Anticipatory Grief: The Sadness Before Losing a Beloved Dog

 

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear. 

–  Rudyard Kipling, The Power of a Dog

 

Michael Baugh KPA-CTP CPDT-KSA CDBC

I heard crying in the other room. There was Tim, my husband, clutching our dog Stewie. “What’s wrong,” I asked. “I don’t want him to die,” he answered. I could barely make out the words through the sobbing. “He’s growing old.” Stewie, very much alive, 13 and white-faced (but healthy), had no idea what was going on. But, I did. I knew because I’d been here before.

My late dog, Juno, was 11 1/2 when she died. The cancer started 18 months earlier. And really, that’s when the grieving started too. Mast cell. The words didn’t mean much to me at the time, but the look on my vet’s face said all I needed to know – all that I already knew. We all know. We die. Those we love die. Our dogs eventually die. The thing is we work so hard every day to forget. We distract ourselves. We keep busy. We fill the time or let it pass. It’s woven into being human, this knowing and not wanting to know. There are books about it. It’s the stuff of our best stories. Philosophy. Religion. This angst. Living and dying.

We forget until we can’t. Death just shows up, sometimes when we don’t expect it. Early. Shockingly. But it’s never really a surprise, not if we’re being honest with ourselves. Or it comes with a prelude, a diagnosis, a slowing body, more birthdays past than ahead. It’s a white-faced dog with dewy eyes looking up at our tear-wet face, with 13-years dragging behind us both. And, we know 15 is a dream – 17 is nearly impossible.

Anticipatory GrieStewief. It sounds clean and clinical.  Experiencing it, though, is something different. Mourning a living dog (or any pet, or person for that matter) can feel a bit – well – morbid. It can be messy and confusing. For me it felt isolating. The truth is I thought I was the rare one who would suffer such an odd thing upon myself. But, I was not.

Anticipatory Grief is normal. “Google it.” That’s what my friend Dr. Risë VanFleet said when I asked her about it. She’s a Psychologist and a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. I did Google it. The screen filled with heartbreaking normal. This is what we do. We mourn illnesses (our own and others’). We mourn the loss we know is coming. Dr. VanFleet says it’s normal to feel these feelings and even shed some tears. “It’s okay to say ‘this is going to be really rough.'” Normal doesn’t mean easy, though. Grief hurts. And, the hurting sometimes starts long before the loss.

Anticipatory Grief can feel different. Nearly all the articles on that Google search mentioned what I had experienced myself. Sometimes Anticipatory Grief is more intense than so-called simple grief after the death. When I lost Juno I was devastated. I sobbed. But, the feelings I had before were different. The crying came on faster and unexpectedly. I’d double over and hold on to her as if my tears and my grip could save her from the cancer. As if they could somehow slow time. I felt guilt because I imagined her death over and over. I felt shame because Juno was still alive (how could I do this to her?). Dr. VanFleet warns of a dark side to Anticipatory Grief. Feel the feelings but stay aware. There is the danger of letting our thoughts spiral into depression.

Anticipatory Grief can also be a good thing. I’m not a silver lining kind of guy. Dr. VanFleet doesn’t seem to be the Pollyanna type either. But, I had to wonder. If Anticipatory grief is so common (normal, in fact) does it serve a purpose? It turns out the answer is yes. Certainly it can prepare us for the loss. Don’t mistake that for getting it all out of your system (sorry, grief don’t work that way). Anticipatory Grief can, however, help us get ready for what life will be like without our dog. This is especially true if we are talking about a service dog or even an emotional support dog. In my case Juno was a dog I’d built a business with. She was my co-worker as much as a friend. Stewie is too.

 

“Think about what that animal has meant to you.” That’s Dr. Van Fleet’s advice. But, do it now while he’s still alive. “Don’t save it for later.” Maybe the greatest gift of Anticipatory Grief is this. Even while it’s casting us into the future of our dogs death, it’s also pulling us right back into the present moment. Because our dog is still with us. And, we are right here with him. Right now. “This is not a eulogy or an obituary. She is still alive. Under the desk, just inches away….” That’s the first line of a blog piece I wrote months before Juno died. I called it For Juno, but really it’s the best gift I ever gave myself. I was grieving a future that was yet to come. And I was so present with her, because ever moment mattered that much more. That’s the gift of this oddly intense early grief.

Risë VanFleet specializes in Animal Assisted Play Therapy®. Her dog Kirrie has been her partner in that work for the better part of 16 years. Kirrie is dying. It’s cancer. Months remain. Maybe weeks. They don’t know. In younger years Kirrie would sometimes disturb VanFleet while she was working, a simple ask for attention, a ball in her mouth and a plaintive look. “I’d say just a minute.” VanFleet tells the story like she’s told it before, like she loves telling it because Kirrie is her favorite subject. “I’d say it two or three times, putting her off, until I finally thought ‘is this the relationship I want to have?'” It was years ago but it feels like she’s asking again. Asking herself. Asking Kirrie. “Now I only say ‘just a minute once.’ Then I stop what I’m doing and spend a little time with her.”

