Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lessons Learned from the Loss of a Trained Companion Animal

Are you one of those people deeply affected by another's suffering, especially if it is an animal?  Now imagine it is your companion animal. Add on to that, an animal that you have spent hours and hours building trust and training with positive reinforcement.  An animal with whom you have made such a deep connection and bond you feel there is a special understanding and communication between the two of you. Imagine if you couldn’t relieve that animal’s suffering? How deep is that pain?

This is the beauty and the tragedy of force free animal training.  On the one hand you create such a deep bond of trust, even friendship, that your emotional connection is almost indescribable. On the other hand when that animal is suffering or breathes his or her last breath the pain is that much deeper.

Not too long ago I lost one of my trained guinea pigs, Caledonia, to a tumor behind her heart. When I mentioned to someone that I cried for two days, it was clear they thought it was astonishing that anyone would feel such emotion for a rodent.

Caledonia (and Lucille) were only supposed to be temporary visitors at my house. I was going to film their training process and they were then supposed to become a part of an education program.  But after a few months of training them to do a number of behaviors, I found myself dreading the day I would have to give them up. Fortunately the new “owners to be” were understanding and accepted my offer to train two other girls for them. I promised not to get so attached. 

My two girls went on to learn a number of fun behaviors that I shared on YouTube. Their big hit was the clip of them playing basketball. I was quite proud when they were mentioned in Dr Marc Bekoff’s blog on the PsychologyToday website.  But mostly I hoped showing how intelligent these creatures are would inspire people to take a second look at their guinea pigs. Maybe they would be more inclined to provide enrichment and activities to keep them stimulated, maybe they would be a little more apt to invest in a nice habitat, and maybe they would even get their feet wet with some training.

When Cale didn’t run out for breakfast one morning I knew something was wrong. Based on her symptoms the vet thought the best course of action was to treat for a respitory infection. (We didn;t find out about the tumor until after she passed) This meant giving her oral medication with a syringe. This part was fairly easy. The hard part was that she wasn’t eating and had no appetite. This meant trying to get nourishment into her in the form of thick liquidy concoction designed for sick guinea pigs. This is what hurt the most for me. Several times a day I had to try to get her to eat the goo from a syringe. She wasn’t feeling well, and she didn’t want it.

I found a way to make handling low stress. I placed a soft fleece in front of her and covered it with a hiding place. She voluntarily moved to the fleece. (A sick guinea pig knows it is important to stay hidden.) I lifted the hiding place and replaced it with the flaps of the fleece. Tucked in cozy, it was easy to gently pick her up.

Offering the food proved to be harder. This is the part that broke my heart. While she needed the food to survive, delivering it was not pleasant to her. This meant my last interactions with her were the opposite of what she had known from me all her life. I always meant good things were about to happen. And now I was being associated with something she found unpleasant. I felt as if I betrayed her and her trust. And sadly she didn’t recover. I didn’t get the chance to make up for those last few days. Although my vet assured me it would have also lead to death had she not had the feedings, the experience still stings.

Like many of us who care deeply for animals, I am trying to mostly recall all the wonderful interactions I had with Caledonia. But this experience once again reminded how very important it is for us to train our companion animals to be comfortable with some very basic medical care. Fortunately Cale was a champ at getting on a scale, loading into a crate, being wrapped in a soft towel, and taking oral meds. Taking the food supplement was something we had never practiced, and maybe something to add to my list of behaviors to train. To make the vet visit less stressful, I brought familiar items from home, like the yoga mat upon which the girls practiced their trained behaviors. This was a familiar scent, texture and always had been associated with favorite foods and activities.  I also brought Cale’s guinea pig companion Lucille. Thankfully these things seemed to keep her relatively relaxed while at the veterinary hospital, despite not feeling well.

There is a new movement to help make vet exams fear free. I am proud to be a part of a group of professionals asked to facilitate this initiative.  Losing a companion animal is painful, knowing you could have done more to reduce stress to care for them when they were sick, can be even more heartbreaking.  I hope Caledonia’s story will inspire you to work on training behaviors that will make veterinary care for your animals stress free.  There is an animal you love that will one day appreciate it.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2014

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.


Melissa said...

I know this was a while ago, but I cried reading this (still crying.) I am really sorry for your loss.

Melissa said...

I know this was a while ago, but I cried reading this (still crying.) I am really sorry for your loss.