DEAR DR. FOX: You asked about dogs knowing their owners have died. This is my story.
My husband had a bad stroke, and the determination was made to let him go. So, he went to hospice in a hospital near our home.
Our dog, Reppi, a poodle Havanese mix, was allowed to come to hospice with me each day. Reppi would lie at the bottom of the bed. When my husband -- who seemed to be in an unreachable place, mentally -- would put his hand out, the dog would come and lie either between his legs or at his side, and my husband would pet him. Eventually, Reppi would return to the foot of the bed and remain there.
Nurses and aides would come and go, but Reppi knew which ones were kind and tender and which ones weren’t. The kind ones were allowed to care for my husband -- anything from turning his position in bed, changing the IV fluids, changing his pajamas -- but with others, he would growl and sit up on guard the minute they opened the door. Then I would have to remove him from the room so the work could be done.
After 11 days of this, my husband stopped breathing. He was gone. The dog, after the last breath, got off the bed, went to the door and sat, waiting for me to take him home. He knew. Neither he nor I have been the same since, which has been three years minus one week.
The other night I decided to brush Reppi, which hadn’t been done since my husband had his stroke. It had been an evening routine: My husband would sit at a certain spot on the couch with a treat in his pocket, put a towel over his legs, and brush the dog. Reppi would jump off after being brushed, always in the same way, and wait impatiently for the treat. I decided to try the same thing: I put the towel over my legs, sitting in the same spot with the treat in same pocket, and held the brush. Without missing a beat, Reppi jumped on my lap, tolerated the brushing, jumped down and went to the same pocket, waiting for the treat to appear. This was three years later.
They know and remember. Be good to your dog; they are your best friend, always. -- L.A., Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
DEAR L.A.: Many thanks for your touching account of your good dog, Reppi, who was so attuned to your husband and to his caregivers’ levels of kindness.
Dogs can be good judges of human character and intentions, and can indeed help those in a semi-coma state reach out and connect. All hospices should allow companion animals to visit, as should hospitals -- especially for children -- because of the healing power of love that dogs, in particular, can provide.
Reppi’s demonstration of memory, remembering the ritual shared with your deceased husband, is instructive: Keeping up such bonding routines with companion animals, after the caregiver has died or gone away, may be beneficial in many ways. Nonhuman animals do grieve, as David Alderton has shown in his book “Animal Grief: How Animals Mourn.”
ANIMAL ABUSER AND SCHOOL KILLER
A statement from Stephanie Bell, senior director of cruelty casework at PETA, in response to reports that the suspected gunman in the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting previously used animals as target practice:
“It is no surprise to PETA that before he allegedly massacred 17 people at a school in Parkland, Florida, Nikolas Cruz is said to have talked about shooting small animals, including lizards, squirrels, frogs, and a neighbor’s chickens, and reportedly sent his dog to a neighbor’s house to attack the pigs there. The FBI has identified cruelty to animals as a warning sign of more violence to come, and many school shooters and serial killers have a history of abusing animals. While the issues of gun control and mental health rage on, one simple way to prevent future acts of violence is for local law-enforcement officials to pursue the strongest penalties possible in cruelty-to-animals cases -- for everyone’s sake -- and for those who hear about or witness animal abuse to report it.”
Regrettably, using animals “as target practice” is the norm across America. We need to identify and rectify those factors in society today that can create such nihilistic psychopathology, and address all epigenetic and cultural triggers of violence for the good of all.
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