How to Lose a Dog - By Lisa Hannaby Aird

Jun 12, 2024
Dr Conor Brady
How to Lose a Dog - By Lisa Hannaby Aird

I’ll be honest, when Conor popped this on my list of articles to write, I felt a little out of my depth. I sadly lost family dogs when I was growing up, but those dogs I shared my life with when I left home, started my first “proper” job, moved jobs, moved homes, started businesses and got married are still in their silver-muzzle years. I still have my senior dogs, and a few young hooligans to keep them on their toes. So I felt somewhat of an imposter writing about losing a dog.

It also felt like a little token gesture to whack an article together with tried-and-tested tips to support during the grieving process. There are ten to a dozen of these on the internet. We all know the importance of exercise and sleep in our “normal” lives, and many of us still don’t get it nailed. So, are we about to make lifestyle changes when we feel like our lives have just come hurtling to a stop?

I’d argue not. And so, I thought I’d explore loss from a psychology and neuroscience perspective. Again, I’m not proposing I have any answers about how to manage losing a dog, but I think these concepts offer us food for thought.

Child Development Theory and loss

I never expected to pick up my child development books when writing an article on pet loss and mourning, but here we are. Stick with me.

Let’s revisit an old friend, John Bowlby.

John Bowlby (1907–1990) first gained fame in 1951 with the publication of his specialist work, Maternal Care and Mental Health. In it, he presented evidence that maternal care in infancy and early childhood is essential for mental health. He claimed this discovery was comparable to that of the role of vitamins in mental health (we seemingly have to keep banging that drum, too!).

Early in his career, Bowlby became focused on how maternal separation could impact children. This led him to warn, unsuccessfully, against the evacuation of children under five without their mothers at the beginning of the war. In 1944 he published a paper showing that of 44 children referred to his clinic for stealing, 14 were ‘affectionless’, and 12 of these had been separated from their mothers for at least six months when under five.

Bowlby concluded that children need to have a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with their mother or a permanent mother substitute. In addition, he believed that there is a critical period for this relationship to develop, from 6 to 30 months. If the relationship is absent then, or broken, the consequences are severe and irreversible. Bowlby claimed that mothering is almost useless if delayed until after the age of two, and the child will grow up psychopathic, or at best affectionless, unable to form close relationships with others.

Wowsers - he wasn’t messing around, was he?

But, Bowlby expressed his firm opposition not only to institutional care and separation in hospitals but also to day nurseries or schools for children under three. Bowlby frequently argued that even those aged three to five should only attend part-time.

There were of course critics of Bowlby’s theories, including those who deemed him detrimental to the feminist movement, but these theories gained traction in the 1960s when he started working with psychologist Mary Ainsworth, with whom he developed attachment theory.

This theory emphasises that attachment relations are important throughout life and that later relationships and social and emotional functioning depend on the security of the first attachment. This concept is most important when we consider grief and loss.

The Strange Situation

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation procedure was devised to elicit different patterns of attachment behaviour in 12- to 18-month-old children in standardised situations with their mothers. Secure children, who used their mothers as a base from which to explore, and to return to for reassurance, were said to be those with sensitive, responsive mothers. It was predicted that they would later develop confident, positive social relationships. The strange situation also found insecure and avoidant attachments. These concepts have since been used as a springboard to explore adult relationships and now, theories of loss and mourning.

The Attachment Behavioural System

On the back of attachment theory, many concepts were developed including the attachment behavioural system.

It is argued that we collate a mental record of our success at obtaining sufficient proximity/comfort from our attachment figures, beginning with our parents and continuing with close friends and romantic partners. We then use these working models to develop two things:

(1) a model of significant others (e.g., parents, close friends, romantic partners), which includes their responsiveness to our bids for proximity/comfort in prior interactions, and

(2) a model of the self, which includes information about our ability to get sufficient proximity/comfort and our worth as a relationship partner.

Bowlby argued that how we are treated by significant others across the lifespan—especially during times of stress—shapes the expectations, attitudes, and beliefs we have about future partners and relationships. These expectatations, attitudes, and beliefs operate as “if/then” propositions that guide how we think, feel, and behave, especially when we are upset, for example “If I am upset, then I can count on my partner to support me.”

Whilst Bowlby was interested in humans, I would bet money on the fact that you have counted on your dog to make you feel better when you have been upset?

