In his book, "The Emotional Lives of Animals," Marc Bekoff says: “When animals express their feelings they pour out like water from a spout. Animals’ emotions are raw, unfiltered, and uncontrolled. Their joy is the purest and most contagious of joys and their grief the deepest and most devastating.” Anyone who has gone from frowns to giggles at the paws of a dog happy to see you knows that contagion, and anyone who has suddenly gone from two dogs to one, as will always happen eventually to those with more than one dog, has seen a little of that grief. But what makes it the deepest and most devastating grief?
Perhaps animals’ grief is deeper because there is relatively little to get in the way of them experiencing their emotions. They don’t have to worry about what anyone will think if they cry — they "cry: (whine, meow, what have you) and we accept it as natural, even commonplace behavior, for them — or how they will pay the bills if they lose their job. In other words, there is very little to discourage or distract them from their grief, relatively speaking. We, on the other hand, are good at avoiding, ignoring, or even denying our grief, and that is each person’s right, of course. So long as it doesn’t harm others.
Sometimes, human denial can harm others, including animals. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to spend a day or several observing the comings and goings inside a large, busy, open intake animal shelter. Dogs turned in for being old or sick, their owners replacing them with cute puppies, or maybe surrendering them to be euthanized because it is cheaper or they just don’t want to have to experience that sadness themselves. Most people know that old, sick dogs turned in to shelters are at extremely high risk of euthanasia, often immediately upon entering the system. Most shelters even require surrenderers to sign a document acknowledging that fact. So how is it that someone who has lived with and loved, and been loved by, an animal for 5, 10, 15 or more years can bear the grief of leaving that animal in a cold, noisy shelter full of strangers? Humans, some more than others I suppose, have learned to avoid experiencing their grief.
I considered writing a cute, happy, new year’s resolution type of article for you this month. But who does that help? Such writing is common and easily forgotten, like resolutions.
I must disclose, now, for those who do not know, that in addition to being a canine trainer and behavior specialist, I also am a dog rescuer. In animal rescue, you quickly learn that it is impossible to avoid experiencing your grief. So what can you do? Most of us try to reduce the causes of grief by improving the situation for companion animals. For me, this comes in the form of working toward prevention of harm, whether physical or emotional, of our animals. When you work in rescue, your ability to survive while offering fixes rather than preventatives may not last long.
I have a Christmas wish: That every person who is capable does something different that will help prevent suffering and grief for those animals who cannot avoid experiencing it so deeply. It might be something personal and individual, like throwing away your dog’s prong collar, electronic collar, or that squirt bottle many folks are still, unfortunately, taught to use. Replace them with clickers and non-aversive methods instead. It might be something more universal, like joining the efforts to "Protect Them All" rather than constantly having to save them all, some repeatedly, as a result of them not having been protected. The revolving door of suffering will keep turning as long as we turn away from grief. That, to my mind, is the “most devastating” thing.
Rain Jordan, CBCC-KA, KPA CTP, is a certified canine training & behavior professional. Visit her at www.elevatedogtraining.com.