Time. We measure it in years or months or weeks. But we tell it in moments. Moments with our dogs. This moment, the one we have now, the one we will hold on to when we can’t hold our dogs anymore. “We still have them.” Dr. VanFleet interrupts my wandering thoughts.  We do still have them. For now. Right now.

“He’s growing old.” Tim says again, one more time, more quietly. Stewie rests his head and curls his front legs in that melt-your-heart way he has about him. Tim quiets and the tears stop. I watch for a moment, these two, pressed one to the other, breathing in the same rhythm.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He and Tim live with two dogs, Stewie (13) and Stella (10). For more photos of Stella and Stewie visit www.facebook.com/michaelsdogs. To learn more about Dr. VanFleet’s work and see more photos of her dogs visit her professional facebook page.

 

 

Long Term Behavior Care

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Congratulations! You’ve completed a multi-visit training regimen with your dog trainer or dog behavior consultant. You’ve made excellent progress with your dog. The behavior you wanted to modify is under much better control. Maybe it’s even “fixed.” Kick back and relax. You’re done now. Right?

Um, no.

But, don’t worry. The hardest part is over. Behavior change is difficult. Maintaining your dog’s improved behavior is a bit easier. It still takes attention and work, though. Here’s how it looks. All this should be very familiar to you.

Manage your dog’s behavior. Always set your dog up to succeed. Be aware of his surroundings. Watch to make sure we aren’t loading up too many stressors for him to handle all at once. Give him quiet time in his crate or in a safe place behind a baby gate. Use his muzzle and leash as needed. Maintain distance from triggering events when necessary. Protect your dog from making a mistake.

Stick to the plan. Over the past weeks or months you’ve learned an excellent plan for helping your dog. You’ve taught him new ways to behave. You’ve taught him that he is safe in various situations that used to upset him. Stick to your plan. Your dog is relying on the predictable patterns you’ve set up. Varying from the routines you’ve taught him can be confusing. At worst, they can trip him up altogether and cause a regression. Stay consistent.

Reinforce good behavior.  This is always a good idea. Keep noticing all the times your dog does something right. Support his good choices. Praise him. Give him treats. Play with him. Do this for the rest of your lives together. Really, keep doing this forever.

Help your dog navigate change. Behavior is always changing. Our world is always changing, too. Over the course of your dog’s life there may be a lot of changes. You may move to a new home. You may meet a new soulmate. Your work schedule may change. You may meet new friends and have them over to the house. With each change, help your dog by reviewing and adjusting his training routines. Teach him the skills to navigate these new experiences. In many cases you’ll be reinforcing old skills. This is a good way to remind your dog that he’s safe and that you’re there to help.

Flag trouble early. If you see a recurrence of your dog’s old unwanted behavior patterns, call in help. Don’t wait for it to occur several times. Call your trainer or behavior consultant right away. It doesn’t mean your efforts failed. It doesn’t mean your dog is doomed. He’s simply communicating the best way he can, with is actions. Most of the time, with some help, you can get things back on track.

Here’s a quick review:

  • Manage behavior (you’ve been doing that all along)
  • Stick to your training plan.
  • Practice – Reinforce good behavior.
  • Help your dog navigate changes in his environment.
  • Flag trouble early. Call in help as soon as you notice any unwanted behavior.

You’ve come a long way already. You’ve learned so much and so has your dog. I suspect you two are closer to each other than ever now. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Better communication. More trust. Happier times. And a lifelong commitment to keep learning together.

 

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in dogs who are fearful and behave aggressively.

 

 

Dog Training Begins with our Eyes

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

What is your dog doing?

It’s funny. When I ask this people almost always answer the wrong question. He’s acting shy. He wants food. These are answers that come from our brain. These are answers about what we think our dog might be feeling or thinking. But the question is what is your dog doing? The answer to that question does not come from our brain. It comes from our eyes. Look. Pay attention. What is he doing?

We dog trainers (you as a trainer) are in the business of behavior. Behavior is what our dog is doing. Behavior is physical movement in time and space. Behavior is verbs. Watch. What is your dog doing?

Is he walking? Is he running? Is his chest moving? Is his tail wagging? Are his ears twitching? Is he licking his lips? Is he barking? What is happening now in this moment and in this place? These are questions for our eyes. What do we see?

I like to do this. Sit and relax in a chair or on the ground. Watch your dog. Observe without judgement. It’s more fun if he doesn’t know you are watching him. Track his movement. Take note. What is he doing? Don’t worry about good or bad. Let go of what your dog might be thinking or feeling. Notice the actions, your dog’s behavior. Try not to interrupt. Be the dispassionate observer. Jane Goodall. David Attenborough. Ethologist on safari.

It’s fascinating.

After a while go back to life-as-normal. Think of what you saw. What did your dog do? Are there some things you would like to see him do again?  Set aside right and wrong. Think of the things you’d like your dog to do more frequently. What would you ask to see again?

I suggest a short list. Maybe it’s just one action. Observe and reinforce. You can use food. Observe and reinforce. Turn it into a habit. Your dog looks at you. Reinforce. That’s one example. He sits when you walk in the door. Reinforce. That’s another example. Dogs do these things all the time. You’ve seen him do it.

Because you were watching and paying attention. That’s where training begins.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, Texas.