It’s never easy to lose a dog. Rather, it’s always hard. For people whose dogs are treated at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital, it can be a little less painful, thanks to Michele Pich, M.A., M.S.

Pich, pronounced “pick,” is a veterinary grief counselor who sees individuals who have lost pets. She also leads two support groups – one for pet loss and one for people whose animals are terminally or chronically ill.

Michele Pich, a veterinary grief counselor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and her American Staffordshire Terrier mix, Vivian, at center, visit children and their families at the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia each week. Photo courtesy Ronald McDonald House.

With masters’ degrees in clinical psychology and criminal justice, Pich counseled people in halfway houses, an adult in-patient facility and in prison for a decade before taking on her role at Penn Vet. Her dog, Cleopatra, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2009, and she was referred to the veterinary hospital. “We decided to give chemo a try,” she says. “That was kind of a learning process for me. While I was in the waiting room for her treatments, I kind of got to know the people. It kind of felt like a support group. I saw the importance of having that support in my own life. It was nice to have other people who understood.”

With the veterinary school’s support, she started Cleo’s Group in 2010 for people whose pets were going through long-term treatment. Penn Vet has had a grief counseling program for almost 20 years, but it was the first support group for people whose pets were still living. Then, the grief counselor position opened up, and Pich thought that she could understand people’s needs and loss from “the clinical sense, the counseling sense and from a personal perspective.” Though Cleo died in June 2011, Pich says she feels that her beloved dog laid out for her the path she’s on.

In addition to the support groups, Pich offers individual counseling, with the help of her adopted American Staffordshire Terrier mix, Vivian Peyton.

Vivian seems to instinctively know which of Michele Pich’s clients need some canine TLC. Photo courtesy of Michele Pich.

A Dog in the Counselor’s Office

It was Martin Luther King Day 2012 when Pich met Vivian. Isaac, her other dog, was missing Cleopatra, she says, and Pich had just started working with New Leash on Life USA at the nearby Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. (Programs in which prisoners train unadoptable dogs so they can be placed have been popping up around the United States for more than a decade now.) “That’s when I met Vivian. It was love at first sight. I adored her immediately. I stopped off at my fiancé’s work on the way home to tell him about her. The trainers all thought she’d be a good therapy dog.” Pich wanted to be able to participate in canine-assisted therapy visits at the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia.

In the human-animal bond veterinary class that Pich was teaching at the time, students took their therapy dogs to the support group meeting room an hour before the start time so people could play with them. “They really appreciated it and loved it.” From there, Pich says, it “just kind of made sense” to have Vivian be part of her counseling practice. She takes “a little bit of the anxiety away,” Pich says. “It really just seemed like a natural fit.”

During a private session, Vivian “has a really good sense if people need her. A lot of times she’ll basically be sitting next to the person with her head on their lap. She can kind of tell if somebody’s in pain or needs some extra sport.” Pich insists that Vivian remain on the office floor, but that doesn’t keep some clients from joining her there for a closer connection. “She gives people that sense of being around a pet, but not having to care for one.” No client has ever asked Pich to kennel Vivian during a session.

Vivian Peyton is a graduate of the New Leash on Life USA program at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. Prisoners train dogs so that they can be placed in permanent homes. Photo courtesy of John Donges.

Working Through the Pain

When a client is referred to Pich by Penn Vet, an outside veterinarian or finds her through her Facebook page, “I kind of let them lead the conversation and basically ask follow-up questions,” she says. “I really try to resolve whatever issues the person brings in. I can’t assume that everyone has the same type of issues.”

She explains: “People really do think of their pets as extended family or family members, and sometimes their only family.”

In addition, she says, losing a pet is not a single loss. “It’s a really complicated issue. It’s the loss of their confidante, the loss of their best friend. It’s also the loss of the routine.”

To look toward the future, “a lot of the time we talk about the new normal, being able to find a way to move on with their lives, while acknowledging that the pet has been an important part of their lives.”

She sees most of her clients just once or twice. But for others, it can take more time to get through the initial crisis. “I’ve certainly seen people 10 or 15 times. I kind of just go with whatever my clients feel they need.” Often if the loss is unexpected, she says, or if the owner had some part in the animal’s death through an accident, for example, it can tend to lead to more sessions.

Also, she says, someone who may be prone to depression may take longer to work through it – especially if the pet has been “who they’ve cried to and who they’ve turned to, people feel kind of lost.”She estimates that she refers 5 to 10 percent of her individual clients for therapy for issues beyond grief at the loss of a pet.

Pich is also called in to counsel dog owners who are making – or have already made – a decision about euthanasia. People feel guilty, she says, about letting their pets go, or not having made the decision sooner. “It is a very common thing that people are very uneasy with the idea of euthanasia even if they know it’s the right thing and the humane thing,” she says.

Vivian shares her calm happiness with everyone she meets. Photo courtesy of Ronald McDonald House.

Safety Among Friends

The majority of Pich’s clients go to one of the support groups offered by Penn Vet. “It’s nice to have a community that understands what they’re going through. They don’t know how other people view pets.” If they talk to a co-worker or even sometimes a friend, they’re “not sure they can handle it if someone says something insensitive. There’s a sense of comfort in being with people who know what they’re going through.”

A major part of grieving the loss of a pet, Pich says, is acknowledging that “the love doesn’t end when your pet dies.”

The support group gives people a safe place to talk about how much their pets meant to them. “A lot of times people don’t feel comfortable because they don’t feel they have the right to be outwardly upset when they’re around people who have lost a child or parent,” Pich says.

Many veterinary schools and a few other organizations offer pet loss support groups, and a couple of pet-loss hotlines operate around the country.The Pet Loss Support Page posts a list of hotlines and a state search of support groups and counselors.

Though no studies exist, Pich says “strictly anecdotally,” people are more understanding of pet owners’ grief than in the past. “I think with more studies coming out about the human-animal bond and even how the bond can affect their immune system and heart rate, people are starting to realize that there’s really something to this. I’ve had more people coming to the groups who are relatives of someone who lost a pet. I have seen an increase in that understanding.” Nonetheless, she adds, “I do think that general society has a long way to go still.”

Vivian and Michele Pich were recognized at the 2012 National Dog Show for their therapy work. Photo courtesy Jack McMahon Jr.

The Counselor’s Advice

For anyone who has lost a pet, Pich says, “Don’t be afraid to talk about it. I think that’s the problem sometimes. People keep it in and don’t reach out for support. And it gets harder and harder.”

Also keep in mind, she says, that you may need to reach out to different people. Members of her support group sometimes say it’s the only place they can share their feelings. Pick says it’s important to keep reaching out until you find someone who can understand what you’re doing through.

It’s also important, she says, to find a way to acknowledge the loss, whether it’s through a funeral for your pet or through a journal where you can record what your animal meant to you. It’s good to explore what roles your pet played in your life, so that you can find other options for meeting those needs.

Pich’s own loss added a whole new aspect to her career. And she never would have met Vivian if she hadn’t gotten involved with Penn Vet. “I have to say that Vivian’s been really beneficial for me, and I really have New Leash on Life to thank for that.”