“It always is harder to be left behind than to be the one to go…” ― Brock Thoene, Shiloh Autumn
There’s a reason why “Fido” was a popular name for dogs: it means “Faithful” in Latin. While I don't come across many dogs I train named "Fido" anymore, I’d be hard-pressed to find anything more faithful than a dog. Their definition of loyalty is beyond the scope of most humans, which is why losing a pack member can be particularly difficult for them.
When my Darwin was about 11, I adopted a very young dog: Sparta. Sparta grew up pulling on Darwin’s ears while he patiently tolerated her antics. Sparta was the annoying little sister, best friend, pack member and mutual protector of the house for Darwin, and in Sparta’s eyes, Darwin could do no wrong. He was her confidant, her ally, her security blanket. Yes, I was the pack’s Pilot, but Darwin was definitely next in line.
When Sparta was a bit over a year, Darwin finally succumbed to his age. He had lived a happy life, but now it was time to say goodbye. I still miss him, and it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, walking into the vets office him following me like the good dog he was. I walked in with my best friend and walked out alone. But at least I understood why Darwin’s bed was empty that night. Sparta knew something was wrong the moment I came home without Darwin – my body language told it all. Sparta was spiraled into a deep grief right beside me. She wouldn’t eat for close to a week. My normally very active young dog would go outside only to relieve herself, and then come back inside and bury herself with her grief in her little corner. She was grieving hard.
A dog feels the loss of a pack member in a much more profound way than we do. We miss our friend. Sparta missed the security of one of her Pilots. The pack was smaller now, meaning less secure in her mind. She lost a true partner. For a dog, it’s more than about the love and friendship: it’s about survival. In a dog’s mind, the pack is less likely to thrive with the loss of a member. The only comparison I can possibly give is the grief a blind person must feel if their seeing eye dog dies suddenly. Of course they miss their best friend, but it is so much more than that. It is a bond very few of us will ever understand, myself included. I am not dependent upon my dogs for my day-to-day lifestyle. Of course they enrich my life, but I could easily get along without them. Dogs require each other just to survive. The loss of a member is catastrophic on so many levels, and even more so if the pack member was a Pilot.
You can help your dog get through this grief, though. Resist the urge to act any differently than you usually would around them.
Don’t baby your dog. Don’t talk to them in a whiney voice, telling them everything will be all right, because you're lying: it's not all right. They don’t need baby talk; they need a Pilot.
Calmly hang out with them wherever they are grieving (I frequently hung out in Sparta’s little corner with her). Take them for walks. Exercise does indeed boost moods, for both of you. You don’t have to pretend that you didn’t lose a pack member, but you do have to continue on. Slowly is fine. This isn't a time for dog training, this is a time for Piloting them.
Sparta worried me profusely when she wouldn’t eat for several days, but gradually she started eating again. While I did give her a her normal treats during that time, which she refused, I did not offer her any different food. We are trying to normalize a new situation, not change everything she was accustomed to. Sparta slowly picked up her regular meals. Pretty soon she was bugging me to go for a walk instead of my having to retrieve her from her corner to take her. In other words, we found a new normal.
Of course I still miss Darwin. Sparta did, too. But our Pack has changed so much. Orion and two cats, Pixel and Echo, were added about a year after I got Sparta. We added Ellis about two years ago, and we lost Sparta, Orion and Echo with in 2020 (fuck you 2020).
Our family is an ever changing and expanding creating. Ellis worried us tremendously when he grieved Sparta, Orion, and our cat Echo (who tolerated Ellis so much more than the two cranky senior dogs did), but we got through it. And I miss every single family member we've lost, but I have always had room to welcome in another member. Arwen joined our group in February 2021.
Our Pack would be stronger with Darwin’s calm nature helping to lead it, but he’s gone. Sparta was the gentle soul who always had our back. Losing Orion was painful in so many ways, as he was not only my shadow, but he was my partner at Darwin Dogs (how many of you walked him during our weekly pack walks?). Our Pack would be enhanced by their presence, but that won’t happen. We will find a new normal, and we make it work. And though it will never work the same way it did before, we can make it work well, celebrating our time together while cherishing the time we've had with our missing pack members, always grateful for what we had.
Dog Training in Cleveland Ohio