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Recently, my spouse and I went through one of the more excruciating experiences of our lives- the euthanasia of our beloved puppy, Murphy.
I remember building eye contact with Murphy moments before she took her last breath- she flashed me a looking that was an endearing blend of embarrassment and the reassurance that everyone was OK because we were both by her side.
When people who have never had a dog assure their dog-owning friends mourn the loss of a pet, they probably think it’s all a bit of an overreaction; after all, it’s “just a dog.”
However, those who have loved a dog know the truth: Your own pet is never “just a dog.”
Many times, I’ve had friends guiltily confide to me that they mourned more over the loss of a puppy than over the loss of friends or relatives.
Research has confirmed that for most people, the loss of a dog is in almost every way comparable to the loss of a human loved one.
Unfortunately, there’s little in our cultural playbook — no heartache rituals , no obituary in the local newspaper , no religious service- to help us get through the loss of a pet, which can build us feel more than a bit embarrassed to demonstrate too much public heartache over our dead dogs.
Perhaps if people realise just how strong and intense the bond is between people and their dogs, such heartache would become more widely accepted. This would greatly help dog owners to integrate the death into their lives and help them move forward.
What is it about dogs, precisely, that make humans bond so closely with them?
For starters, dogs have had to adapt to living with humen over the past 10,000 years. And they’ve done it very well: They’re the only animal to have evolved specifically to be our companions and friends .</ strong>
Anthropologist Brian Hare has developed the “Domestication Hypothesis” to explain how puppies morphed from their grey wolf ancestors into the socially skilled animals that we now interact with in very much the same way as we interact with other people.
Perhaps one reason our relationships with puppies can be even more satisfying than our human relationships is that puppies provide us with such unconditional, uncritical positive feedback .</ strong>( As the old saying runs, “May I become the kind of person that my dog believes I already am.”)
This is no accident. They have been selectively bred through generations to pay attention to people, and MRI scans depict that puppy brains respond to praise from their owners just as strongly as they do to food( and for some dogs, praise is an even more effective incentive than food ). Dogs recognize people and can learn to interpret human emotional states from facial expression alone. Scientific studies also indicate that dogs can understand human intentions, try to help their owners, and even avoid people who don’t cooperate with their owners or treat them well.
Not amazingly, humans respond positively to such unrequited affection, assistance, and loyalty.
Our strong attachment to puppies was subtly revealed in a recent survey of “misnaming.” Misnaming happens when you call someone by the incorrect name, like when mothers erroneously 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 pond that contains other members of the family.( Curiously, the same thing rarely happens with cat names .)
It’s no wonder puppy proprietors miss them so much when they’re gone.
Psychologist Julie Axelrod has pointed out that the loss of a dog is so painful because owners aren’t simply losing the pet .</ strong> It could mean the loss of information sources of unconditional love, a primary companion who offer security and comfort, and maybe even a protege that’s been mentored like a child.
The loss of a puppy can also seriously disrupt an owner’s daily routine more profoundly than the loss of most friends and relatives. For owneds, their daily schedules — even their vacation schemes — can revolve around the needs of their pets. Changes in lifestyle and routine are some of the primary sources of stress.
According to a recent survey, many bereaved pet proprietors will even erroneously interpret ambiguous sights and sounds as the movements, pants, and whimpers of the deceased pet. This is most likely to happen shortly after the death of the pet, especially among owneds who had very high levels of attachment to their pets.
While the death of a dog is horrible, puppy proprietors have become so accustomed to the reassuring and nonjudgmental presence of their canine companions that, more often than not, they’ll eventually get a new one.
So yes, I miss my puppy.
But I’m sure that I’ll be putting myself through this ordeal again in the years to come.
This tale originally appeared on The Conversation and is published here with permission .</ em>
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