Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Helping my helpers

Furbabies give us so much, and we owe them much in return. They depend on us for everything—food, housing, safety, health and medicine, and love and companionship, and they give us love and companionship in return. They may help keep us safe, and the evidence is clear that having a furbaby makes us healthier and happier. When we’re sad, especially when we’re grieving, a furbaby helps us in so many ways. But what about when they’re grieving? It’s up to us to help them through it.

Recently, Leo had a small change in his behaviour. It seemed unimportant, but it made me wonder if he might be grieving for Sunny. When I brought Sunny’s ashes home, I placed them on a dresser in my bedroom next to Nigel’s ashes. Before I did that, I did a little ritual for Jake and Leo, something I wrote about at the time (there’s a photo of the display at the link):
When I got home, I took her collar and let Jake and then Leo sniff it. They knew it was hers, of course, and I hoped that since their sense of smell is so keen they’d know she wasn’t coming back, if no other reason than that she died wearing it. In that sense, it was similar to the way I lifted up all three dogs so they could see and sniff Nigel when we brought him home the night before his funeral.
That evening, Jake seemed sad—somewhat withdrawn, not really interested in interacting. By the next day, he was pretty much back to normal. Leo seemed fine the whole time. None of this surprised me: After we brought Nigel home, Jake stuck to me like glue for the rest of the evening, and Leo seemed unconcerned (as did Sunny, for that matter).

Recently, however, Leo’s behaviour changed. He started whimpering while standing and looking up at the spot where Sunny’s collar was. So, I’d pick up the collar and let him sniff it. That seemed to satisfy him that she wasn’t on top the dresser (which at first is what I thought was going on). It kept happening, so I started letting both boys sniff the collar, and I’d say someone like “Sunny go bye-bye”, or “bye bye, Sunny”. Leo’s behaviour continued, so I started lifting him up and letting him sniff the collar in place, because that, I hoped, would let him see she wasn’t hiding up there.

Leo continued whimpering every day (usually in the morning when I was having my shower and getting dressed). I mentioned it to some of the family the other night, and my sister-in-law suggested I put the collar on the floor so Leo (in particular) could sniff it whenever he wanted to. I wasn’t keen on that idea, mainly because I thought Leo might decide to pick up the collar like a toy.

The other day, I came up with a sort of compromise: Hang the collar from a drawer pull on the dresser it had been on, low enough they could sniff it, but high enough that Leo would be unlikely to take off with it. Both dogs sniffed it when I did that (they were in the room with me at the time).

Since then, Leo sniffs the collar from time to time (like in the photo at the top of this post), and every day at roughly the time of day he used to whimper at it—but he hasn’t whimpered since I moved the collar. I plan on leaving it there until he stops sniffing it, and I have no idea how long that will be: Dogs’ grief journeys are varied and individual, too.

I don’t actually know for sure that Leo is grieving: He may just be concerned by the smell of Sunny when he can’t see her. But change of behaviour is one way to identify that a dog is grieving. In any case, just to be on the safe side, I’m giving both dogs much more attention and love than I normally would (which means it’s now an enormous amount). That makes them happy in the moment, at least, and as someone going through profound grief, I know being happy in a moment is an important thing.

It’s (obviously) an established fact that dogs can feel grief when they lose a human or canine companion. While there’s a lot we don’t know about how that works for them, we know that the process can take days, weeks, or months for them to go through. Reassuringly, when I was looking for information on this topic I found out that what I’m doing is basically what’s needed to help dogs through their grief.

Regardless of what’s going on with them—grief or something else—I hope I help them feel better. They’ve helped me so much with my grief journey, so trying to help them is the least I can do in return. Truth his, helping them helps me feel better, too.

About the photo: After my shower this morning, which was a little later than usual, and after Leo had already sniffed the collar, I sat on the floor so I could take a photo of the collar. Leo walked back into the room, looked at me with curiosity, then walked over to the collar to sniff it. That's when I took the photo. Personally, I think it’s a touching scene, whatever the cause of his behaviour is.

This post has been updated. Follow the link to see the update.


Roger Owen Green said...

you are a very astute fur-dad(?)

Arthur Schenck said...

Well, I think it becomes easy to "read" the emotional state of a furbaby merely by sharing a life with them for a number of years. Handy, too, since they stubbornly refuse to speak English.