Heartbroken dog owner mourns while sitting on a bench with a collar and holding a lost dog flyer.

Heartbroken dog owner mourns while sitting on a bench with a collar and holding a lost dog flyer. (© Marina Gordejeva - stock.adobe.com)

BRISTOL, United Kingdom — Dogs aren’t just pets, they’re beloved members of the family. The bond owners share with their pup can be similar to the love between a parent and their child. That’s why, according to a study published in the journal Human-Animal Interactions, if someone’s furry best friend is stolen, the emotional impact on the owner can be utterly devastating.

Researchers from the United Kingdom delved into the experiences of dog owners who have gone through the trauma of having their furry companion kidnapped. The findings reveal that the grief these owners feel is very similar to the anguish experienced by parents of missing children.

Through in-depth interviews with dog theft victims, researchers found that owners develop deep anthropomorphic relationships with their dogs. This means they attribute human characteristics and familial roles to their pets. Owners used terms like “our boys” or “our babies” when referring to their dogs and described them as integral parts of the family unit.

“This study explored the experiences and needs of dog-guardians when faced with dog theft and the results validated an overlap of characteristics between human and non-human relationships,” says study co-author Akaanksha Venkatramanan, an assistant psychologist at Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, in a statement. “It provides evidence of the intense love of dogs and the parental accountability of guardians. A consequent overlap of emotional distress at the loss of this relationship is also shown, providing empirical evidence to formulate psychological and legal support to this, currently disenfranchised, grief experience.”

When a dog is suddenly taken from them, owners are thrown into a state of emotional turmoil marked by feelings of disbelief, desperation, and despair. They experience “ambiguous loss” — not knowing the whereabouts or condition of their dog makes the grieving process especially difficult. Some hold onto hope that their dog will be found, which can intensify the psychological distress. Others wish for closure, even if it means finding out their dog has passed away, just to end the agonizing limbo.

Pet owner mourning the death of dog or cat, holding its collar in grief
The findings reveal that the grief stolen pet owners feel is very similar to the anguish experienced by parents of missing children. (© Soloviova Liudmyla – stock.adobe.com)

The pain is compounded by a sense that their grief is “disenfranchised.” Since dogs are legally considered property, the depth of the owner’s anguish often isn’t validated by society. Lack of support from law enforcement and even criticism from social circles leaves victims feeling isolated in their suffering.

To cope with this complex bereavement, dog theft victims employ strategies similar to those used by families of missing persons. Problem-solving through proactive searching efforts, seeking social support, and expressing emotions through online journaling and memorial posts are some of the ways owners work through their grief.

Social media, in particular, has emerged as an important outlet and resource. Online communities provide a judgment-free space for victims to share their heartache, keep their dog’s memory alive, and feel supported by others who understand. It’s also a valuable tool for networking and spreading awareness in search efforts.

Unfortunately, the trauma of dog theft can have lasting impacts. Owners report hypervigilance, deteriorating mental and physical health, and drastic life changes stemming from their all-consuming search. Some describe feeling forever altered by the experience.

“This research was launched when my friends’ dog, Lola, was stolen from under her nose in her back garden by someone we presume was posing as a delivery driver. The distress rocked everyone, and I felt more had to be done to support those who were having their dogs stolen,” explains study co-author Dr. Lindsey Roberts, a human-animal bond expert and senior lecturer at the University of the West of England. “We interviewed people who had experienced theft, and we have since developed a questionnaire that aims to highlight the areas people need most support in coping with the theft of their dogs to help alleviate suffering.”

While the small sample size of this qualitative study is a limitation, it provides a springboard for further research into this little-explored issue. The insights gleaned could help shape more understanding legislation and police procedures, as well as guide mental health support for affected owners.

StudyFinds’ Matt Higgins contributed to this report.

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