud. Sometimes out loud is more effective because your brain actually hears the words and begins to process them as reality.

  • Let go of the deadline

Many people have what can only be described as a deadline for when they should be done grieving. We often hear people say, “It’s been six months and I should be feeling better by now”.

Every time this thought pops into your head, try visualise the date disappearing from a calendar and bring your thoughts back to the here and now.

Focus on your breathing and what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell in this exact moment. 

Grief does not move in a straight line; it doesn’t come with an expiry date. Instead, it looks more like a rollercoaster track with highs and lows and many times round the same loop.

Other mindfulness resources

People from all walks of life find mindfulness a useful tool for making life more manageable, especially after a bereavement.

You might want to try popping a mindfulness app on your phone to help you practice different mindful exercises: Headspace and Calm are both popular apps.

The NHS.UK website has some links to further mindfulness resources: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mindfulness/ 

You can also find some helpful links through the mental health charity, MIND: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/mindfulness/how-to-learn-mindfulness/ 

As always, know that The Ralph Site is here for you. Join our private Facebook pet loss support group to talk to other pet carers who ‘get it’, who understand the depth of your loss.

You’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

What to do when you think your vet made a mistake

Have you recently lost a pet and believe that, in some way, your vet made a mistake that resulted in your pet dying? 

It can be hard to move forward when you believe that a trusted professional is responsible for your loss, either through the incorrect action or through inaction. 

So, what can you do when you think your vet made a mistake? 

Acknowledge that your vet is human 

Sadly, there are times when a vet will make a mistake.  

For all their training and years of experience, vets are human beings. Like the rest of us, they are imperfect. In most vet’s careers, there will come a moment when they make a wrong call, poorly manage a case or overlook something that they should have noticed.  

The most common scenarios are: 

  • A missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis
  • Mistakes or miscommunications about medication 
  • Actual errors during treatment or surgery 

In the worst case, as with a medical doctor, a lapse in judgement or oversight can tragically end in death.

This is perhaps little comfort to you if you feel your pet was the one with whom mistakes were made. However, it might be helpful to think about your vet’s motivation and to see what happened from their perspective.  

The truth is that the overwhelming majority of vets are compassionate people who care deeply for animals. Not only have they invested in years of training but they also dedicate a huge portion of their lives to saving animals. They are almost certainly upset about losing your pet too. 

The veterinary profession has one of the highest suicide rates because vets are emotionally invested in their animal patients and feel their suffering keenly. They are also people who, due to the rigorous academic demands of practising veterinary medicine, are not accustomed to failing.  

On the occasions when mistakes have genuinely been made, most vets carry the guilt or regret with them for the remainder of their careers, if not their lives. 

So even if a mistake is made, it’s rare that it stemmed from deliberate negligence. 

Of course, that’s not to diminish your sense of loss. Intentional or not, you may still want your vet to be held accountable for your pet’s death. 

Talk to your vet 

If possible, your first step should always be to have an open and frank conversation with your vet. 

If you’re unsure of their name, ask Reception and they will be able to help. 

At the time your pet was ill or injured, your emotions would have been all over the place and your vet may have made recommendations that you didn’t fully understand at the time or now, looking back. 

Book an appointment with your vet and explain at the time of booking that you would like to discuss your pet’s death and the circumstances, decisions and recommendations surrounding it in more detail. 

Many people find that the vet is able to walk them through each stage of the treatment and that this reassures them that all the right things were, in fact, done. 

Was your vet negligent? 

According to Which?, negligence is defined as: 

“when a vet breaches the duty of care regarded as standard of the profession at the time, and their action (or inaction) resulted in harm, loss, injury or damage which was reasonably foreseeable… 

…As well as poor advice, negligence can also occur as a result of missing advice or inaction – it isn’t just confined to things that have been done”. 

As Which cautions though, the outcome of surgery or treatment isn’t always certain. An unsuccessful outcome is typically not because the vet has been negligent. It could be that your pet would have died even with the best possible care. 

If you genuinely feel your vet is at fault 

If, having spoken to your vet, you feel that you have legitimate grounds to make a complaint, you should follow these steps: 

1. Think about the desired outcome 

Before you lodge a complaint, think about what you want the outcome to be. 

Do you want a formal apology from your vet? 

Would you like to know how procedures at the practice have been changed to ensure the same mistake never happens again? 

Do you want the vet to waive their fees or pay you compensation for your loss? 

Naturally, what you probably want most is for your vet to be able to turn back time and save your pet. As that isn’t possible, you will need to consider what sort of outcome you would like. 

If you’re clear about what you want from the outset, it will help the vet to respond appropriately. 

The emotional impact of mistakes often comes down to how they are dealt with. If you feel your vet has brushed off your concerns or refused to answer your questions, then you may be more likely to pursue a complaint. 

