There is a special bond shared by youth and their dogs in the 4-H dog project. These members spend years building a positive relationship with their dogs based on mutual trust, clear communication, and positive reinforcement. To these 4-H members, their dogs are more than a pet. They are a teammate and friend with whom they share many experiences including the highs of winning and the lows of defeat.
At some point, whether sooner or later, each 4-H member will say goodbye to their canine friend. This is never an easy thing to do as we care deeply for our dogs. Grieving is the way we deal with a significant loss and it is a normal sign of caring. Everyone experiences grief in their own way, but there are several stages in the grieving process. These stages included denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. People who have experienced a loss often move in and out of these stages over an extended period of time. The length of time will depend on the individual.
During this time of grieving, it is important for friends and family to support the individual who has experienced a loss. Sometimes, friends find it hard to know what to say. Here are some suggestions:
Things to say to someone who has lost a dog.
- “I’m sorry about your dog.”
- “I know how much you loved your dog.”
- “He/she was a great dog.”
- “Let’s go for a walk and you can tell me about your dog.”
- “Can I make a donation to a charity in honor of your dog?”
- “Can I do anything to help?”
You can also share a positive memory of their dog. (i.e. “I remember how he/she would greet every club member before each meeting.”)
Things to AVOID saying to someone who has lost a dog.
- “I know how you feel.” – This puts the focus on you, not the person grieving.
- “You’ll get a new dog.” – This devalues the relationship they shared with their dog.
- “He/she was pretty old anyway.” – Losing a pet hurts no matter when it happens.
- “At least you don’t have to take care of him/her everyday.” – This is a reminder that daily life has changed which can be hurtful.
DON’T talk about a dog you have lost. This is your friend’s time to grieve, not yours. Make sure you give them space to talk as much or as little as they want. Some people may want to tell you all about their dog while others would rather keep quiet. Either way, that is their choice and your role is to listen.
4-H dog club leaders can help prepare their members for this difficult and inevitable transition. The 4-H Dog Curriculum offers several activities that explore what club members can do/say to support one another. One suggestion is for clubs to talk with a veterinarian about how they help their patients deal with grief. Counselors can also be a great resource for understanding grief.
4-H clubs can support a fellow member experiencing a loss in many ways. Sending cards/letters to the member lets them know the club is thinking of them. Some clubs may create a photo collage, drawing, or collection of written memories to share with the grieving member. This allows each club member to contribute to a special gift. Some clubs may make a donation in honor of the dog to a local shelter. This is a good way to create new positive memories for the grieving member.
Whether the loss of a pet is expected or sudden, it is important for everyone to be familiar with the stages of grief, what to say to someone who is grieving, and how to be a supportive friend. Take time to think about what you would want/need from your friends. This way, you will know what to do and say the next time someone says goodbye to their canine friend.
By Kelly Dziak, 4-H Program Associate, Rutgers Cooperative Extension