This article by Alvin Chang, published on Vox.com, is a truly magnificent bit of research and writing. It’s reproduced here to help our readers who have ever wondered about this, or are currently struggling with the loss of a pet.
I picked the dog I wanted in the same way I picked a favorite Pokémon. I looked in the classified section next to the automotive ads and found a breed named “Peekapoo,” which was close enough to “Pikachu.”
No one ever tells you that begging for a dog as an 11-year-old could affect you deeply as an adult. They just make you promise to clean up after the animal.
But when Rainbow was 10, my parents moved abroad, and she came to live with me in New York. At first, she couldn’t figure out how to pee on concrete; she cried a lot, so I cried a lot. Eventually we learned how to communicate, even as she lost her vision, her hearing, her continence.
Last week, I had to put her down.
No one ever tells you that when your dog is dying, it feels like a human is dying. At first, I tried to suppress the grief. But so many other dog owners said things like, “It felt like a family member had died.” As a data person, all I could see was a growing sample size.
So instead of mourning — or maybe this was my mourning — I sat next to Rainbow during her final days, and I read research papers and books about humans’ relationship with dogs.
As it turns out, we really are two species with an odd, symbiotic relationship.
It turns out there’s a reason it feels like a human has died.
his is how dogs helped us become who we are today
The relationship began as early as 33,000 years ago. Scholars think we probably hunted together and lingered around each other, because wolves were a lot like humans — both social creatures, willing to work together to accomplish tasks.
Some go as far as to say that this alliance is what helped humans survive, while the Neanderthals didn’t.
When humans migrated to Europe, we had to compete with large carnivores and Neanderthals for big game, like elk and bison. Some scholars believe that humans came out on top because we partnered with wolves. The wolves chased the large animals until they were tired out, and since it was dangerous for them to get too close to a larger animal, humans used sharp weapons go in for the final kill.
Then they split the meat.
This is how dogs went from partner to worker to friend
About 320 years ago, an English farmer had a dog named Quon. He was probably a working dog, like most dogs of that time. So when the animal outlived his usefulness, the farmer wrote in his journal, “My dog Quon was killed and baked for his grease, of which he yielded 11lb.”
It’s gruesome, but it illustrates just how new the idea of a pet is. Only 500 years ago did we started using the word “pet” to describe a dependent, nonworking animal, and even then it wasn’t used to describe dogs. Rather, it described orphan lambs that had to be raised by hand.
But the Western world started warming to the idea of companion animals. Keith Thomas, in his influential book Man and the Natural World, argues that we eventually let animals into our homes, we gave them names, and we never, ever ate them.
It got to the point that about 200 years ago, the modern pet industry began to develop; there was an explosion of pet shops, pet supplies, pet food, and even children’s books about pets.
About 100 years ago, purebred dogs started becoming popular, and more vets began specializing in small species because they were no longer stigmatized for choosing to care for companion animals.
Now, in the present day, 60 percent of Americans own a pet.
This evolution may be tied to the way we started to think about defenseless humans, like children, the elderly, the chronically ill, and the poor. Historian Katherine Grier writes, “It’s connected to changing ideas about human nature, emotional life, individual responsibility, and our society’s obligations to all kinds of dependent others, including people.”
But with dogs, that relationship has clearly taken a deeper turn than, say, our relationship with the elderly neighbor down the street.
These were very recently working animals, but now half of all pet owners feel their pet is as much a part of the family as any other person in their household. A third let their pets sleep on the bed.
A few years ago, researchers asked dog owners about a hypothetical scenario: If there were a runaway bus speeding toward a person and your dog, which one would you save? About 40 percent said they would save their dog over a foreign tourist.
This is why dogs are like humans — or (sometimes) better!
In order to understand our current relationships with dogs, we have to understand our relationships with other humans.
It all goes back to this thing called “attachment theory,” which posits that humans have a biological tendency to form attachments for survival reasons. At first this is usually with mothers, but later it can be with friends and romantic partners.
Now scholars are seeing this type of attachment with pets, specifically dogs.
n 2000, researchers found that dogs offered more support than humans in three ways:
- Providing a reliable and lasting relationship
- Being a better receiver of care
- Being a better source of companionship
In 2008, researchers found that pets offer a unique type of relationship, cushioning the “uncertainty of more complex relationships with humans.”
And it’s the socially vulnerable who have a higher level of attachment to their pets — the never married, divorced, widowed, remarried, and those without kids. One study even shows dogs and cats often take the place of departed children.
And this is why we owe them more
A few years ago, researchers at Emory University taught dogs to go inside MRI machines and stay still. This let them figure out that humans and dogs have very similar structure and function in a part of the brain called the “caudate nucleus.” It’s the portion that helps us anticipate things we enjoy, like bacon and being with friends.
The researchers said this might suggest “dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.” It’s the line of research that helps us justify giving more legal and cultural protection to dogs and other animals.
There were several times my dog was treated well for a dog but poorly for a human. People keep telling me that I took good care of her — that she had a good life — but I think about the number of times I left her home alone for long periods of time. I know it was torturous for a social animal like her. Just because other people said it was okay didn’t make her crying any less devastating.
As I sat next to Rainbow, researching this piece, I started to feel an immense amount of guilt. When she developed cataracts and couldn’t see, I opted not to get them removed because she was already older and it was quite expensive. But she lived another four years.
When she no longer wanted to go outside, I set up a bunch of pee pads in my kitchen. There were many days I would come home from work to find her covered in her own excrement. And then I’d have to bathe her, and she would cry because she hated it.
But just when I thought, “This is it,” she would have several good days. She would curl up at my feet and insist on a massage.
Many times in the past few months, I Googled, “When do you know it’s time to put your dog down.” I did it in incognito mode, as if that somehow protected her from knowing what was coming. Eventually I started Googling, “What it’s like to put your dog down.” Then, after one especially bad day, I knew it was time.
I sat next to her, and I touched her skinny, frail body. I cried. But just like every other time my life crumbled at the edges, she was there — reliable, loving, humble, a friend.
The reason it felt like a human died is because, in so many ways, dogs are like us. They spend much of their life caring for us, and letting us care for them. Their life arc is our life arc, from suburb to city, from hardship to bliss. I didn’t know how to say goodbye. But in the moment, there was only one thing I actually wanted to say to Rainbow, my white dog: Thank you.
It’s hard to lose a pet, and while many people don’t understand why, I think this makes a compelling case for our grieving. Our pets are part of our lives, and that loss should be acknowledged.
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