Research shows that even fatal mistakes can be less traumatic for the pet’s family and the vet if things are dealt with openly. If a vet has genuinely made a mistake or poorly managed a case, sometimes it’s enough to hear them take responsibility for this.

2. Make a list of your questions and concerns 

Before you make a complaint or even speak to your vet informally, you might find it helpful to write a list of your questions and concerns. 

Think about the course of events that led up to your pet’s death and note down the key decisions and recommendations. 

3. Ask for the practice’s complaints procedure 

Your veterinary practice will have a complaints procedure, which you may find on their website. If not, you can ask the Reception for details. 

Most practices will urge you to speak to the Lead vet for your pet’s case before you do anything else. Many complaints can be resolved in this way. 

If you are not satisfied after talking to your vet, you may be asked to put your complaint in writing to the practice or the group that manages the practice, if there are several branches.  

Typically, you will receive acknowledgment of your complaint within five working days and then a full written response within a few weeks (the time frames will vary from one practice to another).

 4. Escalate your complaint 

If, after receiving a written response to your complaint from the practice, you’re not satisfied with the outcome, you can escalate your complaint to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). 

In the UK, the Consumer Rights Act states that a service such as veterinary medicine should be ‘provided with reasonable care and skill’. 

If you believe your vet has failed in their responsibility to you or your pet, then you can notify the RCVS of a potential breach of their Professional Code of Conduct. 

You can also complain to voluntary, independent and free mediation service Veterinary Client Mediation Service (VCMS) about service issues after you’ve been through the practice’s complaints procedure. 

You will need to support your complaint with evidence, where possible. Again, it’s helpful to state what outcome you would like for your complaint. 

5. Seek legal advice 

If you believe that your pet died because of your vet’s negligence, then it is advisable to speak to a solicitor. They can help you to decide whether to take your complaint further, especially if you are seeking compensation. They can also represent your case on your behalf. 

Moving forwards 

In previous blogs, we’ve talked about how important forgiveness and self-forgiveness can be when a pet dies. 

At some point, you will need to decide whether you are able to forgive your vet. Many people find that it is forgiveness above everything else that enables them to begin processing their grief. 

Only you know what’s right for you. This will probably depend on the circumstances in which your pet died. 

Could it be that you are blaming your vet because it’s easier to be angry at them than at anyone else, including your pet for leaving you? 

Did your vet make a genuine mistake for which they have apologised? 

Would your energy be better spent in processing your loss rather than reliving how it happened? 

Or do you believe that your vet was negligent and must take responsibility for his or her actions/inaction, especially to protect other animals in the future? 

It’s your decision.  

If someone is intentionally neglectful of their duty of care then, of course, it needs pursuing for the safety and wellbeing of the other animals treated by them. 

If, however, the vet made a mistake due to a factor like tiredness, a lapse in concentration or being faced with a run of emergency cases in one afternoon, it can sometimes be more cathartic to forgive them for being human.   

Above all, please try to look after yourself. Find ways to celebrate your pet’s life and the special times you shared. Reach out for support if you need it. 

People in The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook may have been through similar experiences. 

The Blue Cross also has a dedicated helpline for anyone who has suffered a pet bereavement. 

Remember, you’re not alone. 

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team 
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support 

Pet loss and self-forgiveness

In past blogs, we’ve talked about how guilt is a major factor in pet loss grief and how guilt and regret can be hard to distinguish. Today, we want to go a step further and talk about self-forgiveness and why it’s so important when you’re grieving for a pet.

Our sense of responsibility towards our pets

People often compare the sense of responsibility they feel towards their pets with the responsibility of caring for a young child. Neither animal nor infant can tell us what they need and they are entirely dependent on us for food, shelter, safety and love.

As pet carers, we have the responsibility of advocating for our pets based on our instincts and knowledge at the given moment in time. The pet cannot give us their perspective.

What if we get something wrong? The emotional toll of a pet dying because of something we did or didn’t do is huge.

Sometimes we make tragic mistakes

Sadly, there are times when we make tragic mistakes in relation to our pets.

Perhaps we accidentally leave the garden gate open or pop inside for a wee while the dog plays near an open pond. Maybe we reverse out of the drive without seeing our cat asleep under the car or leave the dog’s collar on while they are playing unsupervised.

These small things can happen a thousand times over with no consequences but it can take just one moment, one unfortunate colliding of events, to turn your world upside down.

Of course, the truth of life is that accidents happen. We can’t plan for every possible outcome. If we could, our A&E departments would be practically empty. But the guilt can be overwhelming when you know that something you do or didn’t do directly resulted in a beloved pet dying or going missing.

Sometimes we miss a sign or make the ‘wrong’ decision

Another responsibility we have as a pet carer is to make decisions about our pet’s healthcare without being able to talk to the animal about their symptoms.

We have to decide when to contact a vet, what treatment plan to follow, whose opinion to trust, what symptoms to worry about and so much more.

