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Thursday, 19 September 2013

When dogs die: the science of sad

Farewell to Elke
Ah, Julie...
I’m not even really sure where to start. 

"On Sunday I sat outside in the sun, stroking Elke's so-soft ears, while my husband patted her long, sleek back, and we farewelled our first girl. We learned on Friday that her liver and spleen were full of cancer. We are so grateful to have shared 12.5yrs with her and will miss her dearly." is what my Facebook status update said.
But let's start at the beginning...


Little Elke-Moo and her
cow hips, at RSPCA
I met Elke (pronounced Ell-kee) when I was in my third week of employment in the RSPCA shelter. What a sucker I was! She was seized as part of a cruelty case from a property where an elderly man with dementia had over forty dogs. Because of the dementia, the dogs weren’t receiving proper care and he sometimes fed them chicken pellets. Of her litter, Elke was the only survivor. She looked like a 5 week old puppy but she was actually 12 weeks old. 

She was always small. Our ‘bonsai pointer’, we called her. We joked that she was little, but could lay a good egg.  My boyfriend at the time and I had been speaking about getting a dog, and pointers had come up as a breed we were interested in – he wanted a dog to run with him. After three weeks of rehabilitation at RSPCA, she came home with me. I was 23 years old. Since then, she has been a fixture in the landscape of our lives - through house moves, our engagement and marriage, the death of my father, the arrival of our daughter, the comings and goings of oh-so-many other dogs (occupational hazard!).

Elke and my daughter - a fantastic introduction to dogs

Elke was energetic, excitable and hilarious. She wasn't perfect, but neither were we. We were a perfect match. She realised, as a young dog, that she could redirect attention to herself if visitors were over, by trawling our dirty clothes basket for recent underwear and then parading it through the lounge room for everyone to see. 


Post-beach snooze with our other dog, Caleb

She didn’t like thunderstorms or fireworks. She loved running off lead at the park, the beach or through the bush and she adored retrieving. She would regularly throw herself into water without stopping to check for a way out. One time I had to walk along a river back for about 500m while she swam and we looked for a place where she could scramble up the riverbank to get out again!

We took Elke to obedience training and she taught us so much. Elke was also more than our pet. She helped as a friendly adult dog at puppy preschool classes, she posed as a jaunty model as Australia legislated for the end of tail docking, she tried to distract trainee guide dogs and she visited nursing homes as a certified visiting therapy dog. They were all things we did together, my spotty dog and I.

Elke loved playing swim-retrieve in the water
 She and our other dog Caleb were very close. They had a silly play ritual they indulged in every day. Twice a day. A close-quarters mouthing and growling game that ended in howling calamity. It was sometimes annoying (working from home, it wasn’t always compatible with work-related phone calls!), but always made me smile. But now our house is very quiet.

We all loved time at the beach

We didn’t know Elke was sick until a week before she was euthanased. We took her to the vet, her temperature was up, a blood sample was taken, antibiotics were commenced. We didn’t know just how sick she was until two days before. What we did know, was that she was getting older, slowing down, not hearing the thunderstorms any more – and we knew she wouldn’t live forever. But 'that day' always seems - in the future.

Instant couch-rights
When the vet rang me on Friday (the 13th) to advise that the ultrasound showed Elke’s liver and spleen were full of cancer, I was interstate at a conference aiming to eliminate the euthanasia of healthy and treatable pets in Australia. I was told that there were no options. Elke was comfortable, but at risk of bleeding internally and needed to be kept quiet with minimal activity. Euthanasia was not required immediately, but certainly the recommended course of action to avoid a slow and painful death by haemorrhage. I made the appointment for the day after I was due home and cried in my hotel room until there were no tissues left.

