Don’t worry: Frankie is fine.  Yes, the pet sitter from hell got me nervous about his insulin intake, and Frankie was a bit subdued for a few days after I returned from my trip to Portland, but now he’s back to his stroppy terrier self.

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No, the reason I started thinking about pet afterlife is that I did an interview about Am I Boring My Dog for a terrific radio show called 2BoomerBabes (I’ll let you know when my segment is going to run). One of the Babes asked me to describe the Rainbow Bridge, which I’d alluded to in my book, adding, “Please tell us that all pets go there.”

That second request was a tough call, what with my lack of omniscience and all. But I felt comfortable answering the first part of the question.

The legend of the Rainbow Bridge, which has become a catchall term for pet heaven, is of disputed origin. Similar stories occur in Norse and Chumash Indian lore, but the recent popularized version derives from a prose poem published by both Paul C. Dahm and William Britton under the name “The Legend of the Rainbow Bridge” (here’s Britton’s version).

According to the story, every cherished pet that dies goes to live in a verdant meadow below the multicolored span, restored to youth and health, eating delicious food, and cavorting happily with other pets. The only thing missing from the picture is the beloved human companion: you. When you arrive, there is great celebration and then you cross over together to the other side.

I confess that I cry like a baby whenever I read this story. It’s only after I blow my nose that I start nitpicking the details — as I do with all strict delineations of the hereafter.

Meadows are all well and good, I think, but shouldn’t spilled garbage, a dog favorite through the ages, be involved, too? And pigs’ ears? If so, would pet pigs get a separate area to wait for their ascent to hog heaven, one where dogs won’t covet their hearing organs? And what about the deceased humans in this equation? In life, my mother feared all creatures great and small. Did she shed her animal anxieties when she left her body — or will I be forced to choose between hanging out with her or Frankie? (Don’t ask.)

More important: What about dogs who don’t have loving owners to help them cross over? They deserve happiness, too — even more so than those who had it on earth.

I didn’t mention any of this to my interviewers, but the question made me think about the afterlife for unloved animals. If I were in charge, all dogs who die in puppy mills or shelters or on the streets would get an express ride to the other side, having a fine old time while waiting for the person who mistreated or abandoned them to die. Said offender would then be transformed into a slab of bacon and spend eternity being gnawed on by the dog(s) he or she wronged. What can I say? I grew up with a vengeful deity– and with cravings for forbidden pork products.

I’m not asking for theological disquisitions here but I’m curious to know: If you were designing it, what type of afterlife would you create for pets?

25 thoughts on “The Rainbow Bridge: What’s in it for shelter dogs?”

  1. As an animal communicator & medium, I get to see the lives of the dogs I work with after they die. Many dogs come thru for people that have been passed for years. They show me green grass, chasing rabbits,running water- it is the same for people as for animals. What I am shown of the afterlife is that animals have the same choice as people, they chose the scene they enjoy the best. I do not believe or have experienced them going to Some “rainbow bridge” and waiting for their humans. That is sheer speculation, and dangerous- because dogs will do what their people ask of them, and personally I do not enjoy seeing dogs in a “spiritual purgatory”.
    Dogs can also reincarnate and come back to their people again and again- I had a client yesterday that her dog came back to her in a new puppy. Love returns to love, again & again.

  2. This is interesting. When I was a very small child, maybe 4, I always left food on my plate for the invisible dog friends around me. I wonder where I came up with that!

  3. The Rainbow Bridge thing doesn’t resonate for me. Creeped me out, that idea of making them wait til I showed up. I just think my dogs and cats went to see their friends and my family and are happily hanging out on whatever other side there is, in whatever setting they fancy, waiting to see if they feel like coming back or will just enjoy themselves to the fullest til I get there! And nobody says “no!”

    For our homeless and sheltered animals, they should get the high speed rail ride straight through to the other side, and meet up with old friends animal and human; have guides who help them enjoy the afterlife and experience all the best of what they missed out on. Especially love.

    While I would love to say I don’t believe in vengence, that would not be true with regard to anyone who deliberately harms animals, so get ’em Yahweh! ;-D

    1. In truth, I believe that when we — and our pets — are gone, we’re gone. Which is why the way we behave while we’re here is so important. But when it comes to my fantasies…

      But you’re absolutely right. The homeless pets would need to get to the other side immediately, then take their revenge when their tormentors cross over. I’m going to change my fantasy accordingly!

  4. My idea of the best afterlife for pets is that no afterlife is needed. It’s not needed because their lives here were so full of joy and good things, there is nothing left unsaid or undone.
    As an atheist I don’t believe in an afterlife for any of us. But this keeps me mindful of being a better caretaker in the here and now. For those animals that die because of our neglect and greed, I can only hope that people will continue to work to make sure that those who come after them have a better life.

