The death of a pet can prompt deep grief and regret for many of us who have shared lives with furry or feathered friends. Pets offer us unconditional love, acceptance, companionship, and comfort. Unfortunately, grief over the death of a pet is frequently disenfranchised and unrecognized by society. Because of this, we may find it challenging to find the resources and sources of comfort we need. Imagine, however, that you are coping with a unique kind of pet loss: the loss of a service dog. This loss can be much more complicated, given the special relationship between a service dog and its owner.
Service Animal Facts
Over 500,000 service animals are working in the United States today. Service animals, recognized by the ADA, are dogs or, in some rare cases, miniature horses. (In this post, we will be referring to all service animals as “dogs.”) To be classified as a service animal, the dog must assist its owner with physical tasks or be trained to detect and help during an upcoming medical event. The rights guaranteed to service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) means that these dogs can go anywhere people are allowed (both in public and private spaces). Another type of assistance animal, an emotional support animal (ESA), differs from a service dog because they provide overall emotional comfort rather than task-based assistance. Although a licensed mental health professional must prescribe ESAs, they are not afforded the same rights as service dogs under the ADA (although they are protected in some ways under the Fair Housing Act.)
For this post, we will focus on service dogs, as they typically accompany their owners virtually everywhere they go. Service animals help the blind navigate busy city streets, can pull a wheelchair to give their owner’s arms a rest, or help their owner retrieve items. Some service animals warn their owners of an impending seizure or psychotic episode. Service dogs that work with the Deaf can alert them to fire alarms or sirens. For an owner with a physical or psychiatric disability, a service animal can mean the difference between being able to fully live, work, and function in society or being restricted to a home or institutional environment. Additionally, a service dog can help facilitate social communication (who doesn't love a service dog?) and sometimes provide some protection against physical harm.
A Unique Relationship
Bonds with non-service animals can be just as strong as bonds with service dogs. Still, the relationship between owner and service dog exists on a different level due to the amount of time the owner and animal spend together. Bob Vogel, who wrote eloquently of the loss of his service dog Schatzie (both pictured in the photos in this post) in a blog post for New Mobility, told me that the strength of the bond is due to the constant relationship. "There is no human with you 24/7 like a service dog," says Bob. "A service dog becomes part of your being. It can feel like the two of you are joined spiritually due to the 24/7 nature of the relationship." Bob points out that a family dog shares a relationship with the family, but a service dog is 100% focused on its owner, and its owner is consistently focused on the dog.
Loss of a Service Dog
Because of the intensity of the relationship, the loss of a service animal has the potential to cut more deeply than the loss of a non-working pet. In addition to grieving, a service dog owner must face the prospect of finding and becoming bonded with another dog. Each service dog is different, and each relationship will be different. Even once a new service dog comes into the home, the owner may still be missing and mourning their dog who has died. Bob told me, “I learned this the hard way when Killy, the German Shepherd Service dog that replaced Schatzie (about five months after her passing), entered my life. At first, I expected the same relationship and level of communication that I had with Schatzie, not thinking that we had been together almost ten years. This put extra pressure on both me and Killy—who certainly sensed this pressure. In time I realized this and focused on easing up a bit on my expectations-- when I did this, both Killy and I were able to hit our stride and became a much stronger working team.” Processing one’s feelings of loss must therefore co-exist with the work of forming a new relationship with another service dog.
How can we help those who have lost a service dog? I asked Bob what he wished "the rest of us" could understand about saying goodbye to a service dog. "Your dog is everything to you, and you are everything to that dog," he said. Therefore, recognizing the unique relationship is a significant first step to offering support. Don't be afraid to ask questions about the impact of the loss and how the owner will be moving forward in terms of finding and training a new dog if they will be doing so. Finally, offering the owner opportunities to share remembrances of their service dog and acknowledging their special, unique bond will also be meaningful. Bob says of Schatzie, “I love recalling her. I have wonderful memories." Celebrating their bond confirms the relationship's value, validates the loss's depth and can be helpful as the owner contemplates moving forward with a new dog. In addition, by recognizing and celebrating the deep connection between service dogs and their owners, we can help to normalize all pet grief as we continue to raise awareness of the importance of these relationships.