As many of us know too well, there are times when our action or inaction can result in a pet’s death.

Again, the guilt is tough to manage.

Sometimes we do what we believe is right

Euthanasia is another factor in pet loss guilt. We talked in a past blog about many of the feelings pet carers experience after having a pet ‘put to sleep’.

You may be struggling to forgive yourself for having chosen euthanasia. You may believe you left it too late or acted too soon. Or perhaps you believe your pet was scared or felt betrayed at the end of their life.

Even with the knowledge that you acted in your pet’s best interest, coming to terms with actively consenting to end your pet’s life can be hard to process.

Why self-forgiveness is so important

What can you do when you know that you personally had some part to play – however unintentionally – in your pet’s passing?

As humans, we often have the desire to blame someone for tragic events, but what do we do when the person we want to blame is ourselves?

A lot of research has been done around this topic, although most of it relates to human bereavement or when a person goes missing.

However, there are a growing number of psychology professionals who recognise that pet loss can be just as devastating and result in just the same feelings.

The overriding research finding is that self-forgiveness is essential if you are to ever find some kind of peace about your role in your pet’s death. People who are able to practice self-forgiveness and self-compassion are associated with lower levels of emotional distress and are less likely to experience PTSD, complicated grief or depression.

But how do you practice self-forgiveness and what does it even really mean?

What forgiveness is and what it isn’t

Before we look at some tips for practicing self-forgiveness, it might be helpful to look at what forgiveness is as well as what it isn’t.

Research from Enright and North (1998) defined forgiveness as:

“A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgement and indifferent behaviour to one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love towards him or her”.

In other words, forgiveness is not about pretending that a mistake didn’t happen or glossing it over but, instead, choosing to show compassion towards the person who made the mistake rather than judging or blaming them.

In the case of self-forgiveness, you give the compassion to yourself. But how?

10 tips to help you practice self-forgiveness

The tips below come from a mixture of bereavement counsellors and individuals who have suffered a bereavement where their actions either directly or indirectly led to their loved one’s death.

1.      Embrace your guilt

Guilt is a distressing emotion, both for you and for the people around you. It can fester inside of you. People may tell you not to feel guilty, often because it’s an uncomfortable emotion to confront. But the truth is that this advice doesn’t really help. Fairly or unfairly, you do feel guilt.

Embracing your guilt isn’t about wallowing in it or letting it overtake you. This tip is about sitting with your feelings, as unpleasant as they may be. If you did something that contributed to losing your pet, it is helpful to acknowledge this and bring it out into the open by talking about it.

2.      Be specific about what you need to forgive yourself for

Guilt has a way of growing and becoming quite generalised. Left unchecked, it can start to colour the way that you see yourself.

A crucial part of being able to forgive yourself is being specific about why you feel guilty. For example, if you left your garden gate open and your dog ran out into the road, the thing you have to forgive yourself for is forgetting to shut the gate.

You didn’t wish your dog harm and you didn’t leave the gate open intentionally. What you did was make a human mistake.

3.      Think about your intention/motives

It’s important that you look at your intention or motives in the events leading up to your pet’s death.

  • What did you know?
  • Why did you make the decisions you did at the time?
  • Did you intend to cause harm?
  • Did you do the best you could do with the information you had?

The chances are that you didn’t do anything at all with malice or an intention to harm in your mind.

You may have decided to wait to see the vet, for example, because you didn’t want to stress your pet out unnecessarily in the middle of the night. You may have delayed looking for your cat because they had a history of disappearing for days at a time. You may have left the door open because you were distracted.

4.      Let go of feelings of shame

Sometimes, when we know we made a mistake with devastating consequences, our feelings of guilt can morph into shame.

Shame is defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour”. It’s an emotion often rooted in the knowledge that you knew what you were doing was wrong at the time of doing it.

However, as we’ve seen above, it’s unlikely that you deliberately made a wrong decision about your pet. You did the best you could with the knowledge you had at the time.

Shame is a problematic emotion because it tends to lend itself to black and white thinking. Instead of recognising, “I did a bad thing or I made a bad decision”, shame leads you to believe, “I am a bad person”.

Self-forgiveness is about being kinder to yourself. You’re not a bad person. You did not intend any harm to your pet.

It’s okay to feel guilty. Guilt can help you identify mistakes and learn from them. Taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences is an important part of self-growth. Researchers say that feelings of remorse, repentance and a sense of being humbled are all a healthy way to respond to guilt in grief and to eventually integrate these feelings.

Where guilt is unhealthy and unhelpful is when it crosses into self-recrimination.

5.      Show yourself the same compassion you would show to a loved one

Sometimes, we hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. If a loved one had been through the same loss as you as a result of the same decisions/actions, what would you say to them?

What would it take for you to forgive them?

It’s likely that you would be far more compassionate to someone else than you’re being to yourself. You would probably look at the big picture and consider all the ways your loved one made their pet’s life a happy one.

