A canine memorial service

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 They include puppies in training, working dogs both active and retired, and those who were withdrawn from the training programme and are living as family pets. I was introduced to this group through Ireland, a four-year-old black Lab in the “withdrawn” category, who is owned by a local family.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.

The healing power of animals

It’s early summer here in New Zealand, and the kitten season is in full swing. The Auckland SPCA, where I work as a volunteer, is in dire need of both foster homes and ‘forever’ homes for the hundreds of beautiful cats and kittens recently brought into the Animal Village.

My own three cats, and the dog which I walk every week, were all ‘rescue’ cases of one kind or another who had a bad start in life but have flourished since receiving proper care. Like all the companion animals I have known over the years, each one has a uniquely loveable personality. 

This is the second of two posts which include short extracts from my book Persons not Diseases. The first one was called The healing power of music, in which I pointed out that not everyone likes, or can appreciate, music. I know that the same is true with regard to animals, and there can be a dark side to human-animal relationships which causes suffering on both sides. But I do believe that the positive qualities of animals far outweigh any negative ones and that, besides all the joy they can bring, they have remarkable healing powers. 

Here is the book extract:

“Many studies have confirmed the physical and mental health benefits of owning a pet, and the value of animal-assisted therapies such as riding for the disabled and having visiting dogs in hospices and care homes. Some of the benefits are mediated through increased exercise, but others are a direct result of the human-animal bond, which usually represents a form of pure unconditional love free from the complications which so often beset human relationships. Positive interaction with a dog, for example, leads to increased secretion of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, which has cardioprotective effects. Dog ownership is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, and with a greatly improved prognosis for men who have had a heart attack already, although this may partly reflect the fact that men who choose to keep a dog are fitter to start off with.

“The other side to this is that the death of a pet can be followed by a grief reaction similar to that which follows human bereavement, and in a few cases this can be just as severe, with adverse consequences for mental and physical health.”

To end this post on a happier note: if you are interested in both music and animals you may enjoy the website of Nora the piano cat.