Crossing The Rainbow Bridge: What to Do When Your Dog Dies

What to Do When Your Dog Dies
John Walton
Written by John Walton

I remember this famous quote as told by my veterinarian when one of my dogs died due to an illness.

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“Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.”

Losing a pet dog is one of the most sensitive topics and no dog enthusiast would enjoy talking about. It doesn’t matter if the cause of death is due to an illness, induced, or due to old age, it is still a topic that may trigger tugging of the heartstrings. Indeed, all dogs go to heaven. But what happens to the people they have left behind?

Rainbow bridge

How will they cope up to something that no one can actually prepare happening? How will they move on? How will their lives change after losing a fur baby? What is there to do when your dog dies? Some people consider making the process a bit easier by having everything happen at home. If this is something you’d like to consider, first read our article on euthanizing your dog at home.

The grieving process

Like any living thing to which a human has devoted time, effort, affection, and yes, even money, dogs are irreplaceable. Fur babies serve different purposes in every pet parent’s life, from a steadfast companion to a dependable guard dog. But ultimately, it is the little things that they do that make us happy. You will undoubtedly remember the moment when you first brought your puppy, its first birthday, its first achievement, its first walk in the park, and many other moments that bring a smile every time.

So how do you move on when you lose a beloved pet? The most important thing to remember is that it is okay to grieve. Some jaded or cynical people will tell you to just go and get another pet. While it is true, that it is a simple matter to go to a shelter of a reputable breeder to find your new fur baby, the aspect of moving on is not that simple. The normal grieving process will usually take months, especially after you have invested so much time and emotion into your lost pet.

You can, however, reminisce about the better parts of its life when you were still together instead of dwelling on the sadder parts of its existence. Losing your dog is something that you cannot undo, but you can make the best out of what you have left, and those are your precious memories.

A dog's last will & testament

Grief can be made more complicated depending on the role of the lost pet, given that a pet parent may not just be grieving the loss of a companion, but also of an indispensable part of his or her life. This is why it is very difficult for people who live alone with their pet to get over the pain of loss. They feel a sense of aloneness, isolation, and helplessness.

People who live along lack a solid support system that could help make the process of moving on easier. If you are in such a situation, always reach out to friends or family so that you won’t be relegated to feeling alone and desolate.

Grief can also be exacerbated by feelings of guilt. Especially in the case of a pet that died because of the lack of medical attention or the owner’s inability to provide medication or pay for a visit to the veterinarian. Even those who have used all available resources to save a pet may feel guilty of not being able to do enough. It is important to let go of such feelings and simply hold on to the belief that your pet is already in a better place–a place without hunger or pain.

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Grieving varies from person to person, and the length and intensity of the process depends on the situation in which the pet parent is in. Grieving is also a highly personal experience. Some people grieve in stages, whereas others grieve in cycles or a series of highs and lows. Even after several years, day-to-day experiences might still trigger memories from a sight, a favorite activity, a toy, or a specific date.

Grieving is something that cannot be forced to occur, something that others cannot do for you, and something that will not completely go away. It is normal to feel sad sometimes, and exhibiting sadness does not mean you are weak as a person. Humans are emotional by nature, whether in terms of feeling happiness or sadness.

Sad dog

Hiding or trying to ignore the feeling of sadness will not benefit you at all. This is something that should be expressed so that you can gradually begin healing and feeling better. It is important to face your grief and deal with it by expressing your feelings. That way, it will take less time to move on. You would feel healed rather than desolate. Not expressing your feeling will just cause the pain to linger and might lead to emotional outbursts.

What makes the grieving process for the loss of a pet difficult is that this experience is not widely appreciated and understood by all. “It’s just a dog!” I’m sure you’ve heard this at least once in your life. Not all individuals consider pets to be as valuable as you do. This is probably due to the fact that they have never experienced having a pet or they weren’t able to establish a deep and lasting connection stemming from the companionship that a pet can provide.

It is a losing battle to argue with the opinion of others regarding your grieving process. Accept the fact that the only person who will completely understand how you feel is yourself, and maybe your close friends and family members.

