My first experience with the death of a loved one was at the age of seven—we lost our family dog suddenly following complications from a routine spaying procedure. She had been a nanny dog to me since my birth (she was a Collie mix, a breed known for sticking close to and “herding” children), and was always at my hip no matter where I went. Her loyalty to me made losing her that much harder on my parents. They weren’t just losing a beloved family member; they were also watching their child grieve death for the first time. Our family truly and deeply grieved the loss of that dog.
Those who have never had a dog, or never bonded with a dog, may think the last paragraph is a bit over the top. I mean, really? It’s a dog. An animal. Sure, it’s sad to lose a pet, but it’s not like losing a human loved one.
But those who’ve loved and lost a dog know. The death of a dog can be absolutely excruciating, just as painful as losing a human loved one. Even dog lovers know this sounds a bit nuts—but we know it’s true. So what is it about losing a dog that is so uniquely heart-wrenching?
If we try to answer this question scientifically, it’s hard to land on a sensible answer. The most obvious reason the death of a dog hurts so much is that we had a bond with the dog, and that bond has been broken. But why do humans develop such close bonds with dogs in the first place? It’s not evolutionarily beneficial for a species to devote much time or attention to another species. It’s considered “fitness reducing.”
And yet we love our dogs so much that we mix them up with our children! Any parent who is also a dog owner will likely confess to sometimes calling the dog their kid’s name or vice versa. A study on this phenomenon (it’s known as “roll calling”—cycling through all your kids’ names until you finally get the right one) revealed that though we frequently do this with our dogs, we rarely do it with our cats. Psychologists think this may hint at a deeper-than-usual attachment between dogs and humans.
Some scientists theorize that humans and dogs essentially evolved together, humans selectively breeding for traits that facilitate human relationships—like the ones between parent and child—even as they themselves continued to evolve. My mom definitely relied on my dog Kurkay to “herd” me into the front yard. She’d work in the kitchen, keeping an eye on me through the big window over the sink as I toddled around the front yard, Kurkay always inches from me, making sure I stayed near the house and in my mom’s sight.
Some say pets simply provide satisfaction to their human owners—an unconditional love not generally found in human-human relationships. I admit I have said several times that I prefer any dog over most humans.
It’s fascinating, though—and even a bit unsettling—to know that my dog, who has my whole entire heart, was bred to love me unconditionally. When he gazes into my eyes with undying affection, he’s doing that because generations of humans before me bred generations of his ancestors to gaze longingly into their human’s eyes. Also fascinating, though, is that knowing he’s been bred to adore me doesn’t make me love him any less in return.
So, we sort of understand how we develop these attachments to our dogs, but does that also explain why it hurts so much when we lose them?
I think it does, in part, but I also think there’s an extra layer to it. An article in Quartz points out that when a dog dies, we aren’t typically afforded the usual outpouring of support from the community. There are no last rites, no funerals, no gatherings to remember them. And we feel almost a little ashamed that we are so distraught over the loss of “just” a dog. We preface our social media announcements about these losses with something like an apology for being as broken up as we are.
It’s also thought that since our dogs are so integrated into our lives, their absence is more keenly felt. I know if I ever forget to bring my dog in from the backyard right away, I quickly realize he’s not there because of the absence of his little whiskers brushing my calves as he follows me around. He’s always that close. He even follows me into the bathroom and gazes lovingly at me while I pee. Weirdo.
And that brings me to my own theory on why we love our dogs so damn much, and why their deaths are so intensely painful: their innocence. A dog is adorable and has no idea he’s adorable. A dog is loyal but doesn’t know for what purpose. A dog forgives instantly—truly, these creatures don’t know how to hold a grudge—and carries right on loving you.
A dog senses when you’re upset and comforts you without needing to “fix” it. A dog is happy just to be alive, especially if he is by your side. A dog loves with fearless, uninhibited abandon. There is no tit for tat, no scorekeeping, no withholding of his love because he’s angry at you. He doesn’t even know how to be angry at you. A dog will practically piss himself with excitement when you come back after being gone 45 seconds getting the mail. A dog will seem to worry you may suddenly disappear at any moment, never to return. His eyes constantly seem to say, “You still love me, right?”
And you can’t explain to a dog, “Listen, I’m just getting the mail. I’ll be gone for less than a minute, you don’t have to lose your mind wondering when I’ll come home.” You can’t explain to your dog that you love him just as much as he loves you. You can’t thank him for his loyalty. You can’t tell him that you really would let him come to work every day if only dogs were allowed in the office. You can’t tell him you think it’s real shitty that dog lifespans are only about 15% of a human’s. He doesn’t know any of these things and yet he still carries on loving you unconditionally, with zero agenda.
My dog is seven, and he’s a little dog so there’s a good chance he’ll live into his late teens, but I’m already dreading life without him. I can’t let myself think too much about it. I know I will be inconsolable, probably for months. He’s gotten me through depression and divorce and feels like a part of me. He goes where I go, sleeps where I sleep. He’s a “brother” to my kids. He’s “the best dog in the world,” which is what any good dog owner thinks of their dog.
All dogs are the Best Dog. So it really shouldn’t be any surprise that it hurts so damn much when we lose them.
This article was originally published on