The unique grief of losing a four-legged best friend

Andrea and Dewey.

Andrea and Dewey.

His life with us began and ended on the backseat of the car. It takes exactly four-and-a-half minutes to get the vet, or the exact length of You're a Big Girl Now by Bob Dylan. I know because we'd made that trip a lot lately. But this time, it was early morning rush hour, and we were halfway into the next song from Blood on the Tracks. Dewey, our old English sheepdog was out of sorts again, his breathing heavy, he wouldn't sit down. Then it happened. I can't talk about it, still, without welling up.

I'd never considered myself a "dog person", I was always more susceptible to the playing-hard-to-get charms of cats. But one day, when I was picking my husband up from a friend's house, an old English sheepdog ran down the footpath and jumped into the backseat of the car. This dog's eagerness for us to get going wherever it was we might be heading won me over, a human in a fur suit. I immediately began my quest to contact breeders Australia-wide.

When we picked Dewey up from the breeder as a six-week-old pup we didn't have a clue what we were in for. Daily rituals for 13 years, one month and six days revolved solely around him: the 5am yip for breakfast; the walks along the river with punctured soccer ball in snout; the smothering upon entering the front door; and late at night, the call to get on the bed to retire for the night butted up against us.

Holidays were always organised with him in the lead role. Dog-friendly beach shacks with names like Thistle do, or The Last Resort, were hired, interstate flights, where he'd appear from the cargo hold eager to explore a new city, were booked. He gave us an inexhaustible supply of attention and adoration. Sure, he couldn't speak, but we were happy to fill in the blanks of what we thought might be on his mind. Everyone's dog is special. To us, he was "the one".


We became sheepdog obsessed, we'd watch The Shaggy D.A. with enthusiasm and, on one overseas trip we missed him so much we tracked down a dog show featuring rescued old English sheepdogs on parade. I even latch-hooked a rug in the shape of a sheepdog face, without irony.

When it happened we were stuck in traffic 200 metres from the vet. My husband opened the car door and cradled his floppy body, running towards reception. I trailed behind, leaving the car doors splayed open, parked in a thoroughfare. Commuters looked on with curiosity.

As he lay there in my husband's arms in the back room of the animal hospital, the vet on duty handed me a laminated card on pet cremation. There were pictures of urns, wooden boxes, silk pouches. Ten minutes before, Dewey was walking out our front door towards the car on his lead, looking back at me, as always, to check I was coming too, rounding us up. And now I was tossing up between a handmade scatter box with italicised name inscription and a silver paw pendant to hold his ashes. I chose both.

We moved him onto a dogbed on the floor. The vet closed the door behind her. Lying there on his side, he looked peaceful, his skin still warm. I took one last sniff of his fur, we both stroked him, our boy Dewey. We told him we loved him and walked out.

At seven years of age, a large dog is considered "geriatric", it was a given that the day would come sooner or later, so why do I feel so sad? A 1994 study found that, with few exceptions, the grief experience associated with the death of a companion animal is similar to that associated with the loss of a significant human. I have had close friends and elderly family members who have passed away but the difference was, I realise, they were separate from the ongoing daily routine of home life.

In her book The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion wrote that, “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.”

Now, late at night, when the house is at its quietest, I might trawl the internet and read sorry tales of pet loss and find myself weeping over footage of actor Jimmy Stewart on a talkshow in 1981 reading a homespun ode to his departed dog, Beau. Mostly though, I prefer to be out of the house, where there are no cues, where I can't take a fleeting look outside for him by his dinner bowl, or think I hear his nails clip across the floorboards towards me.

Well-meaning friends are beginning to ask, “When will you get another one?”

Dr Mille Cordaro recently wrote about what's known as disenfranchised grief. Because a pet is not a human being, the grief felt when a pet dies is not always validated as legitimate and can inhibit people from mourning fully.

One day I'll be ready to look into adopting a dog, I've been on an alert for rescued old English sheepdogs for years. But not yet. His lead hangs where it always was, and the box of ashes sit there, ready to be taken down to his favourite beach on the south coast right in front of The Last Resort.