Why Dog Death Makes Us Sad

We love dogs because they are unbridled, distilled love and affection. They are so pure. Unfortunately, they don’t know that they are small tragedies that unfold over decades, happy trails that lead to waterfalls of tears: dogs leave us—and they have no idea that they will.

Still, we maintain this relationship with these creatures who may never understand their importance. They’re family. They’re not human, no, but they are part of our families because they have evolved and adapted to be with us. That’s impressive!

No wonder their deaths are so profound. I often tell Bobby when I’m out of town or gone from home for long periods of times that the real sting is not being able to see, hear, or communicate with the dogs. I can text him and talk on the phone with him all the time. The dogs? They don’t understand. They’re blithely “above that.” Their deaths are somewhat similar in that their touchstones—or, say, a literal tombstone—are few. You can mourn a dog but there are cultural limits.

To understand why dogs have such a heavy weight on us when they die, we have to turn to science. In a really great Business Insider story on the subject, psychology professor Frank T. McAndrew roots around for an answer and comes very, very close.

First, consider how closely dogs engrain themselves in a family. You can see this in “misnaming.”

Our strong attachment to dogs was subtly revealed in a recent study of “misnaming.” Misnaming happens when you call someone by the wrong name, like when parents mistakenly calls one of their kids by a sibling’s name. It turns out that the name of the family dog also gets confused with human family members, indicating that the dog’s name is being pulled from the same cognitive pool that contains other members of the family. (Curiously, the same thing rarely happens with cat names.)

This is fascinating! While I’ve never done this, I do get it. There is an equivalency with dogs, that they are “one of us.” That’s so precious. It breaks my heart.

Similarly—and something unconsidered by me—is that dogs affect your daily life in an extreme way because we build our lives around helping these otherwise helpless creatures. Thus, when they disappear, the hole is quite large.

Psychologist Julie Axelrod has pointed out that the loss of a dog is so painful because owners aren’t just losing the pet. It could mean the loss of a source of unconditional love, a primary companion who provides security and comfort, and maybe even a protégé that’s been mentored like a child.

The loss of a dog can also seriously disrupt an owner’s daily routine more profoundly than the loss of most friends and relatives. For owners, their daily schedules – even their vacation plans – can revolve around the needs of their pets. Changes in lifestyle and routine are some of the primary sources of stress.

Gulp. True! Sad but true.

“The loss of a source of unconditional love” is perhaps one of the most painful realities when it comes to dogs because that love ends. It’s not for a lack of trying but—like all things, like all of us—everything comes to an end.

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