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How Pets Help Us

By Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., writer, speaker, and president, American Association of Suicidology

Because I have four dogs, most people believe that I have been a dog lover my entire life. My family knows differently. The joke often was, “Will Michelle ever pet Chaos (the family dog)?” It wasn’t until 2003 when a series of events led me to my first dog. And my dissertation. After coaching high school boys track in the afternoon, I’d come home to Chaco who wanted to play with his stuffed hedgehog in the backyard with me. It was during that time when I put together the idea that somehow dogs must help people cope with grief after a loved one has died.

There are several reasons why dogs (although this could be said of any pet) are important after the death of a loved one: the dog might be the last connection to the deceased person and loss is inevitable in all our lives. The dog might be the very reason that the person grieving stays connected to life because the dog needs to be fed, walked, and usually likes some sort of physical attention. Dogs provide a focus for bereaved people.

There are many functions that pets provide to people even within the routine of daily life. However, many of these functions, as mentioned above, can be important to helping a grieving person. Dogs also provide comfort in a nonverbal way. In my study, more than several people mentioned the significance of having the dog there to listen to them, whether they told stories about the loved one who died or simply sat there with the dog and cried. For others, the antics of their dogs help alleviate their pangs of sadness when the dogs did things that made them laugh.

As suicide loss is often a stigmatized death, leaving some people afraid to reach to outside sources for help, the dog is particularly important in these situations. The dog might provide the only relief during grief for the person. And when a dog expects to be walked, that often means the person will be exposed to social situations (since many dogs have “friends” they like greet on their walks) forcing the grieving human to communicate with others. While this might not be what the person wanted to do, often she realizes after the conversation has ended that she feels better. Without the dog, this communication probably wouldn’t have happened. For others, simply having the dog in the house is enough comfort, knowing that he isn’t alone without the deceased loved one’s physical presence.

Many variables that we thought might be relevant turned out not to be: size/weight of dog, length of fur, breed, type of death, length of time since the death. However, the most important conclusion of the study suggested that it didn’t matter how much social support the participants felt they had in their lives, they believed their dogs provided something unique that humans couldn’t give them.

Further Reading

Ginger’s Gift: Hope and Healing through Dog Companionship by Michelle Linn-Gust (Chellehead Works, 2007)

Michelle Linn-Gust’s Dissertation Study: http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink?Ver=1&Exp=07-21-2015&FMT=7&DID=1606882881&RQT=309&attempt=1&cfc=1

Comments

07/19/2013 at 5:26 PM
Liam Thacker
I love my dog, after my brother took his life I tried to hold the family together, trying to make sure no one else falls apart and try to get back to normal. In doing this I neglected my own feelings and such, but my dog was there a few months later when I was feeling low because I'd bottled it all away. He didn't care that I was angry at everything, he just wanted a walk and to jump into my lap. He's my best buddy, and the last real connection I have to Richard.
02/27/2013 at 9:44 AM
Pamela Snyder
Our dogs were black labs, Czina died 2 months before my son took his life, and then Czar died 2 weeks later. Dogs were both 15 yers old, son was 19.5. We grive with our other animals, horse, 2 beef cows and 3 goats. We have to get up every morning to take care of them, I think that helps alot.
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