Coping with Pet Loss as a Therapy Dog Handler

by | June 9, 2023 | Blog

Learn how to cope with the loss of your Therapy Dog.

Remembering Our Lost Companions

This year, we’ve said farewell to some extraordinary Therapy Dogs in our community. Each one of them left pawprints on our hearts and we will forever remember the unique and loving impact they had:

  • Judy from Episode 71 mourned the loss of Ricochet
  • Taylor from Episode 54 navigated the loss of Rex
  • Monica from Episode 45 grappled with the passing of Doc
  • Tara from Episode 58 bid goodbye to Juno
  • Jared, Jordan, and Devin from Episode 35 said farewell to Legend

And while he wasn’t a guest on the podcast, I also want to acknowledge the recent loss of Bark-André, a hockey-loving Therapy Dog in Las Vegas whose brother Deke continues his work.

The Profound Impact of Losing a Therapy Dog

Losing a Therapy Dog is an inevitable and deeply painful part of our work. We form extraordinary bonds with these animals, characterized by our shared purpose, high levels of trust, deep emotional connections, shared experiences, and a significant impact on our identities. So, when we say goodbye, we’re not just mourning a pet; we’re bidding farewell to a partner, a confidante, and an integral part of ourselves. It’s a painful experience, but it’s also a testament to the depth of our unique bond.

One resource that can support us during this challenging time is “Saying Goodbye to the Pet You Love” by Lori Greene. This book provides practical tools and validation for our grief process, including coping strategies for guilt and trauma related to a pet’s death.

(I’ve given this book to many of my friends who have said goodbye to a pet and they’ve found it to be helpful.)

Assisting Our Clients Through Their Grief

As handlers, we have a dual role when our Therapy Dogs pass away. We not only deal with our grief but also support our clients through theirs. We can help our clients by:

  • initiating open conversations,
  • memorializing our dog,
  • focusing on positive memories, providing resources, and
  • offering continued support.

Always remember, grief is a personal journey, and everyone processes it in their own time and way. Being there for your clients in a supportive and understanding way is one of the most important things you can do.

For younger clients or those who find solace in stories, “The Invisible Leash” by Patrice Karst is a comforting read. This heartwarming story presents the concept of an “invisible leash” connecting our hearts with our lost pets, offering a comforting perspective on grief and the enduring love between us and our pets.

Prioritizing Self-Care in Grief Work

Self-care is also crucial for us as handlers. We should allow ourselves to:

  • express our emotions,
  • join support groups,
  • seek professional help,
  • engage in self-care activities, and
  • memorialize our dogs in ways that resonate with us.

Always remember, it’s okay to take your time. Every grief journey is different, and it’s important to find the self-care strategies that work best for you.

One such strategy could be following Dr. Colleen Dell’s example from Episode 53 of Therapy Dog Talk, who found solace in writing a memorial for her Therapy Dog Anna-Belle. This personalized act of remembering and honoring her companion provided her with comfort and a sense of closure.

Remembering and Honoring Our Pets Together

We can also come together to remember and honor our Therapy Dogs. World Pet Memorial Day, which is celebrated on the second Sunday in June, and Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, which falls on August 28th, are special days that are set aside just for this.

These days are all about sharing stories, tears, and smiles as we remember our Therapy Dogs. You could observe these days by lighting a candle for your dog, sharing photos or stories on social media, or even gathering with others who knew your Therapy Dog for a small remembrance ceremony.

By joining in on these days, we can comfort each other and pay tribute to the incredible lives of our Therapy Dogs. It’s a shared moment of healing that reminds us we’re not alone in our grief.

Additional Resources for Coping with Pet Loss

There are many resources for pet loss, here are a few that have been recommended in my training:

If you’re looking for broader grief support, I’d recommend reaching out to a therapist or checking out the What’s Your Grief community and accompanying book by Eleanor Haley, MA, and Litsa Williams, MS, LCSW-C.

Your Grief Matters

In conclusion, the loss of a Therapy Dog is a profound event, marked by deep sorrow and grief. However, with the right resources, support, and self-care, we can navigate this challenging journey. Ultimately, we can find ways to honor our Therapy Dogs’ memories and continue our meaningful work.

Disclosure: I earn commission for purchases made through links in this post. Sunny and Rylie say thank you in advance.

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