Every time your critical inner voice starts berating you, try to stop it and reword what you’re saying with the words you would use towards a loved one in the same situation. How would you talk to your child, a parent, your partner or a best friend? Show yourself the same kindness.

6.      Guilt isn’t always rational

When a pet dies, it’s often as a result of unlikely circumstances coming together. This could be a cat running into the road at the exact moment a car was passing or a dog running into a randomly placed stick in the woods. Perhaps your pet managed to get trapped somewhere or caught by their collar.

While you may have taken the dog for the walk or put the collar round their neck, there is no way you could ever have predicted how events would collide and unfold. If only clairvoyance could be part of the pet keeping package!

Of course, just because guilt isn’t always rational or deserved doesn’t mean that you won’t feel it.

Again, it can be helpful to think back to your intentions and motives here.

You took your dog for a walk because you wanted to give them enrichment and exercise. You gave your cat a collar so people would know how to contact you if your furry friend ever strayed too far from home. You let your cat out because you wanted them to have a fulfilled, interesting life.

These are all good, loving decisions.

7.      Pay forward making amends

The real kicker when a pet dies is that we can never make amends to them for our role in their passing. If you want your pet’s forgiveness, this knowledge can be hard to accept.

One option is to make amends in another way, paying it forward in your pet’s honour.

For example, you could volunteer at your local animal shelter or make a donation to an animal charity. If your pet died in tragic circumstances that could affect other people, you could start an awareness raising campaign.

8.      Talk to your pet

Many grief counsellors advise bereaved people to talk to their lost loved one.

One way to do this is a variation of the popular therapeutic exercise known as ‘The Empty Chair’. In part one of this exercise, you imagine that your pet is sitting in an empty chair opposite you and you tell them all the things you’re feeling, including your guilt.

In part two of the exercise, you swap to the empty chair and talk back as though your pet is able to answer you. As you no doubt knew your pet to be loving towards you, the words you imagine for them are likely to be more loving and compassionate than you would otherwise choose to be towards yourself.

This can be a powerful way of offering self-forgiveness.

9.      See your mistake as part of the human experience

As human beings, we are all destined to make mistakes in life, some large and some small. And with each mistake we make, we face a choice. We can choose to stay stuck, reliving the moment of the mistake even though we are powerless to undo it, or we can learn as much as possible from the mistake and choose to use that knowledge on the rest of our journey through life.

If you said or did something that resulted in your pet’s death – or your inaction played a part – what can you learn from this? What will you do differently knowing what you know now? How could your experience help others? Could it make you a better pet carer in the future or make you more compassionate in some way?

10.  Actively choose self-forgiveness

Above all, self-forgiveness has to be an active choice. Every time, you fall into the pattern of self-condemnation, you will need to actively decide to interrupt your internal voice with more compassionate thoughts. At first, this will require a lot of conscious effort on your part but it should become more natural with time.

Conclusion

Self-forgiveness is not about claiming you don’t hurt or denying the part you played in your pet’s passing. Instead, it’s about choosing not to place blame and recognising that you never had bad intentions.

With time, self-forgiveness will hopefully enable you to remember your entire relationship with your pet rather than just the circumstances surrounding their passing from your life together.

Until that time, know that you’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Nine pet loss grief myths and misconceptions

Pet loss grief is often subject to some common myths and misconceptions. These myths don’t help anyone, least of all the bereaved person.

In this week’s blog, we wanted to take a look at some of the biggest pet loss grief myths and why you need to give yourself permission to ignore them.

Myth one: Pet loss is less painful and less significant than losing a human loved one

There is no scale or measure for grief, so please ignore anyone who suggests that there is.

For many of us, losing a beloved pet is just as painful and significant as losing a human that we love. Our pets are companions who provide us with very important relationships; they share our homes and lives with us and, for this reason and many others, it’s understandable that you may feel bereft without your animal friend.

A growing body of research confirms that losing a pet can be harder than losing a friend or relative.

It’s not a competition. If you feel grief – and why wouldn’t you? – then you don’t have to justify those feelings.

Myth two: Pet loss grief devalues human life and human relationships

There are some people in this world who do not understand how we can grieve for animals. This may be because they’ve never had a pet or spent time with animal companions. It could be because they view animals as commodities, rather than living, feeling beings. It can sometimes stem from religious or cultural beliefs or even from beliefs within a family.

But these beliefs don’t have to be yours.

It is entirely possible to care for both animals and humans. The grief for one doesn’t detract from the value of the other.

Myth three: People who grieve intensely for a pet must have a problem connecting with other people

Sadly, some people believe that the only reason we might grieve intensely for a pet is because we struggle with human relationships.

But what do these people know?!

Your pet was part of the fabric of your life. They showed you unconditional love and your days were built with their needs and routine at the heart. Of course you are going to grieve.

The fact that you are able to love your pet deeply and form strong emotional attachments says a lot about your capacity for connection.

