• Liz Weiner

Goodbye's and Hello's: Adopting a New Pet After Losing Your "Soul Pet"

Updated: Feb 27

Tovi was the closest thing to a soulmate I’ve ever had, even more than my husband who I am deeply in love with. I lovingly referred to him as my “soul dog,” and everyone who knew us could see why.


I adopted him when I was 24 and he died a few days after my 37th birthday. During those complicated years he was my rock. Having struggled with attachment issues, he was my first true love and being his “mom,” was the greatest honor of my life. He walked me down the aisle and gave me away at first wedding, kept me warm during the cold winter of my divorce and was my current husband’s “Best Dog” at our wedding. We lived in 9 places, hiked countless trails, worked with incarcerated youth to develop empathy, comforted those in nursing homes and he was a gentle and loving foster brother to the animals we helped along the way. He traveled to my dad’s funeral with me, friend’s weddings, and came on just about every first date I went on. He was quite simply my best friend; unlike any human relationship I’ve had, and the moment he died my world fell apart and I had no idea how to exist without him.


I highlight the milestones we shared to illustrate that when we lose our soul pet, we lose so much more than their physical presence. I know this incredible bond is not unique to me and we can all talk endlessly about the depth of our relationship. It’s an attachment we have all felt and the reason we grieve so profoundly.


In addition to the comfort, predictability and routine our pets provide, they carry unique connections to our past. Tovi was the sole witness to the most intimate moments of the past 12 years of my life - every amazing, tragic and ordinary moment in between - and those memories lived on in his body when they were gone from my life. Symbolically he represented the last connection I had to those I lost, and to the phases in my life that were no more. When he died, he took a part of me with him and things would never be the same again.


When our soul pet leaves our life, when, if ever, do we decide to open up our hearts to a new pet? While I was able to find resources on Pet Bereavement, I couldn't find anything on the topic of adopting a new pet after loss: In regard to knowing when you’re ready, having realistic expectations, and how to bond with this new animal without it living in the shadow of the one you lost.


When I first set out to write this my intention was to “warn” people of not making the same mistake I had by adopting a dog too soon which only complicated my grief. In fairness, I realized I should talk with others about their experience so I wasn’t presenting my personal bias. I was relieved to find out that my experience was in the small minority.


***


Tovi’s death was unexpected, abrupt, messy and left me in a state of shock. When I encountered pain, I coped by running from the situation in hopes of cutting off the anxiety. If you flee a situation you feel better, right? Wrong. All I was doing was temporarily numbing a situation which only made it harder to process once my brain returned to baseline.


I adopted Millie two weeks after Tovi died, but I would have adopted a dog the next day if my husband didn’t stop me. I thought another dog would somehow fill the immense void Tovi’s death left in my life. I have an anxious personality which is exacerbated by stressful events and I get intense…and impulsive.


Everything was happening at warp speed in my head. I couldn’t slow down long enough to understand that attachments can’t just transfer, that bonds can take time and patience to develop and how every time we fall in love it’s a completely different experience. I thought all the love, safety and fun would return by getting a new dog. It was as if I thought he could just be replaced. A thought I would look back on and feel so guilty for having.


Reflecting on what happened, I can only describe what I did as being emotionally drunk and my ability to make a rationale decision completely highjacked. Much like real estate in the winter, I was convinced that it was a buyer's market, and if I didn't act there would be too much competition to find a dog once warmer weather approached. I applied for a few dogs whose bio's (a process that feels like a dating app) fit my lifestyle but the process was taking too long. I was supposed to meet a dog who objectively would be a great fit, but the foster was sick that morning and cancelled our meeting. I reacted to the disappointment by going to a shelter that afternoon and adopting the first dog I spotted even though she didn’t check any of the boxes I wanted in a dog. Not surprisingly, this turned out to be a mistake.