You’re not alone.

Dogs are often described by their owners as children, friends, mates, and confidants. They appear to serve as an important source of social and emotional support. Consequently, dogs can evoke strong feelings of attachment in their owners.

Beck and Madresh state that pets are not merely substitutes for human interaction but also play a specific role in providing a consistent sense of security in the relationship. This refers to the easy access of the pet, such as when owners return home and know that their pet will be there. It is also thought to help ease the uncertainty of more complex relationships with human beings, making it easier for pet owners to cope with everyday life.

Recent research on the effect of pets on stress responses suggests that the presence of a pet may be particularly beneficial for reducing the impact of stressful situations on owners.

So, what does attachment theory have to do with loss? Well, we have two elements to consider.

The first is that we can become attached to our pets. We don’t need any researchers to tell us this, but to clarify just how attached we can become, questionnaires like the Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale have been developed to explore this concept further.

The Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale (LAPS) is a scale that aims to measure the degree of attachment that an owner has for their pet. It is one of the most used tools to assess the emotional bond between people and their animals.

It asks questions like the following:
Quite often, my feelings towards people are affected by how they react to my pet
I enjoy showing other people pictures of my pet
I often talk to other people about my pet
My pet knows when I’m feeling bad
Owning a pet adds to my happiness

One thread in this concept is that our attachment to our pets will influence how we cope with their loss. There are no surprises there.

But the other thread is returning to Bowlby. One of his books was entitled Attachment and Loss, and he proposes that the attachment style we have already developed influences how we cope with loss.

So, let’s return to each attachment type and then specifically how they can influence how we cope with loss.

Secure Attachment

If parents are consistent, available, and responsive, their children need to do little to maintain security in their parental relationships. Their secure attachment styles enable them to connect easily, to accurately perceive and react to other people, and to control their emotions and behaviours in healthy ways.

Avoidant Attachment

When parents reject a child’s need for closeness and reassurance, the child will learn to deny their own negative emotions and needs for close relationships. They will maximise their feelings of security in their parental relationships by developing avoidant attachment styles (also called “dismissive” among adults) and getting parental approval by winning at things like academics and sports and acting self-assured and confident.

Anxious Attachment

When parents are inconsistent in dealing with their children—sometimes warm and loving and at other times cold and rejecting—the children will cope by learning to carefully monitor the parents’ moods so that they can feel secure by heading off rejection before it happens. These children develop anxious attachment styles (also called “preoccupied” among adults) so that they can remain on guard for any signs of rejection. They try to stay as close as possible to their loved ones, don’t like to let go, and have a hard time dealing with loss, especially if they cannot make sense of why the loss happened.

Disorganised Attachment

When parents are frightened (traumatised, victimised, terrorised) or frightening (bullying, abusive, rageful), children will not be able to develop organised ways of coping or adapting. The environment is too unpredictable, so they develop “disorganised” attachment styles (called “fearful” among adults). One system of measuring attachment styles, the Adult Attachment Interview, calls this style “unresolved” in relation to loss and trauma.

Now we have an understanding of the different types of attachment, let’s consider how each style may respond differently during times of loss.

Research shows that relative to people with secure styles, those with one of the insecure styles (dismissive-avoidant, preoccupied/anxious, fearful or disorganised) will experience more grief and less post-traumatic growth (with post-traumatic growth being defined as positive psychological changes experienced as a result of the struggle with trauma or highly challenging situations).

It seems that dismissive/avoidant people, in particular, are likely to report less post-traumatic growth after the death of a loved one. In addition, they tend to suppress their negative feelings and convert those negative (disowned) emotions into physical symptoms like headaches or abdominal distress.

In contrast, those with preoccupied styles almost never suppress their emotions and experience more intense prolonged grief. What’s particularly interesting is that these results are the same regardless of whether the lost loved one was a human or a pet.

Based on this body of research and the theory describing each of the styles, we tend to understand that those who have anxious/preoccupied styles will be heavily impacted by loss and that the associated negative feelings will last longer. They also may experience more intense and lasting anger over the situation and perhaps even at the lost loved one. As their narrative about the loss grows, they may perceive that their grief continues to intensify for a period after the loss, as opposed to getting better.

