One of my dogs, Olive, turned five years old this week and, while every minute for her holds unfettered joy, love and promise, the birthday was burnished with a little melancholy for me.

Five!

I’m doing the sums. Given the longevity of her breed – collie crossed with Australian cattle dog – she might be with us for another decade or more, I hope. But given the average human male life expectancy, I might well be expected to (touch wood!) outlast her.

This raises the prospect of living without her. And a life without Olive seems imponderable. Just as life without Nari – the feisty labrador whose early death Olive followed into the house 18 months later – was similarly unfathomable at the time.

Yet we do keep going after losing the animals we adore. If I wrote here, “Keep going in much the same way as we suffer and endure after the deaths of beloved people,” I know that dog and cat people would understand, though some others without pets may find this ridiculous, my comparison perhaps even improper.

The truth is that the death of every beloved dog (I am saying dog advisedly because I am a dog person, but I understand the same applies for others to cats just as it may to guinea pigs, rabbits, pigs and other highly sentient pets) leaves a void of heartbreak. Memories of them, our shared experiences and individual emotional connections, cannot be replicated in just the same ways as our unique coexistences with people we love can never, after their deaths, be recreated with others.

A dog or a cat can no more be “replaced’’ than a person.

It’s why, after Nari died and we buried her ashes under the back yard tree she was forever digging around and screwed her name tag into the trunk, I said “no – no more dogs’’. I couldn’t go through that pain of love and loss again, any more than I could emotionally withstand re-experiencing the deaths of my parents.

But we had a problem.

Her name? Ronda, the exquisitely beautiful and needy then five-year-old black labrador who, since pup-dom, had been dominated, guided and protected by Nari. Ronda was in a state of perma-distress from the time Nari died. She couldn’t be alone. She yowled when I left the house during the day until my return. Wouldn’t (and still rarely does) let me out of her sight.

I relented after a year and a half. The black-and-white pup Olive (who, like most of her stunning litter, looks like an extra from Muster Dogs) was too gorgeous to resist. Ronda graduated to old dog. Previously passive, she rose to dominate the feisty bitzer puppy. Although as sweet, gentle, reticent Ronda approaches 12, the tides of alpha dog-ness are turning fast.

Twelve is quite old for a labrador. We can’t imagine …

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‘A precious inner alchemy, a cadence of welcome, unspoken co-dependence that’s hard to explain.’ Photograph: Paul Daley

It’s always assumed that people “own” pet animals. And it’s true – we bestow them with names, make decisions about their welfare and diet and, in the case of dogs, determine when they exercise and with whom they play. But so attuned is my rhythm, lifestyle and daily pattern to that of the dogs, I sometimes feel as if our identities are fused.

These past few days I’ve been without them (they have been kennelled on a farm-stay). I’ve walked alone these mornings. And it’s as though I’ve become suddenly invisible to the people I usually encounter. Are they snubbing me as they walk by without acknowledgment? No. I realise that these people so closely associate me with a distinctive, leashed dog at the end of each arm that I fail to register without them.

We are a unit. An extension of one another. There is a remarkable stability – an emotional stillness and calm – to be found in that. A precious inner alchemy, a cadence of welcome, unspoken co-dependence that’s hard to explain.

I know it will end. But I am the only one of us who’s freighted with a vague existential consciousness of that. Their permanent celebration of living affords no space for such fear, their lives free of the consciousness – and dread – of death.

I was never more acutely aware of this than seven years ago. The old dog Nari, riddled with disease, lay calmly and fully conscious at the vet’s, our hands upon her, as the fatal green sedative coursed into her veins. There was only love – and not a hint of fear – in her eyes as the life seeped from her.

She became a precious memory. And the circle of our lives with dogs continues as it tends to.

Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist

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