Why We Miss Our Dogs So Much …

Five dogs pose; all wear bandannas and Cali, in the center, sports a cowboy hat.
Montana posse: Hannah, Jana, Cali, Alberta, and Ziggy

A friend recently forwarded me this column about grieving the loss of a dog.

It’s so true that losing a dog can be harder than losing a human family member, as friends and relatives who’ve recently lost dogs (recently = in our lifetime) can confirm. I still miss my Jana, after a year and a half.

Why is this so hard to bear? As the column-writer notes, dogs are more intimately part of our lives than most of our human friends and even relatives. Other than a longtime spouse, your dog is probably the person (yes, dogs are persons …) who has spent the most time with you, seen you at your best and worst, and who knows you best. I’d argue that dogs know us better than any human can, since they can read so much more of our body language and, in most cases, read our minds!

They’re also great company. Sure, Cali sulks when I won’t share my dinner and huffs and stalks off when I pick up my phone. But she — and most dogs — offer largely uncritical companionship. They’re easy to be with, comforting when you’re having a hard time, and always up for some fun. They never, ever try to talk you out of a late-night ice cream binge, for example — or, to be fair, a long hike.

While non-pet people may never understand why the loss of a pet is so hard, pet people should know that there are many, many people who do understand. And who also know that even when, as many of us do, we get a new dog, we’ll never fill the hole left by the ones we’ve lost.

This column is dedicated to Hannah and Ziggy, my sister’s dogs (pictured with Cali, Jana, and Alberta) who passed away in February.

Remembering Our Friends

Beau, a boxerA lot of my friends have senior dogs. Unfortunately, that means that a lot more of my friends had senior dogs. Over and over, I face the loss of a friend, a dog I have known for years. A family dog like Beau, who loved my visits because he got extra walks and tons of attention (not that he was exactly starved for love and affection otherwise). A longtime friend’s dog like Molly, who was a frequent guest in my home, or little Casey. (They were both poodles, though, so it might not be fair to lump them in with dogs; I am convinced that poodles are a link between canines and humans, tending more toward the human than any other dog breed.)Molly, a black standard poodle

Each time a beloved dog passes away, I search for the perfect card. I’m always disappointed that the best dog-product stores have all the top treats, toys, clothing, and accessories for dogs, endless adorable birthday and thanks-for-taking-care-of-me cards … and pathetically few sympathy cards. And many of the few they do have are, well, awful. In addition to the card, Deni and I have a custom that we’re getting better and better at honoring. We choose a charity that we are sure that both the late dog and her or his human would support and make a memorial donation. I have to admit that I have missed doing this on many occasions, but I do feel that it is a meaningful way to mark the life of a beloved friend. Unfortunately, beyond offering these gestures, we haven’t come up with a way to make the loss any easier.

A number of books have been written about the loss of a dog. A particularly good one is Anna Quindlen’s Good Dog. Stay. I haven’t re-read it in a while, though I should; I have recommended it over and over, though.

What do you do to help a friend through the loss of a dog? What have you found helpful? Let me know, and a future Thinking Dog blog post will feature reader suggestions.

 

Lessons from the Original Thinking Dog

A happy Jana rolls in leaves on a lush lawnI had hoped to be celebrating Jana’s 14th birthday today, July 2. Instead, Cali and I have moved to Montana without her; we marked her birthday with a walk to a place she loved, Mormon Creek. We were with Koala, Storm, Ki, and Django. Quite a few dogs are missing from this group.

Rather than dwelling on the sadness of missing Jana, Ory, Weizer, Gus, Cedar … I am thinking about some of the most important things I learned from Jana during our years together.

Before I met Jana, I knew that dogs were smart and could start learning just about as soon as they opened their eyes. Even so, Jana astonished me.

A very young Jana studies her Kong toy.
Jana was a young Kong addict

I met Jana when she was only about 4 weeks old — not long after she opened her eyes. She came home at 7 weeks and started learning things immediately. First, of course, she learned about treats; that took about 2 seconds. She never met a treat toy that could keep her from her food for more than a few minutes.

As a puppy, and even an adolescent, Jana was an easy dog to live with. For instance, though she was the first puppy I housetrained, Jana learned to toilet outside almost immediately — she was a very clean dog in that way — and she quickly developed a strong preference for grass. She was never destructive as a puppy, though she was always vocal when displeased, starting with my initial (failed) attempt to crate train her.