    1. I’m with you, Kevin. I almost named this post “Where do the pets of atheists go when they die?” But that would have been a very short — or very blank — post if you take it literally ;-). And I think it’s fun to speculate about the afterlives we would design if we believed in afterlives.

  5. I never believed in a heaven (or a hell for that matter) until I got a dog. I wanted to believe that my dog and all his pals went someplace special.

    For myself or my parents or Farrah Fawcett or Karl Malden, I don’t care. We’ll find our way wherever it is. I don’t believe in life after death or reincarnation for people.

    But I like to believe, and so I do, that dogs (cats, horses) are in a better place.

    I don’t really believe that Painter is waiting for me to cross the Rainbow Bridge. He lives on in my heart and sometimes I talk about him and think about him in the present tense.

    1. Animals are innocents; we may judge them to behave badly by projecting our own codes of conduct upon them, but they are only doing what comes naturally. I think that’s why we often wish more for them than we wish for ourselves and for other humans.

  6. First of all, I never heard of the Rainbow Bridge – except for the one joining the US and Canada. Second, too much focus on the physical and not the metaphysical. I like to think all animal souls go to heaven and rejoin a much larger force … until they decide to come to earth again in the form of an animal and bless us with their potential. Seriously.

    1. You should google Rainbow Bridge — there’s an entire pet death industry based on the concept, including urns, grief counseling, you name it. I say whatever gives you comfort is what you should believe. Although I tend to believe that gone is gone, I had too many things happen after the death of my mother to bet hard money on it.

  7. I happen to believe that life never ends, whether its for an animal or a person. When our beloved Sammy died last night, I had a dream where I was holding him in my arms and it really felt like he was there (my arms were still in an arc when I awakened). My kids and my husband saw him in their dreams, too. He knew how sad we all were and wanted to comfort us before he went on with his new life.

    1. Susan, welcome to my blog, and I’m so sorry it had to be to report such a sad event. I would wager that everyone who comes here would agree that the loss of a beloved pet is the same as a loss of any other family member. I’m glad that you and your family got comfort from Sammy, even after he departed. That’s the thing about dogs — they always seem to know how to cheer you up!

  8. I am (relatively) retired from dog rescue, but I will admit to a fondness for the Rainbow Bridge variation in which all the waiting dogs stop playing, and line up along the path to the bridge to recognize and cheer on a newly arrived person. Of course she/he is a rescuer.
    The Lovely Bones has a great story-line about the dogs in the narrator’s Heaven, who all gather to dance and play at dusk every night.
    As far as where dogs without a loving person go, it wouldn’t be Heaven if I couldn’t smuggle in at least a few extra pooches!

  9. Pingback: Doggy Bytes of the Week – Ending 03.13.2010
  10. Every animal on earth has come from this planet, we all are one in atoms, in life and death , animals ALL have souls…..we have all come from the one source of cosmic energy……..who ever belives or not… happens…..I miss a cat, that was not mine, the cat died, a long while back and its owner was useless and it died in the snow, its name was nibbs, i was stupid and didnt take it in..I never saw nibbs again, he wanted in..but this stupid woman had told me not to take her cat in again, it was always out in between that she had got another one..dear sweet lovely boy, nibbs bless you, I pray for nibbs and the fact that nibbs who was beautiful, and old and needed love..i was not there for him…because of this stupid woman the owner, and i was young at the time….time will heal? No …..I want nibbs to heal, be made over again….he was the most lovely of cats!all of the suffering in this world be it human or animal, there is rest…and light….at the end I know this website is for dogs, and dogs can be the most wonderful of all friends and i lost one at 6 months old…. he had a bad heart, memory of love gos on all of you who lose a friend, that friends memory of your love gos on….and i pray for the others who find the love of the cosmic friends on the other side, who love and give love to ones who didnt find find love on earth..we meet up again in the other worlds have no fear about that…its a joy!To those of you who have lost , you will find again. OM tAT SAT.

  11. We don’t have to design any kind of heaven for our animals. If there is anything going on in the ‘time’ after death, the animals can figure it out for themselves. As you & I will do one day.
    I do believe in planning for the ‘passing’ time, so I have a “Croaking Folder” where I stash ideas/plans for what I want done with my body, and the legal docs to smooth the path for whoever gets that job. It also includes a few passwords and a link to my obit (in progress), so that my whomever can let blog friends know why I’ve ‘disappeared’.
    Makes me smile, actually.
    We have buried our animals on our own property, and marked the graves with natural rocks and planted something on top. I spend no time mourning them there.

    Color me weird; I like going toward that passing – mine or spouse or pets – as consciously as possible & with (hopefully) nothing left unsaid, no love left unexpressed.

    The grief and the ‘missing them’ eases over time and I take joy in our histories together, and comfort in knowing that whatever/wherever we are all taking the paths in front of us – it’s natural and appropriate. And one day, I’ll KNOW. That gets more exciting for me as I age… cool for me; weird for some. 🙂 Don’t care what they think.

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