The day I brought Tovi home remains one of the best days of my life. I remember him sticking his head was out the car window inhaling the fresh air of freedom. The feeling was palpably mutual and we were so excited to start our lives together.


During the car ride home with Millie, I suddenly sobered up and reality sank in as a deep sense of regret washed over me. She was terrified to get in our car, shook the entire way home, peed on my lap and it only got worse from there. She had severe anxiety and was terrified of people, which required a variety of behaviorists to treat and being 5 months young she also had the typical frustrating “puppy” behaviors that I had never dealt with and didn’t intend to when I set out to adopt an adult dog.


As carefree as life with Tovi felt, Millie made life heavy. There was never a moment when I wasn't on guard to ensure she didn't have a melt-down, growl at people, try to flee something that scared her, or worry about coming home to a destroyed house.


Having her in my life only intensified my grief. Because I had been so reactive when Tovi died and tried to run from the pain by trying to fill my void, I hadn’t processed the loss. It wasn’t until Millie arrived that I understood the finality of the loss. And if I thought my grief was bad before, it was about to get a lot worse because I was grieving the loss of my best friend coupled with grieving the fact that I now owned a dog I didn't connect to. I had one shot at a new best friend and I failed.


I wanted Tovi back and I wondered who this imposter was that I was now responsible for. I was furious at myself for making a decision of this magnitude so carelessly. When I looked at her it wasn’t with love, but as a representation of my poor decision which created an atmosphere of resentment. She couldn’t be more different than him and because I compared, she could never measure up.


I was too ashamed to tell anyone how I felt. On social media I shared the occasional cute photo to keep up with the façade…because what type of a person would hate their dog? From a place of obligation, I did all of the things a responsible and loving pet parent would do and she had everything a dog could ever want, or so I thought. A house filled with toys, dog beds in every room, trainers, toys, bully sticks, daycare to help with her socialization which had been non-existent... the list goes on, but she didn't have what she needed most - an emotionally present mom. Despite my feelings, her presence comforted me. There wasn't a night that I could fall asleep without her body snuggled against mine - I love her, I just didn't recognize it for a long time. I felt like I was going through a type of post-partum depression adjusting to this new life with a dog that I didn’t have the emotional strength for.


I stayed the course from a place of obligation rather than love at first; a painful rocky course supported by trainers like walking sticks holding up my otherwise fragile self. Still, I struggled to genuinely connect to her - I couldn't get past my disappointment that she wasn't the dog I had hoped for.


There was also a part of me that wanted to hold onto the pain because it felt like the last connection I had to Tovi. There was something comforting about ugly crying every day, whether I was in the privacy of my home or out in the world. I wanted to wear my wounds. I often thought about how sad he would be to look down onto my life and see the guilt and pain that engulfed me and I didn’t want him to carry that burden.


Intellectually, I knew no one could replace him and loving Millie didn’t taint that. Like many things that sound good in theory, it took a long time to internalize it as my truth. Eventually I changed the flawed narrative of my thinking: I wasn’t replacing him; I was letting another dog into my life. And the more I fought my new reality that was, the tighter I glued myself to the past and was unable to move forward. I use the words, “move forward,” deliberately, because we never move on, nor should we. Our loss remains in our hearts forever and becomes part of us.


One ordinary day it was casually mentioned to me that Millie must be so excited to have a home. That was the first time it ever occurred to me to view the situation from her perspective. She deserved the happy “gotcha” day and all that comes with starting a new life. It didn’t happen right away, but that comment planted the seed that gave me permission to move forward into the next chapter of my life. I didn't need to get over the loss, what I needed to get over was the fact that I will never have another dog like Tovi. Starting a new chapter doesn't erase the prior one – it simply builds on it. These two ideas learned to co-exist once I made space for them.


I will never love her the way I loved Tovi, and that's OK, and that doesn't mean I don't love her. We are incredibly lucky if we ever meet our “once in a lifetime” pet and I am blessed that he came into my life when I needed him most. As I’ve heard said in many contexts, comparison truly is the thief of joy. It wasn’t her fault for not being the dog I had hoped for. When I let go of my expectations and accepted my new reality, the emotional burden lightened and my heart began to open.