Help yourself

  • Reach out. If your primary support system—your friends and family—is not present to help you during this process, you may reach out to other people. There are numerous message boards and support groups that are available via social media. These groups will put you in touch with like-minded people—those who value their pets as much as you do.
    The people you get in touch with may have experienced the same loss and thus have the capacity to fully understand what you are going through. Having someone to talk to would definitely help you in your journey toward healing.
  • Ask for professional help, if needed. Grieving is something that is not to be taken lightly. Never ever think that what you are going through is shallow or will simply go away, especially if the process is taking a toll on your quality of life. Some people experience grieving at a deeper level than others, and if you find yourself unable to cope, you may want to seek professional help.
    A medical professional can evaluate your well-being and determine whether you are slipping toward depression. Depression here may be a looming reality because a pet is often a source of much joy, and losing that source of happiness may have significant negative effects on your emotional well-being.
  • Focus on the good side of the experience. If you can maintain your composure and simply look at the brighter side of the experience, it will help you cope with your loss easier. This may not be immediately possible, especially when the loss is too fresh. But over time, you may find it possible to finally recall all the good memories without breaking down in sobs. Creating an album of memories, a memento, or a framed picture will enable you to stay positive and make the loss a less melancholic event in your life.
  • Create a heritage. As you eventually heal, you can do something productive, such as planting a tree or creating a small memory box, photo album, or scrapbook in memory of your lost pet. These activities will enable you to remember your lost fur baby, but in a more worthwhile approach. Planting a tree yields a new life from a sad experience. As the tree grows, so will your experiences in life. This activity will make acceptance easier because another living thing somehow filled the empty space in your life.
  • Try your best to maintain a normal life. No matter how painful an experience may be, life only moves in one direction, and that is forward. However, bear in mind that when and how you take the first step is completely up to you. You should try to maintain a normal life, even if it will require you to move on with one less companion or a friend.
  • If you have other pets, do not neglect them. When a pet dies, we grieve. However, there is a tendency to overlook other pets that equally need our time and attention. Do not neglect them, as they cannot fend for themselves. Always keep this in mind to avoid problems in the future, such as you or your pets getting sick.

Consider getting a new dog

People have mixed feeling about getting a new dog after a pet dies. Some pet owner may feel as if they are betraying their lost pet by replacing it. One thing you should remember is that there is no need to think of getting a new pet as getting a replacement. You are not replacing your lost pet; rather, you would like to honor its memory by providing the same love and devotion to another puppy.

Similar to grieving, there is no prescribed length of time after which you can start considering the prospect of finding another pet. But if and when you decide to do so, one thing to remember is that you should never compare your new dog with the one you’ve lost. This will be very unfair to you and to your new pet.

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Even if you will get a dog of the same breed, your new pet will have unique traits and behaviors that will be different from those of your deceased pet. It may also be in need of training and may not be as eager to please as your lost pet. When frustrations arise, always remember that you now have a new life to care for, and this new pet is completely dependent on you for all its needs, both physical and emotional.

New puppy

You must realize that as a pet parent, there will always come a time that your dog will leave you. A dog’s lifespan can never equal that of a human, especially for the larger breeds. Death is something that we cannot control, but we can get the most out of life before death even occurs.

Smaller dogs generally live longer than their larger counterparts. A Shih Tzu can live up to 15 years on average, whereas a Great Dane lives for only about seven years. Longevity may play a role in the selection of your preferred breed, but it will still completely depend on your preference. Remember that these are the average lifespans, but these figures can be attained when a dog lives a healthy life. Illnesses can be prevented, but there are some occurrences in which extensive medication and aggressive medical management can only do so much.

When the time comes that you are ready to get a new dog, just keep in mind that time is precious and is something that should be enjoyed. Losing a pet may turn your heart cold and may get you to think, “A dog will die anyway, so why should I care this time?” Do not allow this mindset to come into your head because it will only lead to neglect and a stronger sense of guilt if you fail as a pet parent.

If properly cared for, your fur baby will thank you for the memorable years and happy life that it has with you. And if only dogs could speak, they will surely say how wonderful their lives have been because they had you as a pet parent.

As we grow older, we deal with many major life changes. These changes may include the loss of a friend, a family member, or a pet. However, these chapters should not define your life story. You should continue to find joy in living, because regardless of how bittersweet the losses we encounter are, the gains that we get from friendships and bonds are still enough to outweigh all the negatives. To fill the empty space that was left by your lost dog, try doing something worthwhile or taking care of something important. Move forward, and never stop caring. If you’d like to know if there’s more you can do to help cope with the loss of your pet, check out our article on coping with the decision to put your dog to sleep.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Michelle Ramas

    My dog died 2 days ago and i am so upset about it. Reading this article made me realize lifted me up and made me realize that lizzie (my dog) is in a better place now.

  • Charlotte Queens

    Losing my dog Jack was difficult and I still miss him everyday. As a dog owner, I learned to cope with the loss one day at a time. Everyone has to go through the grieving process, there’s no going around it. I know he’ll be waiting for me to cross one day, and that gives me a warm glow inside.

  • John Porter

    My dog, a Labrador Retriever, which had been with me for 11 years died last year. It’s very hard to lose a pet that you’ve had for that long. At first, I thought that I would not be able to cope up with his death and that I would never find another dog that would be as sweet and comforting as him.. for those suffering from the death of their pets, I also suggest getting a new dog.

  • I’m glad that the tears are gone now, Michelle. It is one of the most sensitive topics to be discussed, but it is something that we have to deal with sooner or later. All we can do is to enjoy the moment, and create good memories while our dogs are still with us.

  • Mike Navs

    I lost my best friend Buddy 7/8/16 I have a hole in my heart, I’m missing him so much. I had him since a puppy for 15 1/2 years Buddy is a Shepard// Sharpei mix & s very smart dog. Buddy I luv & Miss you ?????

  • Wyatt Robinson

    I’m sorry for your loss, Mike. Almost sixteen years of being with Buddy must have formed countless memories. Just remember that Buddy is watching over you and is in a better place now.