The truth is that both love and grief are indifferent to the species of the one that has died and the one that is left behind.

Besides, even if you do prefer the company of animals (and we know quite a lot of us do!), that’s your choice.

Myth four: The death of a pet is like a ‘dress rehearsal’ for grief

This myth comes up a lot, especially when we talk about how children deal with pet loss grief. People often say that it’s good for children to experience the death of a pet, as if it will prepare them for the ‘real thing’ later in life.

While it’s certainly true that many of us do encounter grief for the first time when a pet dies in childhood, it’s a myth to say that the loss is just a dress rehearsal. Many children experience profound grief for a pet that they carry with them throughout their lives.

Equally, many adults – as we’ve seen above – experience as much, if not more grief, for a pet as for a human loved one. It is wrong to try to diminish someone’s bereavement by viewing it as a practice run.

Loss is loss, in whatever form it comes.

Myth five: It’s eccentric or frivolous to spend money on a funeral or memorial for a pet

People who haven’t lost a precious pet might scoff at the idea of paying for a cremation or building a memorial garden for our animal companions.

However, one of the issues with a disenfranchised grief like pet loss is that it isn’t supported by the usual milestones and rituals created by society. There is a reason that, after a human death, we have a period of mourning, a funeral and reception/wake afterwards, bereavement cards or even bereavement leave from work. These rituals provide structure, comfort and purpose for the bereaved.

They also encourage the bereaved person’s wider network to offer support.

A growing number of people now understand that these milestones and rituals can offer great solace to a bereaved pet carer.

Myth six: There are five stages of grief

There is an enduring myth about grief for both humans and animals that the bereaved will go through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In fact, these stages were defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in relation to the emotions people experience when they are dying of a terminal illness. They were later adopted as a description of grief.

In reality, grief is far less linear or organised than five neat stages. Yes, people often experience these five emotions as a result of pet loss but they are not definitive. Some research has found the most common emotion immediately after a pet dies or goes missing is guilt.

Myth seven: It’s best to get a new pet as quickly as possible

People who have lost a pet will often hear things like, “At least you can get a new one” or “Why don’t you go out and get another one? That will take your mind off how you’re feeling”.

This advice can be quite hurtful as it suggests a pet is replaceable or interchangeable. This minimises the personality and uniqueness of the pet the grieving person has lost.

There’s no doubt that this advice is well meant. Some of us do have multiple pets that offer some solace. As animal lovers, we often decide to open our homes to a new pet as soon as possible, but this is a very personal decision.

We would never dream to give this advice to someone who has lost a human loved one.

The most important thing is that you take your time and do what is right for you and your family.

Myth eight: Grief will end

Another enduring myth about grief is that it’s a linear journey that ends eventually. People often talk about finding ‘closure’ or that they should be ‘over’ their grief by a certain point in time.

In reality, grief perhaps never fully ends. There’s a powerful analogy that describes grief as learning to walk with a stone in your shoe. At first, it hurts all the time but eventually you learn how to walk differently. The stone is still there but it doesn’t trouble you as much because you’ve learned how to live with it.

Most bereaved pet carers would probably agree with this. The nature of grief does change with time. For many of us, it softens and makes room for other emotions and experiences, but it can still resurface over the years.

Myth nine: You should only hold on to pleasant memories of your pet

After a pet dies, it’s usual to think non-stop about the circumstances around their death. At this time, it can be hard to imagine ever remembering the good times again.

Again, well-meaning people may tell you to think about the good times and forget about the bad times.

For most of us, our memories find some balance with time. You may always carry some of the emotional scars of losing your pet. You may often think about their final moments or carry regrets inside of you. But, eventually, happy memories will come back to you too.

It’s this contrast between the light and dark times that tells the story of a whole life lived rather than just the highlights reel. It makes the good times more precious when they’re seen alongside the bad.

Are there are pet loss myths that bother you? Have your friends or family tried to comfort you or ‘snap you out’ of your grief with a so-called ‘wisdom’ that doesn’t fit with your feelings?

The Ralph Site is here for you. Join our private Facebook pet loss support group to talk to other pet carers who ‘get it’, who understand the depth of your loss.

You’re not alone.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

Loving a reactive dog means grieving the dog you thought you would have

Guest post by Emma Heasman

Among all the experiences of grief that come from caring for a pet, I’ve come to realise that there is one that thousands of people struggle with even though the pet is still alive and well.

This is the grief that comes from living with and loving a reactive dog.

If you’ve recently lost a pet, you may find it callous to talk about grieving when a dog is in good health. However, anyone with a reactive dog who’s reading this article will know the grief all too well. I’m personally living it. For this reason, Shailen has kindly agreed to let me talk about it here on The Ralph Site.

What do we mean by dog reactivity?

When a dog is described as ‘reactive’ what it generally means is that the dog overreacts to certain things or situations.

