It would be hard to imagine a human and dog who were closer or loved one another more dearly than Karen Thompson and Red. She saved him, loved him, trained him, found a good home for him. A number of people who knew them both testify to their great connection. Karen knew she wanted to find him a home, but could not give him up for years. She even drove all through the night once to bring him back when she gave him away but didn't feel easy about it. I half-expected her to crash through the door on Monday and take Red home, so deep was her love for him. When she said good-bye to Red, she kissed him on the head, turned and walked back into the house. A very long walk, I suspect.
For some time I have puzzled over those many people in the animal world who insist that animals grieve in the way humans do. They cite many dog, elephant and other stories of animals pining for humans, searching for mates, depressed and lost after a person or animal dies. There are statues of border collies all over the world who supposedly went to the train station every day for years searching for their lost masters. People insist to me all the time that they know their dogs grieve, they are sure of it. No question about it. I know that many animals search for lost mates, sometimes for years, and many dogs are disoriented and anxious when other dogs die. But do they grieve the way people do? Or do we need them to grieve, as we need to project so many of our feelings onto them? What is the boundary between emotion and instinct?
Humans seem to need to see animals as similiar to them, and no researcher ever got a grant – or sold books – for arguing or proving that animals knew only 20 words or are different than humans or are simple creatures who ought to be left alone rather than turned into little therapists and Einsteins. Or that they don't mourn loss the way we do. The emotionalizing of animals has become an epidemic, a disease that does neither animals or humans any service.
I've lost two dogs this year – Rose and Izzy – and saw no signs of grieving in my other dogs. I have never seen one of my dogs behave in any way that suggests grieving. I have never had a dog with separation anxiety. I suspect this is because I don't believe in it, so they don't do it.
In the case of Red, a dog who was a powerfully attached to a human as a dog can be, I saw anxiety, confusion, some neediness. I saw no grieving of any kind. He ate the first day, slept through the night. Once he worked sheep with me Monday morning, he attached to me, and I to him. It was immediate, visible and pronounced. He calmed down and became my dog.
Red came Sunday. By today, there are no signs that he has not been here for years. He knows where to go to eat, has his favorite sofa, loves his work. This is my experience with animals and dogs. They love us, they are very aware of us, they are anxious when separated from us. They adapt. And quickly. That is their great gift. A dog does not know the difference between a dog going to the vet and dog dying. If a member of the pack leaves for good, they know it, react to it, and change. It is easy to see. It is nothing like the grieving humans do for one another. Or for dogs, for that matter.
Dogs cannot grieve because they have no vocabulary or language for death, only powerful instincts that govern their response to change and absence. We are the only species that knows we will die. They do not know what it is, so how could they mourn it?
Dogs like Red are the most adaptable creatures in the world. This doesn't mean that Red did not love Karen, or could not love me. It means he is a dog, an animal. Life and death are not the dramas and terrors and grief they are for some humans. We get the dogs we need, and we project our own selfish desires onto them because it makes us feel good. Red, like the Katrina dogs or the 12 million dogs re-homed in America each year affirms this for me one more time. He did not spend Monday morning look for Karen. He quickly – and very impressively – figured out where his food and work was, and what human to work for be attached do. I Iove him for this very great difference. I think humans spend way too much time telling stories of loss and grief. Dogs know better.
There is no difference to a dog between a human leaving, sending him away or dying. They are just gone. Their instincts kick right in, their survival depends on it. And Red, smart creature that he is, found another one 24 hours later. I could see him searching, see him find what he needed. This does not diminish my love for him or him for me or his for Karen. Quite the opposite. It is precisely how dogs love, in the purest way. It is beautiful. Red was not feeling guilty as humans might for leaving Karen, nor was he angry at her or blaming her for sending him away. Nor did he pine or waste time in mourning and self-pity. He got to work on his new life. Just like I did. And want to do.
This is how my dogs teach me to truly love.