I had to look deep inside myself and work through what Millie brought up for me. I needed Tovi, and Millie needed me. I was her person and she only felt safe exploring the world when I was with her; much like I depended on Tovi. He was confident, independent, adaptable to any situation and just happy – I strived to be like him and his mere presence made me feel safe and complete. Millie only exaggerated my anxiety because she was insecure, anxious and dependent; much like me at times. Those attachment issues I mentioned earlier included my instinct to run whenever I felt smothered…It was the perfect storm.


Tovi had a healthy upbringing with a family who clearly loved him. Millie had experienced trauma which affected her development. She will never be a therapy dog, playful with strangers, not retreat when hearing any noise, stick her head out the window when driving, hike off leash, or whimper with excitement when approaching a trail. But she has other endearing quirks that he didn't like falling asleep every night snuggled up against me, gives the best kisses, and no one has been more in tune with my emotional state. She challenges me. She's complicated and needy and attaches to me like velcro. I miss her terribly when I am away from her and I know she does the same (it's this weird co-dependency thing we have going on). She isn't the kind of dog that can just adjust and have fun in a new environment. Leaving her at daycare/boarding she might as well be a child leaving their parent on their first day of kindergarten. She has to literally be carried back by the staff because she panics at the thought of leaving us. When we go away we bring her back a toy and call her a "worldwide toy collector." So, somewhere along the way I realized I had fallen madly in love with her. Hence, this spoof on the baby photo, but underneath it I did it because I was so proud of what she had accomplished.



We did the work and her ability to deal with stress has improved tremendously. Our love has a different shape and it grows with each passing day as we share more experiences. This is not to say I don't still have moments of frustration and disappointment and when she regresses, and I would be lying if I said I didn't have moments when I come across a dog with the temperament that I hoped for and fantasize about what life with "that" dog would be like. But, it's just a fleeting thought, not one I attach to, and I'm able to bring myself back to the present much faster.


***

So, back to the question at hand…


Knowing when to bring another pet into your life is a deeply personal decision and varies for everyone. The time frames of the adoptions of the people I interviewed averaged one day to a few years, but the average was a few months (and yes, the one-day adoption was successful). Unlike me, some who were still in debilitating grief and adopted quickly found the new pet to be a source of comfort.


“I cried for days and the pain without a dog to greet me was just too much. I decided to adopt another dog 3 weeks after Elvis died. I knew I could never love another dog the same way I loved Elvis but I have to say, just having a dog around calms my soul. He’s nothing like Elvis and I won’t ever feel the same connection but he’s a lovely dog that is so grateful for a loving home. He stops me from feeling that crippling loneliness I felt before and I saved him from life in a shelter, so we help each other.” - Jenna


Everyone I spoke to compared the pets to some degree, but for most, not in the resentful way I had, but in a way that honored the differences rather than attaching judgement to them. Almost no one cited feelings of regret. Some reported feelings of guilt, though it was short lived as they believed that their pet would want them to be happy AND they were aware that the new pet was not meant to be a replacement. The majority attached to their pet within a few months or less. The way we attach to our new pet is not determined by the length of time we wait to adopt as much as knowing our core beliefs about what it means to bring another pet into our life.


I asked the participants to define their bond with their soul pet as, “weakly bonded, moderately bonded, or profoundly bounded” (descriptions coined by Wallace Sife, Ph.D.). Every person I interviewed described their bond to their lost pet as “profoundly bounded,” and many went on to classify the bond to their new pet as profoundly bonded. Most were able to love both pets distinctly and didn't find their new pet to complicate their grief. I was shocked at these results. This is not to say they had immediate connections – they took time to develop and most are still developing and the bond strengthens as they get to know each other. One person I spoke to described this process beautifully, “The first week with her, I called a friend and said “I don’t love her. I meant that I didn’t love her in the way in which I loved Chloe, but how could I? It had only been a week!” - Anne


Those who had similar experiences to mine shared the complicating factors of:


1) Adopting a difficult pet;

2) Adopting what they described as "too quickly" for them;

3) Adopting with the intention of "replacing" their pet.