Sunday morning was a beautiful morning in Melbourne. The sun was out. I sat with Elke and my just-turned-3-year-old daughter in our garden. We talked about Elke being sick and that she was going to die. She asked hard questions. I did my best to answer them. We weren’t able to play retrieve, but passed Elke little sticks and she crunched them in her teeth. I took some last photos of the two of them – my girls – who have enjoyed a calm and positive relationship. Then Pete and I took Elke to the vet. She was given a mild sedative and we walked outside into the vet clinic’s garden (she never really liked veterinary consult’ rooms). We placed her bed on the grass in the sun, while she walked and sniffed. As the sedation took effect, I helped her settle onto her bed and she relaxed, dozing in the sun. Pete gently stroked her back. I had her relaxed head cushioned in my lap, savouring the sensation of her silky soft ears against my fingertips, one last time. She didn’t even notice the needle that entered the vein in her leg with the overdose of anaesthetic. It really was the perfect euthanasia.

Elke was doing selfies pre-Facebook - circa 2003

Now Elke is gone, and we’re adjusting to this changed landscape of our lives.

Despite all the dogs that have lived in our home, for days or for years, Elke is the first dog that we have owned from puppyhood through to old age. In some ways, this is helping me cope with her death.  With other dogs I think I’ve felt an element of anger that we had met too late for them to live their best life, or been robbed of time together through unexpected illness taking them too soon. But today, I’m trying to take comfort in the fact that Elke lived a fabulous and full life with us; her passing was as peaceful and stress free as any of us could hope for. I’m so grateful that our daughter had Elke to share her infancy with. 

It still hurts. In ways that bubble up unexpectedly. And I know that’s OK. Grief is messy. It’s individual and it takes as long as it takes. Time plays a critical role and will not be rushed.

Spooning in 2003.
Still besties in 2013.
Research over the past 25 years has shown us that grieving for a pet follows the same reactions and involves the same emotional responses as dealing with a human loss. People who have lost a pet commonly experience intense feelings such as sadness, anger, anxiety, disbelief, depression, panic, relief or even numbness. The act of consenting to euthanasia has been found to be particularly disturbing for some owners, who feel they have betrayed a trust by choosing death over life. Of course, grief responses to death of companion animals is linked to the strength of attachment we have with them, but we should not trivialise, nor brush aside our response to the death of our pets.

Animals are important to us and the grief we experience when they die is real.
We should be gentle to ourselves.

Acknowledging this and permitting ourselves to react (however we need to) is important. Letting our support networks (friends, family, colleagues) know how we feel and letting them help us in return is also important. If time isn’t helping, or you lack a support network, seek further help, from your doctor or a professional counsellor. The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement has helpful information about grief here. The number of friends who have sent me kind messages, called to see how we're doing this week or even driven over just to give me a hug has shown me that a) Elke was a dog whose reach was long, and that b) I have amazing friends and family!

And so, my friend, I’m off to give Caleb a big hug. Because amongst all the other sad (for Elke, for my daughter, for me) I’m sad that he may never get to do this again:


Mia

Do You Believe in Dog? will place further helpful resources about dealing with the grief associated with pet loss online soon.
My submitted proof that the sun did shine out of...
Further reading: 
Weisman A.D. (1990). Bereavement and Companion Animals, OMEGA--Journal of Death and Dying, 22 (4) 241-248. DOI:

Archer J. & Winchester G. (1994). Bereavement following death of a pet, British Journal of Psychology, 85 (2) 259-271. DOI:

Podrazik D., Shackford S., Becker L. & Heckert T. (2000). The Death of a Pet: Implications for Loss and Bereavement Across the Lifespan, Journal of Personal and Interpersonal Loss, 5 (4) 361-395. DOI:

Smith A. (2012). Pet Loss and Human Emotion: What's New?, Death Studies, 36 (3) 292-297. DOI:

Field N., Orsini L., Gavish R. & Packman W. (2009). Role of Attachment in Response to Pet Loss, Death Studies, 33 (4) 334-355. DOI:

Crossley M. (2013). Pet Loss and Human Bereavement: A Phenomenological Study of Attachment and the Grieving Process., PhD Thesis, NC State University: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/resolver/1840.16/8451

© 2013 Mia Cobb | Do You Believe in Dog?