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Good Grief, Dogs Suffer Loss

Insights On How Pooches Deal with Death

Labrador retriever is lying on the floor at home.

By Kathy Driscoll —

Dogs are humans’ best friends for a good reason. They always greet their human partners with unbridled joy—think tail wags and pooch smooches. Dogs seem obsessed with following their owners everywhere or snuggling up at their sides on a couch or in bed. They deliver constant love, loyalty, companionship and affection.

If that’s not enough, look at a dog’s face when its owner gets angry at them. They look guilty or sad beyond belief. But do dogs feel the same range of emotions as humans? According to animal behaviorists, probably, although there may be differences.

Dogs, in fact, even experience grief at the loss of a human or a companion dog. But the signals they receive about death don’t come to them through words, only from indicators such as changes in routines, and the absence of their owner’s sight, sounds or smell. “We can’t understand how an animal understands or thinks about death,” explained Barbara J. King, professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of How Animals Grieve.

Admittedly, dogs might not understand the full extent of an absence, but they do understand what it means to deeply miss someone who is no longer part of daily life–and this grief comes across through changes in behavior. “My definition of grief is that a surviving animal shows distress through behavior markedly divergent from his routine,” added Alexandra Anastasio of the American Kennel Club.  (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/do-dogs-grieve/)

Changes might include social withdrawal, loss of appetite, lethargy, unusually aggressive or destructive behavior, vocalizing unusually, searching for the companion dog, or becoming clingy to remaining human counterparts.

“Dogs are highly intuitive and sensitive, more than people give them credit for says Jme Thomas, executive director at Motley Zoo Animal Rescue. A heart-wrenching example cited by AKC experts occurred in 2014 when Constable Dave Ross, a Canadian general duty officer and police dog handler, lost his life in the line of duty. His service dog, a German Shepherd named Danny, who had been with Ross every day, whimpered next to his master’s casket during Ross’ funeral.

Similar heart-breaking reactions can occur when another dog in the household dies. “Dogs are highly emotional animals who develop very close bonds with members of the familial group,” writes Federica Pirrone, author of a study published in Scientific Reports. She analyzed the responses of over 400 adults who completed a “mourning dog questionnaire” online to examine how canines experience grief. All the participants had experienced the loss of one of their dogs while at least one other dog was still alive.

The study found that 86 percent of owners reported that their surviving dogs had shown behavioral changes after the death of another canine in the house. The dogs slept more, played and ate less, and sought more of their owners’ attention. The changes did not link how long the dogs had lived together or whether the surviving dogs had seen the corpse. But if the dogs used to share food during their lives, the surviving dog was more likely to reduce activity levels and sleep more.

Canine connections matter too. Pirrone’s work discovered that behavioral changes appeared stronger in dogs that had a friendly relationship with the animal that died or who had been their parent or offspring. “Most likely, this means that the surviving dog lost an attachment figure who provided safety and security,” Pirrone said.

AKC researchers noted they did not confirm whether a dog’s emotional loss mirrors that of a human, but brain imaging studies now show that similar areas of dogs’ brains light up when they’re feeling emotions that parallel humans. Related anxiety and stress are also part of the equation and can manifest themselves in manways, which may affect a dog’s health. Warning signs include panting, whining, barking, pacing and fidgeting.

Dogs will also pick up on and perhaps feed off humans’ grief and changes in their behavior.  “Dogs pick up on our mood, odors, facial expressions, and even read our postures,” reported Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. “They read differences in us and can feed off our feelings, including sadness and grief.”

Humans can help their pooches move through these traumas. But there is no turnkey solution. Grieving can vary from dog to dog, lasting from a few weeks to several months. “You can’t normalize the grieving process,” Beckoff noted. “Some people grieve differently, and some dogs grieve differently. Many things can affect how long the grieving process lasts, including the age and health of the dog, the relationship with the other dog and the grieving process of the humans in the household.” (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/do-dogs-grieve/)

Being sensitive to the dog’s needs can help, however. Maintaining routines is vital and providing grieving dogs extra comfort, affection, play and exercise. Some pups, of course, want time alone. Beckoff noted, “There’s nothing wrong with trying to cheer up your dog. Give him an extra treat, extra walk, a hug, or let him sleep next to you.”

If problems persist, it may be wise to visit a vet.

One warning: getting a replacement dog right away if a companion canine has died is rarely a good idea. New dogs are a lot of work, which may stress owners and grieving pooches. “Just because your dogs were inseparable until the day one of them passed away does not mean the remaining dog will have the same relationship with a new dog,” Amy Bender reported in The Spruce. “You may want to visit a dog park or plan some doggie play dates with other dogs to see how your dog reacts before bringing home a new dog.”

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