Monday, 14 July 2008

Dogs, too, can grieve.

How do dogs feel when their owner dies? asks Ori Golan.

A number of weeks ago my brother, Gil, was rushed to hospital with two collapsed lungs. As he was hovering between life and death in the intensive care unit, my mother placed a small cuddly dog in his hand for ‘when he wakes up’. He never did. Gil died at the untimely age of 36.
My brother was a passionate dog lover and an avid supporter of animal charities. Animals, he used to say, should not have to bear the brunt of human politics and cruelty. They cannot fight for their rights and it is we who have to defend them. A few years ago, after moving into his new home, he set out to adopt a dog. This was a dream that was long in the making and one which he was determined to realise. He had no interest in pedigree dogs and saw in this a form of snobbery. So it was the natural choice for him to look for a dog in a dog pound.

When he arrived at the kennels he first encountered on Jamoka, a lively Labrador retriever with a shining brown coat and a furiously wagging bushy tail. The bond was immediate: she adopted Gil there and then. In the opposite kennel, Emma, a shaggy black cross-breed, looked on with sad saturnine eyes, her tail curled between her hind feet. ‘She looked so offended’, he later recalled, ‘there was no way I could just leave her there’.
He left the pound with two dogs who, in return for this act of kindness, became his life-long canine companions, devoted and loyal to him in ways that only abandoned dogs know how. Although different in every imaginable way, the two dogs became inseparable friends. Jamoka would forever be ‘retrieving’ things for him (socks, newspapers, squeaky toys) while Emma would play a more protective role. Once, after patting Gil on the back, his guest found himself trying to prize his ankle from Emma’s jaws.

Gil’s dogs miss him terribly. After the funeral, I returned to his home to take the dogs for a walk. Neither responded to my call and as I approached Emma, she exposed her teeth and growled. Jamoka lay there, sad and dejected. I could almost see tears in her eyes. For three days she refused to eat and soon she became a shadow of herself. Her coat has lost its shine and the sparkle has never returned to her eyes. The transition has been very hard. Both dogs have changed beyond recognition; their gait now slow, their eyes listless. Their voracious appetite gone, they eat with apathy and move lethargically from one spot to another. Jamoka is often incontinent and Emma still whimpers and stands guard by the door, waiting for Gil to return. It is truly heartbreaking.

Gil will be missed by many people who fell captive to his wit, charm and sensitivity. But he will also be sorely missed by his two inconsolable dogs who have shown in all but words that dogs, too, can grieve.

It is common for dog owners to mourn over the loss of their dogs; it is a natural reaction and something which most animal lovers can relate to. But I now know that dogs can mourn in equal measure over the loss of their human companions. I should like to be the mouthpiece for Jamoka and Emma; the voice which expresses their grief over Gil’s tragic death. I should like to speak the words that they cannot; articulate their sense of loss; and weep their tears in writing. Because I am convinced that, just as humans have a soul, so do dogs and, just as humans weep over the loss of loved ones, Emma and Jamoka’s souls are tormented over the disappearance of their owner who they adored. My heart goes out to you Jamoka and Emma, for your irreplaceable loss; for the comfort and consolation that I cannot offer you.

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