Very quickly, Jana learned about stairs — mastering them when I left her downstairs and ran up to grab something. Not 2 minutes later, I walked down the stairs to find my tiny puppy hoisting herself up the huge staircase. Though she ultimately learned to accept boundaries and would respect even so flimsy a barrier as a partially closed door, she also wanted to be with me. As a young puppy, this manifested first with the stairs and later, with her flying leaps over the baby gate that was meant to keep her safely enclosed.

And Jana quickly learned to respond to verbal cues — so many that I can’t list them here. She picked up new skills so fast that I had to work hard to come up with new challenges. She would do anything, figure out anything, solve any problem for the chance to earn a cookie. Watching her was amazing. I could see the gears turning as she tackled problems and figured out the names of items she was asked to retrieve, what the laser pointer was indicating for her to do, how to brace herself on a door jamb to pull open a door, how to extract treats from the very small hole on her treat toy …

Jana lies on her back to squeeze treats from a toy into her mouth
Jana lies on her back to squeeze treats from a toy into her mouth

Jana’s intelligence accompanied her fierce independence. Thus, I also learned from Jana that her agenda and priorities might often be misaligned with mine, and having opposable thumbs did not mean that I always got my way. We learned to negotiate, compromise, and respect each other’s differing perspectives. For instance, I was forced to accept her definition of cuddling: Sharing space, perhaps on the same bed, more likely in the same room. Limited physical contact on her terms only. Jana was not like the typical golden; she needed few friends, but if you were a person she’d decided she liked, you had a friend for life. Her chosen people got very warm greetings, and Jana actually chose to spend time with them, even seeking them out. The best compliment was being invited to play a game of tug.

The truth is, Jana and I shared a lot, and I could fill books with what I learned from her. I know that she had a great life, and I am grateful that she had a dignified, relatively quick and pain-free death, but I still miss my princess every day. Happy birthday, Jana.

Jana had a knack for finding large heart-shaped rocks; here is one from her collection
Jana had a knack for finding large heart-shaped rocks; here is one from her collection

 

Grieving for Jana

I am not at all surprised to know that dogs grieve. Cali certainly went through her own grief process, in addition to being very helpful and comforting to me.

The first day I went to work after Jana died was the Monday after Thanksgiving. Deni and Koala left very early that morning. Cali and I went through our morning routine of breakfast, walk to the park, etc. Then I got dressed for work, and it was time to leave. Cali looked so lost and forlorn.

Her wonderful dog walker came in a few hours later. When I got home, I found the saddest note ever. Cali had greeted Stephanie at the door, then walked between the nice bed (the one in the living room, where Jana spent much of her time) and the door, crying. For several minutes. They both ended up sitting on the floor, crying. Then they went for a walk.

Despite her grief, Cali still wanted to play ball and go for walks. But she was quieter than usual and less silly. She put herself to bed really early. She sighed a lot and looked sad. I had to wake her up in the mornings, and she was clingy. She wanted to cuddle, even more than usual. That was fine with me.

By about a week after Jana’s death, though, I saw improvement. She woke up one morning on her own, went to find a toy, and came to get me up, wriggling and wagging. Cali was back.

Since that morning, she’s been more peppy and silly, though still very attentive and cuddly. She’s also got some big shoes to fill. She is responsible for delivering both boots to me in preparation for our morning walk, for example. (She also happily devours both cookies as payment.) She is the sole newspaper girl now, a job she argued for, tried to seize by force … and now really, really wishes she could share with her sister.

She’s been promoted to eating from the big food bowl on the raised stand, but it’s well beyond her ability to remove the bowl from the stand and bring it to me, as Jana did. She made it look so easy, Cali says, but it’s so hard! We’re working on that.

She’s seeing some benefits to only doghood, too. For instance, when we have eggs for breakfast, she no longer has to share the dog portion with anyone else. We can do longer walks and hikes than Jana was able to do. But mostly, we just miss Jana.

