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Every dog owner will someday experience a time of sorrow that, hopefully, occurs after years of joy with our beloved dogs. While nothing can speed up the healing process — which, indeed, is a process, not something one magically “gets over” after a certain amount of time — many have found memorializing their dog to be comforting.
There is absolutely no single, right way to do this, reminds Reverend Kaleel Sakakeeny, an animal chaplain and credentialed pet loss and grief counselor in Boston. “Each of us mourns and memorializes in his or her own way depending on so many factors from faith, religion, intensity of the human-animal bond, stage of life the pet parent is in, how the pet passed, etc.”
Again, take your time and do what feels right to you. “And it definitely is a process — and not one that is always linear. It’s critical for the healing process to move from grief to mourning, which is externalizing/memorializing the pain and sadness so we can begin to move forward. NEVER to move on; to move forward,” adds Rev. Kaleel, who is also a professional life coach.
Memorialize your pet using your dog’s ashes
Over the years it has become more common to keep the ashes of a beloved pet, as well as using some of the ashes to create different memorial items.
“Urns and urn jewelry seem to be what most people think about,” says Coleen Ellis, a pet loss author, consultant and speaker who oversees Two Hearts Pet Loss Center in Texas, but options don’t end there. “Outside rock urns, mixing ashes with Let Your Love Grow to create a very nutrient-rich product for flowers and trees, portraits painted using the pet’s ashes or even shooting the pet’s ashes into space or turning the pet’s ashes into a coral reef for the ocean are some beautiful and creative ideas.”
Rev. Kaleel offers a caveat to consider. “I advise not to spread all the ashes because we move, change locations and don’t want all the pet’s ashes somewhere else. People have been grateful for this guidance. We need to keep the ashes with us, some of them anyway, and having spread ashes far and wide can leave us bereft.”
Memorialize your dog with jewelry
There are many different ways jewelry can include part of your pet. Options can include turning the ashes into a diamond, creating jewelry with the pet’s nose or paw print on it or wearing a locket with your dog’s photo or a tuft of fur, perhaps even engraved with his name or initial.
How to memorialize your dog with pictures
Doubtless, you have lots of pictures of your dog. Many different companies print a photo book that you can fill with images, as well as stories about your dog — funny things he did, all his nicknames or who his favorite furry friends were. I created one of these for our dog Medusa through Costco’s photo site (above, left). You can find photo books at Shutterfly, Minted, Personalization Mall or shops on Etsy. You can also go smaller scale and get a personalized frame for your absolutely favorite photo.
As with any of the items on this list, don’t pressure yourself to take on a photo-based project. As I’ve experienced with those Facebook Memories, seeing images from years ago of either our beloved dogs Axel or Medusa sometimes makes me smile; sometimes they make my eyes sweaty. I created the Medusa photo book for my husband for Father’s Day, which was about six months after she passed. It took him a long time to actually be able to look through it; don’t be offended if the recipient of a photo, or any gift, is on a different bereavement timetable than you.
How to hold a memorial service for your dog
“With increasing frequency, I am finding that many grieving pet owners are open to the concept of hosting a memorial or a celebration of life for a pet,” says Maryglenn Warnock, a certified pet bereavement counselor and ordained pet funeral officiant/pet chaplain based in Nashville. “I have long questioned why we celebrate our human companions after death but typically don’t celebrate our furry companions. I know I am not alone in my belief that pets are family, too.”
Coleen concurs, also embracing the model many follow for humans. “Absolutely, rituals are one of the most powerful ways to honor not only a life and love shared but to bring people together who might have also loved the pet. I believe in the power of what we do for humans: a visitation or wake. Taking time during the service to remember the special moments, share photos, have a toast … whatever it was the family did together throughout the life of the animal is the perfect thing to do for a service or to share with the eulogy. Get the entire family involved.”
Jenna Blum, Boston-based bestselling author, found herself getting her entire neighborhood involved. “When my black Lab, Woodrow, passed at age 15, we had a memorial for him about a week after, on the bench across the street from our downtown Boston apartment where he and I spent much of his last seven months. We had Woodrow’s photo in a frame, LED candles, champagne to celebrate his life, bacon—because he loved it—and many beautiful ladies, just as Woodrow, the ‘George Clooney of Dogs’ would have wanted, singing Amazing Grace and reading poetry for him. Days later, the photo and candles were still there — and people left flowers, rocks and notes for him, like ‘Dear Woodrow and family, we will miss seeing you here at the bench!’ I saved them all.”
As part of her healing process, Jenna wrote Woodrow on the Bench, which includes many more stories about Woodrow’s last years and beyond.
Design a garden marker to memorialize your dog
A bench may not be practical for everyone, but a similar approach is a stone. You can get a stone in the shape of your dog to put under a favorite sunning spot. You can get a stepping stone, perhaps in the shape of a heart, with the names of pets who have crossed over.