Signs of this overreaction can include barking, lunging and pulling (especially if on the lead) towards the trigger, growling, signs of anxiety, hiding, snapping, and many other behaviours, some more subtle than others.

Common triggers include other dogs, men, people wearing hats or sunglasses, children, scooters, bikes, traffic and more.

You’ve probably seen the scenario, even if you haven’t lived through it personally. A dog sees the trigger – perhaps a child whizzing past on a scooter on the pavement – and goes ballistic, barking, lunging and pulling in a frenzy. Occasionally, this reactivity comes from excitement but, more often than not, it’s rooted in fear.

Taking away the ‘flight’ option

Many people with reactive dogs find that their dogs exhibit more reactive behaviours when they’re on the lead.

There’s a good reason for this.

When a dog is on the lead, we’ve effectively taken away the choice to run away from the scary thing coming towards them.

The dog can try usual ‘calming’ signals like lip licking, looking away, yawning, sudden scratching or sniffing. However, if they feel this won’t work for whatever reason, they may turn to their ‘fight’ repertoire of responses to make the scary thing go away.

This could be anything from making themselves look bigger by standing on their hind legs or lunging to barking, growling, showing its teeth, air snapping or, as the very last resort, a nip or bite.

In reality, the last thing the dog wants to do is interact with the frightening thing. They don’t want to hurt anyone or get in a fight. They just doesn’t know how else to get away.

Thanks to their impressive and sometimes loud display, people usually hurry away from the dog, taking the source of their fear away too.

In the dog’s mind, they were able to chase the scary thing away. A neural pathway is formed. See scary thing and bark.

The next time they see a trigger, they default to the behaviour that worked before. And so a pattern of reactivity begins.

And, of course, a vicious circle begins too. The more frequently the dog reacts, the less freedom they are allowed ‘just in case’ and the more time they spend on the lead. Their human companion becomes an expert at scanning the horizon for triggers but their growing anxiety reinforces the dog’s belief that scary things are around every corner.

Reactivity vs. aggression

People often believe that reactive dogs are ‘bad’, aggressive dogs. This comes with a huge amount of stigma and is largely untrue.

In reality, very few dogs are aggressive by nature. Most often, reactive dogs make a lot of noise but, given the choice, would run a mile from the object of their fear.

That big display of barking from the other side of the road is the equivalent of the dog shouting “Go away!” (or something less polite) at the top of their voice.

Sometimes, dogs give warning after warning that they’re uncomfortable with a situation but their warnings aren’t noticed, especially the more subtle signs. This leaves dogs feeling that they have to escalate their behaviour to be heard.

There’s also a phenomenon known as ‘trigger stacking’, which is when the dog copes well with the first, second or even third trigger they see but completely flips out towards a subsequent trigger. To other people, it looks like it’s an overreaction out of the blue but to the dog, their stress levels have reached saturation point. They’re telling us ‘enough is enough’.

Dogs and the modern world

Dogs and humankind are believed to have co-existed for approximately 32,000 years, developing a symbiotic relationship that has served both species beautifully.

During this time, different qualities and traits were encouraged within the various breeds. This worked brilliantly, creating working dogs who could herd livestock, help fisherman, hunt and much more.

Of course, the modern world is very different, and not as dog friendly.

Let’s take the Border Collie as an example (I have a lab/collie cross, which is why I know a bit about this).

A Border Collie is a highly intelligent breed that excels at herding and protecting sheep. They are hardwired to notice potential threats on the horizon or spot a solitary sheep straying away from the herd. For millennia, their ancestors have been honed to chase and round up livestock by stalking, staring and even nipping ankles, if necessary.

But all the qualities that make a Border Collie excel on a farm can make their life much harder in a town or city.

Now, instead of moving livestock, the dog notices bikes, scooters, joggers, cars, other dogs, children – all potentially things to be rounded up, herded or chased away.

And let’s not forget that every new sight, sound or smell might be a potential threat, which the dog’s instincts tell them to notice.

In this example, the collie does exactly what they were designed to do and barks at the stranger in the distance or tries to herd the children in the park but instead of being rewarded for their behaviour, people get angry.

This must be scary and confusing for the dog, increasing their stress levels and the chances of reactive behaviour.

Of course, not all dogs struggle with the modern world. Even taking the Border Collies from our example, many of them manage just fine with modern life.

But the point is that, for some dogs, the modern, urban environment is a struggle.

Our expectations are impossibly high. Many people believe that dogs should be seen and not heard or kept on lead in all public settings. People tend to forgive behaviours in small dog breeds that they won’t forgive in larger dogs.

Legislation like the Dangerous Dogs Act means that people can report a dog for barking at them if they argue that they were afraid the dog might try and bite them. And yet barking is such an important part of canine communication; it’s the dog’s voice but many people don’t want it to be used in public. This makes reactive dogs and their human companions particularly vulnerable to judgement.