The Original Thinking Dog

Jana, a white golden retriever, lying in front of a gate

She was only about 4 weeks old when we met. She stood out from the litter because, well, she tumbled right over to say hi. Jana had 2 sisters and 3 or 4 brothers; I looked only at the girls. After the first few minutes, I really looked only at Jana. I saw friendliness and curiosity each time she ran over to greet me; what she really was, I soon understood, was a girl who knew what she wanted and always, always got it.

I initially planned to raise and train Jana as a service dog. That idea lasted, well, maybe for a few weeks after she came home. But it was soon clear that I was Jana’s person and that was that. She wasn’t going anywhere unless I went too.

We moved from Israel, where Jana was born, to the U.S. a little before her second birthday. I took her to Petsmart to choose a birthday toy. She’d never seen anything like a Petsmart. Rows and rows and rows of treats and toys — and fish in aquariums, and hamsters and guinea pigs and iguanas — what an amazing plaPink stuffed pigce! When she finally focused on selecting her birthday present, Jana zeroed in on a bright pink pig. Jana, I said to her, Jana, you are a Jewish girl from Israel. This toy is not an appropriate choice. How about this nice fleece doggy?

Jana got the pig (and the doggy).

I could tell Jana stories for pages and pages. Or I could write the usual obit stuff about Jana — where she traveled, for example. She drove cross-country with me several times and visited at least 45 states. I could write about all of her skills — how seriously she took her newspaper job, how quickly she learned new skills — or about her strong, independent personality, or how she invented no-touch cuddling. She wanted to be nearby, possibly leaning against a beloved person, but the person had better not pet her. She accepted touching only on her terms; anything else was considered an assault on her dignity. She’d give the clueless human a dirty look and walk away, settling in the farthest corner of the room. Jana did not like to be treated in any way like a dog.

But Jana was so much more than stories and adventures. Jana was my teacher.

From Jana, I learned to see dogs in a completely new way and to appreciate their complex intelligence, their ability to communicate their needs and preferences. I learned to pay attention to each dog’s unique foibles and personality. I learned to see the thinking, feeling individual inside each dog.

I’m not alone. Jana touched so many people and showed them, too, what she — and other dogs — could do, learn, understand, communicate. I knew that Jana had many friends and fans, but the sheer volume of notes, comments, Facebook posts, phone calls, and cards that I got this week showed me how badly I’d undercounted. Some were from people we hadn’t seen in years; others from people we’ve never even met. And every memory that comes to mind includes more people. Knowing how many other people loved Jana means a lot to me; Jana lives on through all that she has taught us about seeing dogs more clearly.

The Thinking Dog blog itself was named for Jana, a deep thinker. She planned, she analyzed, she weighed her options — starting when she was only a few weeks old and she chose me to be her person. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Loving and Letting Go

A Guest Blog by Deni Elliott

wylie ballSometimes things just don’t work out. He is intensely athletic; I’m a stroll-on-the-beach kind of gal. He always wants to be in charge; I think that responsibility should be shared. He likes hanging out with the guys, and he unabashedly flirts with the girls; I crave a less-social life and want him to have eyes only for me. But when we are alone, I need some private time; he dogs my every move.

After four years of trying to make our partnership work and then carefully planning for our separation, I’m ready to announce this to the world: I love Wylie more than I can say. He’s smarter than I am, good-hearted, and generally well-intentioned. But Wylie and I are breaking up.

My guide dog’s career change feels a lot like ending a human relationship. As with intimacy between humans, the partnership of human and guide dog is a dance of inter-dependency and cooperation. Compatibility is required.

Wylie counts on me to give him everything that he needs to be a well-adjusted German shepherd, and he is not shy about communicating his demands to me.

I put my life in his paws every time that I slide the harness over his shoulders and say, “Forward.” I trust Wylie to choose the path as he guides me under low-hanging branches, steers me around obstacles, and takes us across streets, avoiding the traffic that I can hear but cannot see.

We communicate moods and expectations up and down the harness as we let each other know what is next in our progression from Point A to Point B. If we’re out of sync with one another, we both get frustrated. And while our ability to read one another has astounded others observing us, the frustration has become more than either of us can handle.

8 wks Wylie (2)Wylie is the second guide dog that I have raised from young puppyhood, enlisting the expertise of professionals to accomplish training that I couldn’t do on my own. I’ve owned and trained dogs since I was a child. My visual loss was progressive, but slow. I thought that I was better able than a guide dog school to prepare a dog to meet my special needs.