Believing you will "replace" your pet will impact your ability to bond. However, this is not to imply that having a “difficult” pet or, "adopting too quickly" = failure to bond. It meant that for them, they didn’t have the emotional strength to put that level of effort into the relationship given the intense grief they were in.


Others adopted what they referred to as a great pet but realized they weren't ready and returning the pet, triggering the feeling of loss all over again.


These scenarios were in the small minority. Of the approximately 30 people I interviewed, only 2 returned the pet and 1 person who kept the pet continues to feel regret 5 months later and reports feeling a "weak" connection. And since I originally wrote this 4 months ago, she contacted me to let me know that they started to bond; yet another reminder that sometimes we just need time and patience.


I think my journey was tainted by many things; most remarkably having a difficult dog. Typically, I am always up for a challenge and go for the underdog (pun intended), but at this time in my life I wasn’t in a place to do that. At baseline I have a low-level anxiety and a tendency to get overwhelmed easily. In my pseudo-drunken state I wasn't aware of how fragile I was and how a difficult dog could break me. I was completely unprepared for this experience and it caused me to unravel. I often wonder how different my experience may have been if I listened to what my gut told me I needed in a dog.


Earlier in this article I said, “he took a part of me with him and things would never be the same again.” It’s almost been 2 years and life isn’t the same - but it isn’t awful either. It’s just different. During the transition, many people in an attempt to be supportive told me “you get the dog you need, not the dog you want.” I found it cliché. I didn’t believe it, and it made me angry to hear. Angry in the way it would when something senseless and tragic happens and you’re told that everything happens for a reason. But the longer I have Millie the more it resonates. We both had to confront our ‘stuff’ and through repeated exposure to things that scared us, we let it break us down in the right places and rebuild stronger in the broken places.


Just like Tovi changed me, Millie changed me too.


1. I was able to stay the course, even though it felt like walking barefoot on sharp glass at times. And for me, the ability to stand still and tolerate painful and anxious feelings without running from them is a win.


2. As someone who wants everything yesterday, I learned patience by accepting that things take time.


3. She strengthened my ability to “go with the flow,” and fostered my emotional flexibility.


4. Being her support and rock, she has been able to flourish. And I owe it to Tovi to pay that gift forward.


As you can see, there is no magic formula. What I can tell you with certainty is that it will be harder to form an attachment until you have allowed yourself to experience some level of acceptance that your pet is gone and no one will replace them. A helpful question to ask yourself when considering bringing another pet into your life is, “Am I strong enough to be able to give this pet the love it needs and not resent it for not being my previous pet?”


If you are feeling indecisive trust your gut and listen to your instincts.


It’s important to be aware that during this time of intense grief your thought process may be impaired.


Don’t react impulsively – there will always be animals that need homes.


Know yourself and what you can handle.


Examine your intention for adopting another pet and visualize what they may feel like. Some people have visited shelters, fostered or even pet-sat to gauge their reaction to being around another animal.


Understand that no one will replace your pet and trying to do so will set your relationship up for failure. Rather than replacing, focus on being open to starting a new chapter with your new pet and having the room in your heart for it to live peacefully beside the memory of your soul pet.

***

Good luck on this exciting journey of getting acquainted with another pet and treasure every moment - before you know it, they too will be gone one day.

Related Links:


The Time I Returned a Dog


Ways to Bond With a New Pet


Words of Wisdom on When to Adopt After Loss... From my Readers


**The term, "adopt," has been used as an umbrella term to mean acquiring a new pet.


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