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There are countless reasons why dogs are considered to be man’s best friend. They offer love, loyalty, and companionship, and anyone who has ever formed a deep bond with a dog can attest to the special relationship between humans and canines. But do dogs grieve the loss of their owners?
Understanding Dog Grief
“When an owner passes away before her pet, it can be a confusing, sad, and difficult period, even if arrangements have been made for the animal to be taken care of by someone else,” says Russell Hartstein, a certified behaviorist and dog trainer based in Los Angeles.
It’s not unusual for dogs to grieve the loss of a person they’ve bonded with. While dogs might not understand the full extent of human absence, dogs do understand the feeling of missing a human or dog who’s no longer a part of their daily lives. Because we can’t explain to our dogs exactly what loss means, certain indicators — such as a change in routine, or the absence of their owner’s sensations (sight, sound, or smell) — will indicate to them that something is different.
“My definition of grief is that a surviving animal shows distress through behavior that is markedly divergent from his routine,” says Barbara J. King, professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and the author of “How Animals Grieve.”
We can’t say for sure whether a dog’s feelings when they experience emotional loss mirror human feelings when we experience emotional loss. But Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, says that solid evidence from brain imaging studies indicates that similar areas of dogs’ brains light up when they’re feeling emotions parallel to human feelings.
Signs of Grief in Dogs
No two dogs are alike. So the way that each dog grieves — and for how long — can differ. In order to understand a dog’s emotional state after they’ve lost a loved one, it’s important to keep an eye out for certain signs, which can affect a dog’s health.
Although there is no concrete way of knowing exactly how a dog processes grief, there’s no denying they express sadness through behavioral changes. Dog anxiety can present itself in a variety of ways. Watch out for signs of stress in dogs, including:
Jme Thomas, executive director at Motley Zoo Animal Rescue, explains that dogs need to figure things out on their own and work through feelings when experiencing loss or grief. “Dogs are highly intuitive and sensitive, more than people give them credit for,” says Thomas.
Other indicators of grief in dogs may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Lack of energy
- Listlessness or clinginess
- Loss of interest in physical activity
Supporting Grieving Dogs
In June 2014, 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 Dog named Danny, stood alongside him during his time on the force. Throughout Ross’ funeral, the loyal canine whimpered next to his owner’s casket. This is just one example of the way a dog may express their feelings after losing an owner.
Like humans, dogs go through a grieving period. While there isn’t one specific approach to help, being sensitive to a dog’s needs can go a long way. Here are some ways to support a grieving dog:
- Be aware of routines and try to stick to them.
- Provide comfort by spending more time together.
- Give them extra affection, since touch increases the human-canine bond.
- Play your dog’s favorite game and increase their amount of exercise.
“I have no doubt that dogs miss us as much as we miss them, and like us, they need time to heal from a deep emotional loss,” says Sally Morgan, a holistic physical therapist for animals and humans.
How long a dog grieves varies, but with time, most will recover emotionally. At the first sign of decline in physical or emotional health, consult a veterinarian to make sure the symptoms of grief aren’t masking symptoms of another illness.