Do dogs grieve?

Dogs may not experience and process grief the same way we do, but the behavioral changes that occur after a human or animal companion passes indicate they do feel a sense of loss and bereavement. 

Dogs may not experience and process grief the same way we do, but the behavioral changes that occur after a human or animal companion passes indicate they do feel a sense of loss and bereavement. 

Back in 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the definitive book about grief, titled On Death and Dying. In it, she speaks about the universality of grief and how it’s a process we all experience when a loved one passes away. One of the key contributions of the book are the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. But what about our dogs — do they grieve? Do they move through a grief process of their own after a human or animal companion dies?

Signs of grief in dogs

Deena Cooper, a Canadian dog trainer and behavior modification specialist, says that dogs, like humans, grieve when a loved one dies. They may not understand the concept of death the way we do, but they perceive that another animal or person is suddenly gone from their lives, and they miss that individual.

“The signs of grieving for both dogs and people can be the same,” Deena says. “Depression is typical, and is characterized by sleep problems, decreased appetite, a decrease in activity and heightened anxiety. In dogs, these states manifest in behaviors such as panting, pacing, and sometimes the destruction of objects.” Additionally, a grieving dog may withdraw from people and other animals, exhibit apathetic behavior, have accidents in the home, and try to find their missing companion.

Other indications of canine grief, according to the American Kennel Club, include vocalization such as whining or crying, and excessive clinginess to someone else in the household.

Studies indicate that canine grief is real

In 1996, a survey conducted by the ASPCA called the Companion Animal Mourning Project found that dogs do indeed grieve for lost loved ones. The researchers found that 66% of dogs undergo several behavioral changes after the loss of another canine companion:

  • 36% of dogs exhibited a decrease in appetite, while over 10% wouldn’t eat at all.
  • While many dogs from the survey slept more than normal, others seemed to suffer from sleeplessness. Some also started sleeping in different areas of the house.
  • Almost 65% of dogs were either more or less vocal than before the loss.
  • The bereaved dogs often became more clingy and demanding of affection.

According to the American Kennel Club, a more recent study published in the November 2016 edition of Animals found that grieving behaviors in dogs can vary depending on the dog. The study also found that it generally takes two to six months for a bereaved dog’s behavior to return to normal.

The AKC reports on a further study that was published in a 2017 edition of Scientific American. Conducted by Barbara J. King, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA, the study indicated that the loss of a canine companion can cause behavior changes in the surviving dog, including social withdrawal, a reluctance to eat, and stress-related vocalizations.

How to help a grieving dog

Grief is extremely difficult for us to deal with, and Deena says the same is true for our dogs. Here’s how to help your dog if he’s mourning a companion:

  • You may perceive that your dog is hiding more than usual and that’s okay. Allow him to grieve and have some alone time.
  • Deena adds that it’s also important to give your dog extra attention and TLC when he wants it. This quality time is good for you as well, since you’re probably also grieving the loss.
  • Ensure your dog is getting adequate exercise, and that he’s eating properly. If his appetite seems low, tempt him with some healthy treats or toppers.
  • If your dog has lost a canine companion he was close to, you might consider adopting another dog to help him recover from his bereavement. Don’t think of the new dog as a “replacement” for the one that has passed, but as a way to encourage the surviving dog to engage in life again.
  • An alternative to adopting another dog is to arrange play dates with other dogs, or find new activities to do with your dog.
  • Most importantly, just be there for your dog to give him the love and attention he needs to recover from the loss of his close friend, whether human or animal.

Anecdotal evidence of grief in dogs

Hachiko

Perhaps one of the most well-known stories of a canine grief is the epic tale of Hachiko. This Akita Inu dog was born on a farm in 1923 and adopted by Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor of agriculture at the University of Tokyo. The two fell into a daily routine. Each morning, Ueno would pet Hachiko goodbye before boarding the train to work. Hachiko then spent the day at the train station waiting for Ueno to return, while local shopkeepers and station workers watched over him. Their walks to and from the station continued for several years until one day Ueno never came home from work. He had suffered a brain hemorrhage and tragically died.

Of course, Hachiko had no idea what had happened, and every morning for the next nine years, he arrived at the train station searching for his best friend. As time passed, his loyalty earned him the nickname “the faithful dog.” Hachiko passed away in 1935, and a bronze statue was erected outside the Shibuya Station as a tribute to the dog. “Hachiko is an outstanding example of a dog grieving for a loved one,” says Deena. “In this case, the grief is illustrated by Hachiko’s loyalty, and the fact that he continued looking for his best friend for nine years.”

Aspen

“My dog Aspen is my best friend,” says Kristen Williams. “I’ve had her since she was five weeks old and I was 17. She’s been through it all with me — high school, living in three states, different jobs and relationships.”

But things weren’t always rosy for Kristen and Aspen. When the pup was about ten months old, Kristen’s mother told her she had to find a new home for Aspen. Heartbroken, Kristen posted her on a Facebook page and someone offered to take her. The new family returned her within two days but never said what went wrong. They didn’t even want a refund. A few days later, someone else wanted her. They loved Aspen instantly and took her that night. A few days later, they called and said they also wouldn’t be able to keep her. Kristen told her mother, “If the next family gives her back, she’s meant to be with us.” The next family came, loved Aspen instantly, and left with her. The next morning, there was a knock on the door and a man stood there with baby Aspen. He said he couldn’t keep her but offered no explanation. Needless to say, Kristen got to keep her dog. “Perhaps Aspen was stressed and showing signs of grief, and the new families felt she’d be better off with Kristen,” says Deena.

As we learn more about canine cognition and behavior, we’re realizing that dogs feel a range of emotions, including grief. Recognizing the signs of a mourning dog, and helping him move through the process, will help ease your own grief and strengthen your bond of love.

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