When you have a blog with a name like mine, you get a lot of hits from dog owners doing a Google search for “dog hates me” or similar terms.
Naturally, it’s only people who care about their dogs who worry about such things.
Last week, I got this email from a woman named Dawn:
I saw your blog and I was wondering if you could PLEASE help me. I just had to put my 16 year old dog down on Monday. I had Sheba since she was 6 months old and she was my best friend! She was having issues with arthritis in her back legs and from the way she was acting I knew that it was her time. I can not seem to make peace with the guilt I feel. I know in my heart that I did the best thing for her but the guilt is more about “did my dog know that I did this for her” and “was she mad at me”. When we were getting ready she seemed very unsettled and acted like she wanted to leave. The vet gave her a sedative that calmed her down but Sheba never really looked at me at the end. She did give me a quick kiss and then went to sleep. I am feeling so much guilt that my dog hates me because she didn’t look at me much. Do you think my dog knew that I loved her? Do you think that Sheba is in a better place now and is happy and not alone or scared?
Every time I read this letter I cry. For the difficulty of the decision Dawn had to make. For her loss. And for the fact Dawn could doubt for even a moment that Sheba knew she loved her.
Dogs may fear people who mistreat them and they may fear people who remind them of people who mistreat them. And the latest research shows they’re capable of a wider range of emotions than we previously thought, including anger and jealousy.
But they’re not capable of hate or revenge or anything that requires complex memory processes to sustain.
And if they were, why on earth would we imagine they could hate the people who loved them for an entire lifetime?
Yet almost all devoted dog owners are capable of the type of painful irrationality and guilt that Dawn experienced.
Even experts in canine cognition. The other day I saw my trainer, Crystal, apologize profusely to her dog, Winnie, when she accidentally touched Winnie’s leg in a tender place. Crystal is a scientist and an expert in reading dog body language. She knows on a rational level that Winnie might respond for a second to a painful stimulus but would never generalize that momentary flinch to fear or dislike of her. Yet there Crystal was, hugging Winnie and bombarding her with a stream of (to a dog) incomprehensible words.
Faced with the desire to shield those we love from pain, we can’t help ourselves.
But we can see others’ responses more clearly and give solace. I can (and did) assure Dawn that her instincts that “it was time” were rightfully honored. And that whatever she thought saw on Sheba’s face was, maybe, dislike of being at the vet’s office or of getting an injection. But it was not a fear of death (dogs are very Zen when it comes to living in the moment). And it was never, ever hatred of or anger at Dawn, who faithfully cared for her for 15 1/2 years.
As regular readers of this blog know, assurances about an afterlife are not my strong point. But Dr V. over at PawCurious has been writing a wonderful series of posts that pay tribute to Emmett, the dog she lost last year; this is the final one. She is a firm believer in “Kevin” — as her daughter called “heaven” — and all the good company that Emmett (and Sheba) will keep there.
Get out some more tissues before heading over there.