Greyt Expectations – Chris Dignam’s Rescued Greyhounds – Dealing with Bereavement

This week’s piece is about dealing with the loss of a pet, coping, and the question of having a replacement. It’s specifically about losing a dog, but it can be equally true of any pet, be it a cat, horse or goldfish. Anything that you have become very attached to.

You often hear someone say “It’s only a dog” when they hear that people are upset and grieving over the loss of a pet. This is the typical comment of someone who has never had a pet themselves and is unaware of the emotional chasm left by the loss of someone who had become a member of the family. They are not just members of the family; they are members of the pack, the same way that they also see you. Pets are dependent on you, and in that caring and nurturing you invest your time and energy and friendship which they give back in return. Being a dog owner is a two way thing. This is especially so when you have children, as they see the dog as another brother or sister and do not have some of the grown-up’s formal barriers. Every boy (or girl) should have a dog (or cat, or goldfish etc.), as it teaches them responsibility and the importance of the bonds of loyalty and affection.

Sally, greyhound, A Hound in the House,
Sally at 12

It’s inevitable then that as your pet grows old, or becomes ill, that you think of what will happen when they pass on. You know it will be hard emotionally but you have a degree of time to prepare. When they do die, you will still be upset but you have had time to order your thoughts and your future actions. Well, that’s the theory but it does not always work like that. When Sally, our first rescue greyhound grew old she did so gradually, and was still active so we never noticed. One evening she had gone for a walk and sat down for a rest half way round the cricket pitch, but been eager for her food when she got back. Early that evening she started crying, was a bit spaced and evidently in some distress, so we rang the out of hours vet and took her down. At the surgery she was examined and the vet suggested she might have a stomach upset, gave her some painkiller and sent her home with us. We could see her gums were very pale. When she got home she cried a bit, and sat in her bed. I sat up with her until she went to sleep and then sat in the chair to watch over her. Sally drifted away in her sleep that night some time about six o’clock in the morning. Looking back now, Armelle and I could see the signs that she was getting old – the fawn in her face had so much more white in it and she occasionally would stop for a rest on her walks. Even so, we were devastated – Sally was our first hound, and to all intents our child. I am sure that we got the “It’s only a dog” reaction but to us the pain was very real.

Sammy was a week short of her fifth birthday when she was attacked by another dog out walking on the same cricket pitch. She appeared to have come away unscathed, but the next evening she could not eat, the back of her tongue became swollen and we rushed her to the vets. When she tried to run from the dog, the collar had pulled on her throat and it was 24 hours later that the damage became apparent. They carried out a tracheotomy, which she survived, but the internal bleeding from the damage was so bad she bled out and passed away in the surgery. We were totally devastated. The emotions here were really mixed up – grief for Sammy’s death, anger about the cause of her death, and even guilt that I had taken her for a walk that night when I could have stayed at home.
No matter how your pet dies, it’s always distressing and you will be upset. If it’s an accident or sudden death, you too might feel guilty or regret that you took them out – these are natural emotions as you try to come to terms with the loss. You have to blame someone so you end up blaming yourself. What you have to realise is that it was just that – fate – you could not do anything to prevent it otherwise you surely would have.

In one respect an awful decision was already taken for us; we never had to make the call to have our pet put to sleep. When you have a pet that has a terminal illness, injury or even extreme age which means that you have to decide when their quality of life has reached such a critical point that they should be euthanised you will inevitable feel guilt along with your sorrow. You have to be a very special person if you are so certain that you have made the right decision at the right time. It is inevitable that you will question yourself over whether you left it too long, or whether if you had waited they would have been ok to last longer. Again, this is natural.

The next decision you will need to make is what to do with your pet. The option of burial was not feasible; she was a big dog, we had a small garden. If I’d dug a hole we had a choice of either her head or feet sticking out! We had decided to have Sally cremated so we had to get her to the vets from where the cremation company would collect her. The vets sorted everything for us, but we still had to get her down there. Sally weighed nearly 30 kilos and we had to carry her through the house to the car. Fortunately for us she had passed away in her bed so we could lift her in her duvet, holding two corners each and taking her through the living room. Unfortunately, as we passed the settee Sal’s head flopped out in a most undignified manner. We could imagine her looking down and tut-tutting at us. We carried Sal out to the car and at the vet, they helped me carry her in and so I said goodbye to her. Two weeks later I collected a lovely wooden box with her name on a brass plaque. We buried her in the garden near the spot where she liked to sit in the sun. When Sammy died, we decided that we would scatter her ashes in a wood where she loved to walk and we had some wonderful memories of. So instead of a box we had a lovely scatter tube – which when it came was covered in a picture of bluebells! Fate or what?

Penny, Greyhound,Bluubells
Sammy in the bluebell wood

Being without your pet can lead you to either one of two ways; you hurt so much you could never go through it again, or you really need to love another pet so want to get another one. Never think of a new dog as a replacement – they will never be the same, but will be fabulous and funny in their own ways. We always said Sam was Sally’s “understudy” who was filling in for her. Should you rush out and get another or should you waitt? I would always advise to leave a time to grieve, be it only a few days or maybe months – that would be down to you. It’s whatever feels best. Our greyhounds are rescued dogs, so to us it was always a case of “We gave Sally and Sam a great home, there are other dogs out there that deserve a lucky break too.”

Another option is to foster a dog for a time. When a rescue comes into kennels, especially where their background is not known, they are a blank card. They need to be assessed as to their temperament, how they are in a home setting, are they cat or child friendly, all the normal things they might never have seen in their lives. It’s a great way of having a dog to care for and occupy your mind, but you are also doing an unselfish thing by taking that dog out of kennels and allowing them to see what a real home can be like, and there’s no permanent commitment. We had a foster who hated kennels and needed a home where he would eat properly (the stress of kennels put him off eating).  And don’t forget that if you and the dog click, that the home is the right one for the dog, then the foster will never leave. Sam was a foster, as was our Penny, and neither of them ever went back to kennels.

So never be ashamed or embarrassed to cry or be upset when you lose your animal companion. It’s not you that’s at fault but the person who says “It’s only a dog” who is wrong for not understanding. Never blame yourself for anything untoward that happens, or for any decision on euthanasia where it’s the animal’s dignity that comes first. Finally, take as long as you feel its right before you have another pet.