Preferring pets to people isn’t so uncommon. It’s easy to understand why. A relationship with a pet can be much less complicated than a relationship with a person. Friends, family and children can all disappoint us or let us down. Pets rarely do. They don’t have agendas of their own and they often make us the centre of their world. They can’t be turned against us by anyone else. They’re always there and they’re always affectionate.
And having a pet is proven to be good for both our mental and our physical health. The simple act of patting a dog or stroking a cat slows the heart-rate and lowers the blood-pressure. It releases calming chemicals in the brain and brings benefits to the whole body. Even a goldfish in a bowl is good for the owner. For children, it’s an excellent introduction to responsibility and how to be selfless and think of someone other than themselves. And simple pets like goldfish or mice can help their young owners in another and less obvious way.
When they pass away, it can be a child’s first lesson in something very important: that life doesn’t go on for ever. We can’t plan on anyone or anything always being there, because one day, whether in an accident or through illness or by the natural process of ageing, all animals and people must pass away. It’s better to begin learning that when a goldfish or pet mouse dies than when a person dies. Losing a grandparent, parent or sibling is always bad, but when it’s the first loss experienced by a child, it can become even worse. Understanding death doesn’t take grief away, but it can take away the bewilderment and the terror.
Death and dying are natural things, just as life is. Looking after a pet and then mourning its passing are ways to learn that in a gentle way. But pets can also help us face death in another way. When we lose an important person in our lives, the companionship of a pet can ease our pain and help us through the grief. They’re good for us when times are bad just as they are when times are good.
But animals don’t have to be our personal pets to help us at times of bereavement. The funeral industry is becoming interested in the idea of what might be called “fur at funerals”, or the use of trained dogs at funerals and memorial services. When someone passes way and leaves a pet behind, it’s often impossible for the pet to attend the funeral. It would be an unfamiliar and perhaps frightening experience. The pet might not understand where the owner has gone and be grieving itself.
And it might not behave well. A bewildered and barking dog at a funeral is not something that anyone wants. But all that changes when a dog is specially trained to attend funerals. If it’s of a calm and friendly nature, it won’t cause any disruption or disturbance. It won’t understand exactly a funeral is for, but many dogs simply like meeting people and know when the people are pleased to see them.
Dogs at funerals might seem unusual now, but in ten years they might be a common sight. At a dark, cold time, they will be a warm and friendly presence, happy to be patted by mourning people and serving as a reminder that life will carry on.