  • I’m sorry for your loss, Mike. Almost sixteen years of being with Buddy must have formed countless memories. Just remember that Buddy is watching over you and is in a better place now.

  • Ann Shea

    It took me a long time to get another dog after my Weimer of 12 years passed away. When the universe thought I was ready, a big lug of a Golden Retriever who needed a home rescued ME.

    One of the words of comfort I once heard is that whenever you a see a penny in the street, it means your dog is thinking of you. It’s a nice way to randomly remember your sunshine companion at odd moments throughout the years.

    • Thanks for sharing this experience, Ann. To be honest, this is one of the hardest issues to be discussed with pet parents. I have always reminded them to dwell on the good stuff to help them cope, and to never stop caring.

      • Ann Shea

        After I wrote this, a dear friend of mine had to put both of her aging American Eskimo pups down. They were getting on 14 years of age, and were litter mates. One had rapidly gone blind and the other had a severe urinary problem (with pain and blood in urine). My friend tried to cope with doggy diapers for the sister of the two with the urinary problem. She finally couldn’t anymore. So when she put that one down, she made the brave choice to have her sister go at the same time. I hear over and over again that more people regret waiting too long than regret allowing their pets to be put down possibly too early. Everyone has their own comfort level for how long they will prolong the end days for an ill or very old pet.

        We should expect to grieve, but, yes, rejoice in the good days and years we’ve had. Some people like to save dog tags, the pet’s collar or something else. My friend was going to have little vials made with her pups’ white fur for her key ring. Others choose other memorials. As children, when a family pet passed away, we’d always have a service and place to go and grieve. You can do this even if you have the remains taken care or if you have ashes…think of planting a lovely fragrant bush like a gardenia in your dog or cat’s honor. Here are some more ideas on how to cope…

        And yes, DO spend time with other people’s pets and DON’T think you need to acquire the same breed with your next pet. You will never recreate the same pet and there are real joys that come from fostering a needy animal and then deciding you’re a forever match.

  • Getting a new dog is the best advice that I can give to grieving pet parents. The love, care, and attention that you have provided is something a new dog deserves. Don’t stop loving them, or better yet, get a rescue dog this time.

  • I remember a photo from the internet about the St. Peter talking to a person who just passed away and there’s this puppy waiting for him for decades. Everyone will cross the rainbow bridge, but the best thing to do is to enjoy every moment while we are together.

  • Kim Brooks

    I lost my Missy on 7/28/16. She was 15 1/2 years old and I had her since she was a puppy.
    I am heartbroken. I also have another dog named Buddy and he is 14 and misses Missy so much.

    • Time heals, Kim. I’m sure Buddy can compensate the missing part that Missy left. 15 and a half years is a great achievement as a pet parent. We all wish dogs live forever, but they can give us so much in so little time.

  • Such great insights, Ann! And welcome back!

  • Rebecca Tennant

    We had to put our beloved dog Cleo down 2 days ago. She was 14 and we have had her since she was 8 weeks old. Both of my children grew up with her and needless to say we are all devastated. She had cancer and her health was rapidly going downhill, everything but wagging her tail and smiling at us was a struggle. While we know that we did the «right» thing, our hearts are still broken and our house is so quiet. I can only hope that time will help ease our pain. Thank you for writing this

    • John Walton

      I hope you already have a consoled heart, Rebecca. It must have been a very memory-filled fourteen years with Cleo. You are always welcome here at Dogsaholic.

  • Alex Barto

    My dog Koda just passed away yesterday morning. He was a Malamute-mix- a Siberian Husky & Alaskan Malamute. The day before he died, he threw up. I took him outside in case he needed to vomit more, but he didn’t. He wasn’t feeling good all day, and he wouldn’t even eat bacon. When it was time for him to go to the bathroom in the evening, he was laying down for four hours in the yard, not his usual 10 or 20 minutes. Then, he didn’t even want his favorite thing in the entire world: chicken. Finally, we took him to the vet.

    Well, science it was almost nine o’clock, we had to take him to an emergency doctor. Even he didn’t know what was wrong, but his temperature was 106.6 degrees Fahrenheit. He put a bag of I.V in him, and I believe vitamin K, as well as some other liquids. The next morning, he called my mom and said he didn’t make it. She came home, balling, and went to tell my dad. We finally found someplace to bury him.

    It’s a Cuyahoga Valley Pet Cemetery. Worse yet, he deceased just 5 days from my birthday. Now, it’s 4 days until my tenth birthday. His burial is planned to be Wednesday, my birthday.

    I loved the articles, and I’m definitely going to have to use those strategies. My mom and dad are going to need them, too, so I’m going to share this website with them.

    • John Walton

      Death is one of the milestones of being a pet parent that, even when we know that it will happen eventually, is still a very difficult part of pet parenthood to accept. Some had it easy, some had a very traumatic road towards the death of their dogs. I am really happy that somehow, our articles bring light and comfort to grieving pet parents who lost their fur babies.