Axel had a stretch in the backyard that he ran along often
enough to make a path, so we opted to create a row of pavers that showcased it. It’s just a section of pavers, there’s no start or end, which we view as our never-ending love for him.
Get a tattoo in memory of your dog
This one, too, isn’t for everyone, but another way to memorialize a pet is perhaps the ultimate artwork — a tattoo. Tattoos of pets can include portraits, paw prints or your dog’s name.
Create a special plant, tree or keepsake box as a memorial for your dog
“I have had the honor of attending a number of special tree planting services honoring a pet or pets that serves as a way to allow our beloved pets to live on in a meaningful way,” says Maryglenn, who is also the founder and owner of Paws to Remember, a pet aftercare company that serves grieving pet owners in their time of need.
Still others create a section of their backyard to plant flowers and include a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, as a place to sit and reminisce about their dog. You can also get a pawprint mold and display that as part of the tribute.
While a garden is lovely, that special spot can also be indoors with something as simple as a keepsake box or memorial shelf. Rev. Kaleel suggests, “Creating a special memorial in the house with the dog’s leash, favorite toy, photographs, perhaps, and other objects that give the pet parent a place to go and be especially close to their departed, beloved animal companion.”
Make art to memorialize your dog
While few things capture a pet’s likeness as a clear, in-focus photograph, there are many media that go beyond that. An art director friend of mine, for example, did an Illustrator image of our Medusa (above) that we had printed on a canvas. It was based on a photo of her and we display it proudly in our home. You can also get pillows, watercolor portraits, a mug, etc. to keep a visual of your pet, along with the many memories you shared, close at hand.
Create a custom-created animal to memorialize your dog
Another form of remembrance is a custom-created animal made in your pet’s likeness. This is a very cool idea, which you may want to act on before your pet passes. I know for myself, I’d need to let some time pass before getting one after the fact; as I mentioned with those Facebook memories, sometimes things are just “too soon.” And, again, only you can determine what is right for you — there is no single correct approach!
Do a good deed in memory of your dog
A donation on behalf of your dog is a very special way to honor her while also helping other dogs in need. “I do this whenever a friend’s pet dies,” Jenna says. “It’s such a lovely legacy that allows them to live on while helping other animals.” Options could include the rescue organization where you got your dog, a group dedicated specifically to your dog’s breed or one just for senior pets, like Grey Muzzle, which has a special “in memory of” donation section.
How to grieve your dog when he passes
“No two people grieve the same; some grieving owners want community and ceremony, while others want to be left alone,” Maryglenn says. “I do think it is important to keep that in mind when honoring a loved one’s pet.”
Rev. Kaleel says he knows people who, 30 years after the death of their pet, still mourn and miss them.
“I want people to know tears are sacred. Grief is healthy. Many people I work with tell me they grieved more deeply for the death of their pet than when their parent or friend or relative died,” he says. “Yes, that’s true because the love between us and our pets is without betrayal, complexity, judgment — the stuff that complicates and corrodes human relationships. Yet, so often, the heartbreak we feel at the death of our pet leads directly back to un-mourned losses in a person’s life. I see it almost all the time. The tears never shed at Dad’s passing are shed at the dog’s passing.”
If you have a friend who is grieving for a pet, don’t worry too much about doing or saying the wrong thing. “As a friend, to acknowledge and honor the love someone shared with a pet is a wonderful way to say ‘I care,’ and ‘I, too, want to help you honor the life and love you shared,’” Coleen says. “When a pet parent is in grief with a shattered heart, having a friend be a caring voice with a helping hand is so heartwarming. And, if nothing else, ‘just be’ with the person who’s had the loss and listen to their stories. The gift of presence in that manner means the world!”
No matter how big or small your dog is, when he passes, he leaves behind a huge void. Grieving is a deeply personal process. Whenever you’re ready, some of these memorialization ideas can create a tangible form of the many memories in your heart.
Create a bucket list for your senior dog
Many of us are familiar with people creating a bucket list of things to do before they pass on. They might include go to Paris, drive a race car or meet Brad Pitt. As with everything else, our companions have far lower aspirations, which makes it even easier to create a bucket list to delight your dog.
Consider the following treats or experiences when you know you will have to say goodbye soon:
✤ Trip to the dog park – borrow a wagon if your senior dog isn’t so mobile
✤ Day at the beach
✤ Playdate with some of your dog’s besties
✤ Tasty table scraps
✤ Trips through the drive-through for a burger or other snack
✤ Chocolate, the ultimate forbidden delight. In fact, some veterinary clinics have a jar of “Goodbye Kisses” in the rooms where pet parents say their final goodbyes as a way to give their dogs something special at the very end.