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Episode 315 - For the Love of Leon

“Dogs move on from trauma and mourning a lot more quickly than humans do. It’s when we hold onto the emotional energy of loss that we can project it to our dogs. Our grieving can make our dogs uncertain, anxious, and protective — a formula for aggression.”


Q&A with Cesar

I’ve seen my dogs act depressed and keep looking for pack members who have passed away, so I know they can grieve. Why do you say that dogs are not traumatized by experiences of loss?

Dogs can be traumatized by loss, but it’s very immediate. Since they live in the moment, they don’t hang onto grief and mourning the same way that humans do. This is why dogs can be so adaptable in losing a human owner, or after surviving through the shelter experience and being adopted. Provided that they wind up with a good Pack Leader with calm, assertive energy who fulfills their needs, they will bond quickly to that new pack and not brood over the old one or grieve a lost master or pack mate.
Dogs are traumatized when humans won’t let go of the past and live in a state of mourning. Long after the dog has accepted the absence of their human or another dog, the people in the pack haven’t let go — thinking about a person who’s been dead for more than a year can make them cry, or hearing a phrase or seeing a picture can send them into a state of mourning all over again.
The dog doesn’t understand that a human is sad about something that happened months or even years ago. The dog only knows what energy is being projected right now, so that’s what he reacts to. Since humans love to project, they can easily interpret an uncertain dog’s behavior as grieving or trauma as well, and think that the dog is still in mourning.

In a case like Caitlin and Leon’s, is it wrong to transfer strong feelings for a deceased human to the dog, even if they’re ultimately positive feelings from a close friendship?

This depends a lot on how and why you’re transferring the feelings. If you try to make the dog a substitute for that friendship, or use the dog as a constant reminder of the human you’ve lost, then you’re going to be projecting negative energy into that connection. Imagine if you did the same thing to a human.
Say that your first spouse passed away and you eventually meet someone else and remarry. It’s a great relationship, but every time you’re together, you’re reminded by spouse number two of spouse number one, and you start crying. That could become really frustrating for your second spouse really quickly because the relationship you’re having isn’t the one that’s right here, right now.
If you’re using the dog to hold onto the lost relationship, then you’re going to wind up putting all of your feelings of sadness and grief into the dog, which will make her insecure and anxious. But if you use the dog as a way to honor the good times that were and to move forward, then you’ll both have a much more positive and fulfilling connection. Like I say in the episode, you need to let go of the pain, but not the memories.

I don’t like to think about it, but what’s the best way to plan for what happens to my dog if something happens to me first, so I can know that he’ll be taken care of?

While humans are used to outliving their dogs because of their shorter lifespans, it doesn’t always work out that way, whether through an accident, sudden illness, or other unexpected cause of the owner’s death. The best way to make sure your dog is taken care of afterwards is to plan for it now, and set up your will or trust to ensure that it happens.
Unfortunately, dogs are still considered property under the law, so you can’t just write a will that leaves all of your money and possessions to them. Legally, animals can’t inherit. And although Lisa’s mother Sue was lucky in having a friend like Caitlin who was ready and willing to adopt Leon, it’s not something people should rely on. I’ve heard far too many times about dogs dumped in shelters or euthanized after their owners died because no one in the family wanted to deal with them.
So while you’re still around, you need to find a friend or family member who is ready and able to take your dog in and care for them as much as you do if necessary. Once you have a human, make them the administrator for the trust you set up for the dog. This is money that will provide for the dog’s care for the rest of its life. It’s not absolutely necessary, and a good friend would take on a dog in this situation for nothing, but it’s a nice gesture and extra piece of mind.
One other thing you can do is create an “owner’s manual” for your dog. This would include regular information like the vet’s name, address, and number, and any past medical conditions or present allergies; your dog’s favorite food and treats; what your dog likes and what he’s afraid of; the dog’s rules, boundaries, and limitations; and anything else necessary for his care. You can even include a section of favorite stories about and photos of your dog — document his life and write about funny things he’s done, what he was like as a puppy, and so on. This will help your chosen caretaker make a better connection as well.
Once you’ve found your potential dog guardian, it’s also a nice idea to bring them more into the dog’s life if circumstances permit (and if they aren’t already a big part of it) Get together for a pack walk or trip to the park every now and then. This will help your dog get used to your designated adopter and vice versa. It will also give you a good idea of whether you’ve chosen the right person or may have to reconsider. If you’ve chosen the right person and they live close to you, you’ve also probably found yourself a regular dog-sitter!
And, of course, if you’re already part of a family pack, none of this is necessary assuming that your family will continue to take care of the dog if anything happens to you. The only preparation in that case is to make sure that each family member can be the best Pack Leader for your dog that they can be so that a traumatic event does not lead to an uncertain, anxious, and aggressive problem dog for your survivors.

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