As a puppy, Wylie showed strong potential to become a guide. My successful partnership with my first guide dog, a golden retriever named Oriel, made me unrealistically confident. Oriel was, in the words of many who knew her, “the perfect dog.” When she retired, I assumed that I could make the guide relationship with young Wylie work just as well. I struggled through the first year and thought that he would mature and grow into his job. I was wrong. Wylie’s basic personality did not change; nor did mine. When I finally realized that I couldn’t make things better, I knew that I owed Wylie the chance for a better life.

On January 23, Wylie will start training to be a service dog for a veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For the first time in more than 12 years, I will depend solely on my white cane to pick my way through my travels. Wylie and I will both be in transition and will grieve the loss of one another.

But not for long.

Wylie (2)Wylie will have new challenges from the start. He will live first with Jennifer Rogers, director of PAALS, a service-dog training school that is affiliated with Fort Jackson, the U.S. Army base in Columbia, South Carolina. Wylie and other dogs-in-training will spend one evening each week on the base with active-duty service members and veterans who are coping with combat-related anxiety. Under Jennifer’s supervision, the dogs will learn to help people with PTSD; the soldiers and veterans will teach the dogs how to assist others like themselves. Dogs and humans will learn to support one another.

When the time and match is right, Wylie will become an “intensive companion” dog for a veteran who is not yet ready for the challenge of working with a service dog out in the community. Dog and veteran will be encircled by a team of mental health and service dog professionals who will support their journey together.

I will be supported in a new journey as well. On March 4, I will join a training class at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. After intensive training there, I expect to return home with a 2-year-old mellow yellow Labrador retriever at my side. I’ll have a guide dog bred and trained by experts who create and maintain ethical working dog relationships. After many hours of application to, evaluation by, and conversation with Guiding Eyes personnel, I trust that they know better than I how to find me the best guide dog match.

Wylie’s new life will be very different from guiding me around obstacles that I cannot see. Crucially, it will be a life that is more in tune with his nature. The behaviors that he will be trained to do on cue include leaning against his partner, resting his head on his partner’s knee, lying on his partner’s feet, and providing a friendly-but-safe barrier between his partner and others. With me, Wylie got to connect like this only after his harness came off and he was done guiding for the day. Providing a partner such physical support 24/7 is Wylie’s dream job.

Wylie has always wanted more physical connection than I could handle. When I was done working for the day, I wanted some time free of my canine umbilical cord; Wylie wanted the intense physical contact that he lacked when he was walking two steps ahead of me, in harness.

The behaviors that have been problematic for me will be just what Wylie’s new partner needs. Wylie will bond with a veteran who needs a canine companion to guide him out of a darker place than I have ever experienced. It is likely that Wylie’s new partner — a veteran with deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan or both — will be no more than 30 years old. Wylie will finally have a young partner who is able to provide the daily intensive exercise that he craves.

Wylie will no longer endure long hours lying under a desk while I work in the office or teach my classes. He will no longer sigh and resign himself to STILL being on duty when I sternly command him to turn left to guide me to the Dean’s office when he wants to turn right to walk home and be done for the day. And, most importantly, Wylie will no longer have to pant and tremble as he struggles to guide me through airports and onto airplanes, a task that he finds increasingly stressful.

CoolSome people will criticize me for not letting Wylie retire and spend the rest of his days lounging at home. But, all dogs need stimulation; a young, intelligent dog like Wylie, who is accustomed to life out in the world, needs it more than most. Long days spent alone and doing nothing would be unbearable for him. Others will say that it is cruel for me to give him away, suggesting that I don’t love my dog as they love theirs. But I know that Wylie would not be happy watching me leave home with another dog doing “his” job, even if it is a job that he sometimes hates. I love Wylie enough to recognize that he’ll be happier moving on.

I will get over losing the goofy frat-boy who has been part of my life for 6 years. I will have learned yet one more lesson in loving and letting go. I’ll get past the guilty feeling that I failed this dog. From this perspective, it seems to me that I’ve been helping Wylie get ready to be the helper dog that he was really meant to be. I appreciate his true nature enough to let him go forward and be that dog.