Those with avoidant/dismissive styles may appear to cope better with grief after a loss, but this really depends on how you define "better" coping. They are likely to acknowledge less distress and are less likely to admit negative feelings to others. In addition, they are likely to suppress their unwanted feelings and externally appear fine. Some may even think that the dismissive person looks callous or uncaring.

Those with disorganised/fearful styles may become emotionally and behaviourally disorganised after a loss. This is because the new loss event may trigger feelings and thoughts related to other unresolved losses from the past. This would be similar to having an emotional flashback in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

So, attachment theory offers us two considerations when we are going through pet loss. Firstly, our attachment to our pet undoubtedly affects how we process and manage it. Secondly, the attachment style we develop in early childhood may influence how we cope with our loss too.

We can of course take an attachment style quiz if we are particularly interested in our attachment style and if you think this may help you process your grief then I encourage you to do so. But even without psychoanalysis, this whole concept simply shows us that how we move through the loss of a loved one differs from person to person and it may be influenced by factors we never even considered. In addition, concepts like this shouldn’t pigeonhole us. Just because we may have developed an attachment style doesn’t necessarily mean we will process loss the way the theory predicted. N=1, always and in even the most robust scientific models, we find outliers.

The other side of attachment that I find particularly interesting is the neuroscience element. In short, what goes on in the brain when we get attached to those we love?

Whilst there are limitations in carrying over animal data to humans, and likening partner relationships to owner-pet relationships, the work of Zoe Donaldson, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado Boulder is of interest. Her research team examined prairie vole brains to get insights into any changes after bond formation and disruption.

To investigate the effects of partner loss in the brain, Donaldson and her team housed vole couples together for two weeks and then separated some of the mating couples for either two days or four weeks.

The team first examined the behavioural effects of partner separation through an experiment in which a vole must choose between spending time with its partner and a stranger. Neither the brief nor long separation altered the voles’ preferences for their partners, suggesting that this core feature of the relationship remains intact despite the physical separation.

The researchers next used RNA sequencing to investigate gene expression changes after partner separation. They focused on the nucleus accumbens, a brain region implicated in romantic relationships and grieving in humans.

Pair-bonded voles showed stable upregulation of several genes involved in many different brain processes, such as the formation of synapses (connections) and signalling pathways relevant for learning.

Many of the pair bonding upregulated genes were associated with glial cell functioning. These glial findings were deemed enlightening as they suggest that glia, which is often seen as neurons’ (nerve cells) helpers, might have a big role in bond formation between couples.

In neurons, the team also found upregulation of genes associated with the dopaminergic system, which is implicated in the control of reward-seeking behaviours, but only after the brief separation. This suggests that there may be some withdrawal process happening, some motivational aspect or some frustration resulting from wanting to be with the partner and not being able to.

To conclude this research, it seems connections are formed in the brain when we bond. They are known as synapses. These synapses are regulated somewhat by the perceived reward from the bond. The stronger the bond becomes, the more neurons continue to fire. Then, upon separation, we see a number of physiological changes occur. Stress hormones increase. In addition, we see dopamine and oxytocin which try to motivate us to find whoever we have been separated from. We may also experience frustration that we can’t find them or be with them. Over time, there are neural and transcription changes that happen in the brain as we try to understand what has happened.

In a nutshell, we form connections in our brain about our bonds.

The more reward we perceive from these bonds, the stronger those connections are. When separated, we get a surge in motivation to get it all back and possible frustration that we can’t. In the case of loss, we just can’t, and so our brains must undergo pruning of those connections.

This has led some neuroscientists to define loss as a learning process. It is a transition in which we must learn. We can’t regularly revisit those connections in our brains, so we must forge new ones. Zoe Donaldson suggests that this mechanism allows us to form new bonds. While we never forget those pets we have lost, it allows us to bond with new additions that we offer our homes, and hearts (and brains) to.


Processing the loss of a pet is hard. However, I’ve often found that understanding why we do the things we do or feel the way we feel can help us move forward.
If we understand that attachment, bonding, and subsequently loss literally rewire our brains, we may give ourselves the time for that to occur.

If we understand that many factors, including attachment, influence how we grieve and deal with loss, we may stop comparing our attempts at managing it to those of others.

But, it's also not a cop out guys. If you’re really not doing great, please don’t use behavioural science to explain it away.

Ask for support, from friends, family or a professional. You are not alone. 

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