Why are some dogs reactive?

Reactivity in dogs can come about for a vast number of reasons:

  • Genetics
  • Temperament
  • Lack of socialisation with other dogs, humans or new experiences in the first 14-16 weeks of life
  • Living in a rescue centre/being rehomed
  • Puppy farming
  • Bad experiences with people and/or dogs, e.g. a dog has been attacked by another dog
  • Injury or illness, especially if the dog is in pain
  • Food intolerances (again, if the dog feels physically uncomfortable)
  • Aversive training methods

Sometimes, several of these factors come together, stacking one on top of the other until the dog shows reactivity.

To use the example of my own dog, Willow, she was found on the street at 10 weeks old having been born and so-far raised by a stressed-out street dog. She was then put in a communal compound in a rescue centre with multiple dogs but little human contact, spayed at 12 weeks, transported by land over a four-day journey to a foster home at 16 weeks before she was finally rehomed to us in her forever home at eight months old.

Every day after she was rehomed presented her with new sights and sounds that she hadn’t been exposed to in her early months. She has always seemed nervous and timid, even though we took things at her pace. These traits and experiences were compounded by being attacked by other dogs on a walk and then hit by a man in the local park who was shouting angrily about how much he hates dogs.

Willow may have been able to easily bounce back from one of these experiences but, taken together, it was just too much for her – the last two incidents, in particular – and a cycle of reactivity began.

Of course, that’s just Willow’s case and not to say that it’s just rescue dogs – or even all rescue dogs – that are reactive. Many dogs with secure, happy puppyhoods and home lives develop reactivity too. Sometimes, it’s because of a bad experience on a walk. Sometimes, it’s because of illness or injury. Sometimes, there isn’t an obvious cause. All that is true, whatever the background, is that the dog isn’t giving anyone a hard time deliberately; they are having a hard time and deserve love and compassion.

How people see reactive dogs

Anyone with a reactive dog will have a depressingly long list of stories about the times when they have been judged, criticised and even threatened.

They may also have come into contact with so-called ‘expert’ dog trainers who subscribe to old-school ‘dominance’ training methods that are now widely frowned upon. Instead of helping, this may have exacerbated the problem.

People tend to see a reactive dog and believe one or more of the following statements:

  • The dog is ‘bad’
  • The dog’s human is bad/lazy/uncaring
  • The dog lacks training
  • The dog has been given the wrong type of training
  • The human needs to be the ‘Alpha’
  • The dog has been or is still being abused

It’s surprisingly common for people to shout out things like, “That dog shouldn’t be out in public”, “That thing should be muzzled” (if it isn’t already), “You need to show it who’s boss” and so on.

One huge issue for dog carers who have spent months working with fear-reactive dogs to reduce their anxiety is when a ‘friendly’ off-lead dog is allowed to bound over and get in the on-lead, nervous dog’s face. Then, when the reactive dog barks or lunges, the carer of the off-lead dog shouts, “You need to get your dog under control”.

What? The dog that is on a lead walking calmly at their human’s side and only reacted when their space was invaded?

What about the dog that had no recall?

While, for most dogs this might not be an issue, for a reactive dog, an interaction like this can set everyone’s progress back by months.

People are also determined to offer advice to reactive dog carers. I’d be very rich indeed if I had a pound for every time someone has said, “You should watch that TV programme with the dog trainer – he could fix your dog in an afternoon” (see here for a great article about Why TV dog trainers aren’t magicians) or “Squirt water in her face/yank the lead/tap her nose/shout ‘no’ every time she reacts and she’ll soon stop”.

The promise of quick fixes abound. But many of the suggestions just aim at stopping the behaviour without addressing the emotions causing it. If you teach a dog that they’re not allowed to bark or show signs of discomfort, you risk leaving them with no option but to bite.

Quick fixes will never work long-term. Our dogs deserve more compassion.

Often, people who have a lifetime of experience with dogs state confidently that “None of my dogs has ever been reactive because I know how to train them”. However, just a few minutes of research shows that years of canine experience are no insurance against reactivity. In fact, many of the world’s leading behaviourists only found their calling because they were faced with living with a reactive dog for the first time.

Living with a reactive dog

Most people who get a dog do so with a certain lifestyle in mind. They imagine long countryside walks or meeting up with friends and their dogs in the park. They dream about a furry best friend who loves everyone they meet and with whom they can share years of adventures.

Certainly, that was what we imagined as a family when we adopted Willow. And, to a certain extent, that was the life we had for the first 18 months together.

Sadly, reactivity can change everything.

Reactive dog carers suddenly find themselves unable to live out these dreams with their canine companion.

For their dog, a walk in a busy park is fraught with anxiety and triggers. Even a walk in the woods can go horribly wrong if their dog-reactive friend comes across an off-lead canine without enough distance between them.

