Out with the Dogs: Yes, dogs grieve

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Most of the time I am confident I know what is going on in my dog’s head; it’s not hard to figure out. Researchers believe that dogs think on the same level as a human toddler; about two and half years old. Having raised kids and dogs, both, I concur with that belief. But I admit to being surprised by Topper’s reaction to Chili’s death, now 10 days ago.

It has been a conscious plan on my part to always have multiple dogs, usually four, separated in age by about four years. I have done that to insure I am never left dog-less as the older ones pass away. By keeping about four years between the puppies that come to live with me, I have never had to worry that the dogs would become so attached to one another they would end up being companions for each other and not me. It is something that I often give advice and write about; for most families it is not good to take two puppies from the same litter and raise them together. For very active dog owners; those who play dog sports and show their dogs, the inherent problems of raising two puppies together can be circumvented, but for “average family dog owners” it is a huge mistake to raise litter mates together. New puppy owners often think raising two together would be great, so the puppies are not alone. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Two puppies raised together in a backyard develop astonishing behavior problems. Anytime one dog is taken for a walk or a trip to the vet; the one left behind usually goes crazy; vocalizing and often displaying destructive behavior in their frustration, because they’ve never been alone before. I have been told by many owners of a “pair of dogs” how difficult it is for the survivor when one dog dies, but I have never experienced that kind of behavior myself, with my own dogs, probably because of the number and ages of my dogs.

It was (and still is) hard on me losing my beloved Chili, at only 10 years of age. In fact, at this moment, I’m in an angry stage of grief; pissed off at the universe that Chili was taken so young; we should have had five more years together, but I never anticipated how hard losing Chili would be for Topper. A couple of years ago my Schipperke, Bigfoot Bob, died at a young age for a Schip; 13 years old, of cancer.

I started looking for a new puppy last year, but after a “dog deal” going bad with a miserable, dishonest breeder and costing me over $400. I gave up trying to get another pup, leaving me with three dogs. Several months ago, Sweet Little Annie, my Chihuahua, went to live with a good friend in Corning. It was a better home for Annie, with another small dog in the household. That left me with the two Toller boys; Chili and Topper. With Chili’s sudden death, I’m down to one dog and poor Topper has never been an “only dog” before. For the first time in my life, I am now experiencing a grieving dog.

A couple of years ago Chili and Topper were separated for a few days when my friends took Chili off to a flyball tournament. The team needed him, but I couldn’t attend, so Maureen took him. Topper didn’t act any differently, certainly didn’t appear to miss Chili so I guess that’s the other reason I have been so surprised by his behavior now.

Topper was present when Chili died, which raises more questions for me, about how cognizant dogs actually are. Could Topper tell the difference between Chili simply being away from home and dying, knowing he’d never see him again? After my friend picked up Chili for burial that night, Topper was in my room with me.

He was unsettled; wouldn’t lie down and relax and kept glancing at my bed, where Chili normally laid. I stripped the blankets and cover off the bed so there would be no remaining scent of Chili. I didn’t sleep that first night and neither did Topper. Instead of just flopping down and snoring, like usual, he propped himself up against the dresser and kept his head up, resisting sleep the way a kid does; head bobbing as sleep overtook him. His overall demeanor was depressed; he didn’t prick his ears or looked interested in anything. He also clung to me, following my every move. I took him outside and threw a bumper. For the first time in his life, he did not want to retrieve or play at all. We went to the farm and Tops still looked depressed. He finally retrieved a couple of times when we were playing on the pool cover, but his heart was not in it. I borrowed one of my friend’s young female dogs to bring home for Topper, thinking a new playful dog might cheer him up. Nope, didn’t help. For a couple of days, Topper went into the yard, did his business quickly, then lay under my bedroom window whining until I brought him back in the house and wouldn’t give the visiting dog the time of day. Last weekend we went to the farm again, to take my visitor home and Tops still acted depressed. He played and retrieved only a little bit while we were there.

Topper had a favorite flappy toy that he played with like crazy, by himself. That toy was completely destroyed a couple of weeks ago by a visiting German Shepherd. I asked my friends to keep an eye out for a replacement. Maureen found one and brought it over. It was brand new, still attached to the cardboard packaging when I called Topper outside and showed him the new toy. He went crazy, doing a happy dance! I’ve never seen such a reaction to a toy. He grabbed it and immediately did several laps around the yard before trying to get me to throw it for him. Playing with his new favorite toy, Topper appears to be feeling much better about being the only dog. He is still very clingy, not wanting to be away from me, but at least he perks right up when we go out to play retrieve with his new toy. I can’t help but wonder if he would have reacted the same way, if I had given him the new toy, the night Chili died. I don’t have nearly enough dogs now! After this incident, I clearly need at least three at a time. I’ve got a new Schipperke puppy coming in just a few more weeks, but after that, I think I still will need another dog before the year is out.

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