A group of dogs who were bred in Auckland’s Guide Dog Centre meet every week for a “play date” in one of our local parks. Most of them are Labradors, either black or yellow. They include puppies in training, working dogs both active and retired, and those who were withdrawn from the training programme and are living as family pets. I was introduced to this group through Ireland, a four-year-old black Lab in the “withdrawn” category, who is owned by a local family. I am his “dog-sharer” who walks him almost every afternoon, as described in a series of my recent blog posts.
Three of the long-term canine members of the group have died in recent months. Two of them were near the end of their natural lifespan, which for Labradors is 10-12 years. The third, who was a little younger, had developed heart failure. Today we gathered in a beach-side reserve to honour their memories. The weather pattern of sunshine and showers mirrored the bittersweet mood of the occasion. There were tears as each of the bereaved owners delivered a short eulogy to their dog, but there was pleasure in sharing food and drink with friends while watching the younger Labs chase each other round the grass and jump into the water. Like a human memorial service, it was a significant event.
When I lived in England I volunteered with the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) to provide telephone support to people who were distressed by the loss of a pet. Through that work, as well as through my personal experience, I learned that the death of a beloved companion animal can be no less devastating than a human bereavement. Those who do not love animals find it difficult to understand grief of such intensity, and may make hurtful remarks like “It was only a dog” or “Why don’t you just get a new one”. A lost pet cannot simply be replaced in the same way as a worn-out garment or an old car. Having said that, many owners will find comfort by bringing another animal into their homes when they feel ready to do so.