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Times of GriefThe poet Joseph Duemer writes, "There are some simple truths inside the world's complexity, and the dogs know what they are." Throughout history, people have declared their appreciation for their pets' undying loyalty and commented on the soulful quality of a beloved animal's eyes. Dog lovers have always been aware of how sensitive their pets can be in times of stress and grief. Now medical practitioners, veterinarians and caretakers are acknowledging this sensitivity and using it to comfort people who are suffering.

Sniffing Out Pain

Dogs exhibit extraordinary focus through their sense of smell and other, less explicable receptors. They can absorb information that human beings do not readily perceive, and act on it to provide solace to people in need of support. Many people have reported that a dog has recognized cancer in a person before the disease was officially diagnosed. Dogs have been shown to be capable of detecting lung cancer in the breath of a patient. There are reports of dogs sniffing out melanomas in affected persons. Dogs have been the first, on many occasions, to detect a life-altering change in a human body. However, dogs utilize more than their sense of smell to respond to human needs.

Responding to Body Language

Dogs are often quite fluent in human body language, often much more so than humans themselves. A dog is likely to recognize changes in a person's posture, such as slumping or a more restricted range of motion. Canines are quite sensitive to human fragility. For this reason and others, many care homes and hospices now have dogs on staff. The animals can be indicators for change. For example, when a patient in a hospice situation is approaching death, a dog may choose to sleep near the patient's bed.

Support for Life's Challenges

Canines respond to more than sickness. They seem to know when the winds are shifting in people's lives. Dr. Jessica Vogelsang is a veterinarian and the author of the book, "All Dogs Go to Kevin: Everything Three Dogs Taught Me (That I Didn't Learn in Veterinary School)." One of the dogs in Vogelsang's book is Taffy, the Lhasa Apso that comforted her as a young girl when her family moved to California from New England. Vogelsang credits Emmett, a golden retriever, for helping her through her postpartum depression after the birth of her first child. The dog just wouldn't leave her alone, and eventually, silently, prompted her to get the help she needed to move past a difficult moment in her life. Dog's can provide comfort:

  • During a life change, such as the loss of a job
  • After the death of a loved one
  • After a divorce

Valuable Perspective

There are many health professionals working today who believe that dogs provide a way for patients and their families to focus on what is important to them. It is easy to get caught up in the complexities of treatment, as well as in all the other anxieties inherent to illness or other trauma. When a dog leans against your leg or nudges your hand with his or her head, he or she is bringing your attention to the moment. Vogelsang writes about her parents moving in with her family after her mother learned she had an inoperable brain tumor. The veterinarian's dog, Brody, who was accustomed to jumping on the parents when they visited, stopped his jumping and attached to Vogelsang's mother immediately. The vet said, "He [was] still my dog, but he knew when they came they needed him more than I did." In part to honor the canine sensitivity to pain and suffering, Vogelsang is now a practicing hospice veterinarian, and director of Paws Into Grace in Southern California. She and a group of like-minded vets help pets get the compassionate care they need at the end of their lives.

Category: Funeral

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