Just a quick street walk can be like running a gauntlet of terror for the reactive dog – pedestrians, cyclists, bin lorries, postmen, scooters, loud noises, other dogs on leads barking from the other side of the road.

And, worse yet, it’s not unusual for a reactive dog carer to be verbally or even physically assaulted because their dog has barked at the wrong person or lunged at someone’s beloved dog (even if they were metres away and no physical harm was possible).

And each time this happens, the dog just learns that strange humans and dogs aren’t to be trusted and can be threatening.

Reactive dog carers are frequently isolated. They may not be able to visit friends and family because it’s too unsettling for their dog. They often walk alone late at night or early in the morning to avoid potential triggers. They can’t sit in dog-friendly cafes or leave their dog with a friend while they go on holiday.

Erroneous beliefs about reactivity mean that they’re regularly judged and berated for their dog’s behaviour.

And yet, in reality, a huge number of reactive dog carers are possibly more aware of their dog’s needs and more aware of dog behaviour than the carers of non-reactive dogs.

They have to be. Their dog’s life may depend on it.

Reactive dog carers have to learn a whole new vocabulary. Theirs is a world of Behaviour Adjustment Training (BAT), CARE protocol, TTouch, Zebra strokes, thresholds, triggers, buckets and spoons. They spend hours setting up scent work, enrichment, parkour and other ways of building their dog’s confidence. They spend their money on hiring secure fields just so their dog can safely have a run off-lead or working with behaviourists. They spend hours on training, games and trying to rewire their dog’s emotional response to their triggers.

A very real grief

And, as they do this, at least for a while and maybe longer, they experience the most soul-consuming grief. The life they dreamed of with their dog seems impossible. Even the shortest of walks are heavy with anxiety.

Their thoughts are never quiet: Is it their fault? Would their dog have been happier elsewhere? Could they have stopped the reactivity from occurring?

They watch people play with their dogs in the distance and wonder how they will find the energy to keep moving forwards with their dog today, tomorrow, a week from now, next year.

Can they keep this up for another five, ten, even 15 years?

Because, of course, they don’t want to wish their beautiful dog’s life away.

But what are the alternatives?

According to the Dog’s Trust, reactivity and behaviour problems are the most common reasons that dogs are given up for rehoming. And the greater the scale of reactivity, the harder it is to find a new home.

Reactivity is sadly the most common reason for a dog under the age of two to be put to sleep.

Many people still believe a dog that shows aggression under stress will always be an aggressive, ‘bad’ dog when, in fact, they may just be so trigger-stacked with high cortisol levels that they weren’t able to make a good choice about their behaviour in a particular moment.

Of course, I also understand what a huge emotional undertaking it is to commit to rehabilitating a reactive dog.

Reactive dog carers clearly face some heart-breaking decisions. The grief of surrendering a healthy dog or having them put to sleep for behavioural reasons is weighed down with a staggering amount of guilt. Many people never have another dog after dealing with reactivity. Sadly, they often feel unseen and unsupported or, worse yet, actively judged whatever they decide. Mental health suffers, relationships are strained, and dogs’ lives sometimes hang in the balance.

Accepting the dog you have

If you’re a dog carer coping with reactivity, I believe that one of the most important steps forward is to begin accepting the dog you have rather than longing for the dog you wish you could have had.

Once you do that, you can start making a plan.

Even the most reactive of dogs has many amazing, beautiful qualities. Recognise them, write them down, remind yourself of them frequently. These sensitive dogs can be our greatest teachers.

My Willow, for example, is the gentlest, most patient and calm dog you could imagine at home and in a safe setting. All she wants is distance from things that scare her and time to get used to them at her own pace.

The bond between a frightened reactive dog and the people and dogs in their inner circle is one of real privilege and trust. Once you’re in, you’re in for life!

And with that trust, every party can begin to learn and grow. Your reactive dog may never be the happy-go-lucky pup playing in the park but they can learn skills to feel more resilient.

The more you learn about reactivity, the more you understand that it isn’t a sign of failure or poor care. Armed with this knowledge, you can begin a force-free behaviour adjustment programme (I highly recommend the CARE protocol as a starting point and some ‘boots on the ground’ support from a good force-free behaviourist). You can teach your dog that they never have to meet another dog or person again if they don’t want to. But, with support, they may well want to one day.

And the more we can talk about reactivity, perhaps the more we can make other people see reactive dogs in a better, more compassionate light. And maybe, too, we can see the human beside the dog and instead of judging them and making their grief and stress even heavier, we can say, “Well done. Your dog is lucky to have you in their corner”.

Resources

If you have a nervous or reactive dog, you might want to find out more about the Yellow Dog Scheme, which aims to raise awareness about dogs who need space while training, recovering from surgery or being rehabilitated.

Reactive Dogs UK is a wonderful community of 22,000+ reactive dog carers and is run by force-free behaviourists.

If you are grieving for a pet for any reason, The Ralph Site is here for you. You are not alone.