It’s often said that the price of love is loss. Though this is spoken of humans, it applies to dogs as well. Vets say that dogs experience tremendous grief when they lose canine companions or members of their human family. They don’t, however, shed tears, which is why it’s especially important that their owners are attuned to signs of heartache and distress. Awareness of your dogs grief is the first step toward providing the comfort he needs.
The Shock, Confusion, and Emptiness of Abandonment
Whether or not dogs understand that a loved one has died is open to debate, but they are keenly aware of abandonment, the disappearance of a loved one who was central to their days and nights. It leaves a hole in their life. This may be even more troubling if the death occurs outside the home — for example, when a sick dog is euthanized at the vet. “If you have two dogs at home, and one goes to the vet and just never comes home, the remaining dog may be left confused, with no sense of what happened,” says Barbara J. King, PhD, professor emerita of anthropology at William & Mary in Virginia and author of How Animals Grieve, and the upcoming Animals’ Best Friends.
Dr. King points to a revolutionary way of solving this problem: a new practice that echoes the human custom of a funeral viewing, giving the surviving animal a better chance to process the situation and gain some closure. “Today, when a dog dies or is euthanized at the vet and another dog is waiting at home, more and more practices attuned to animal emotions make sure the survivor can see the body. It has to be a setting where that can be done, and it’s certainly up to the owner,” she says. The animal is laid out on a blanket, and the living animal is left alone with it and allowed to come forward, look at it, and smell it. The dog may not literally grasp the concept of death, but if they see a body not moving, they’ll understand something about the finality of that situation, as opposed to when a dog is just whisked away and never seen again.
“I think they do have a concept of death,” Dr. King adds. “I think they’re smart enough to know, and maybe there’s a different smell in death as well.” The idea is to offer our dogs the opportunity to say farewell, even if we don’t entirely understand what they may be getting out of it.
Looking for Signs
After a death, you need to keep your eyes on your dog for classic indications of grief, to make sure she doesn’t sink into a depression. “The key is to compare their behavior and the way they look before and after the death of a companion,” says Dr. King. “Dogs get depressed and show us through visual cues. Their facial expressions change, they crawl under the bed, they make vocalizations. It’s multimodal. All these different modes of communication are telling you there’s something sustained enough to consider it grief instead of just momentary sadness.”
King notes that the media often puts up a picture or a 20-second video clip of a dog, saying that it’s a grieving dog, but that can be misleading, she says. “That’s just a snapshot. You have to look both for changes from how the dog was before, and how sustained the changes are.” If the dog withdraws for a day and perhaps doesn’t eat, that may be a fleeting reaction to something in the home, and you have to distinguish what is their own feeling from what is coming from humans. See how they appear and act over days, not hours. Be rigorous.
Dogs, like humans, are individuals. And like us, each one may react to a loss in his or her own unique way; indeed, recovery may take a day, a week, a month, or quite a bit more. When profound human mourning goes on for too long, psychologists call it “complex grief.” Dogs can suffer in a protracted way, too, putting them at risk.
They might have trouble sleeping, socializing, or eating. You might see a disturbing weight loss. If your dog’s despondence reaches this point, “Consider medical therapy,” advises Zachary, Louisiana, veterinary consultant Lynn Buzhardt, DVM. “Ask your veterinarian about the use of a behavior-modification drug. Several medicines can enhance your efforts at resolving behavior issues.”
Just as for humans, there is no right, wrong, or normal way for your grieving dog to mourn. Some dogs grieve harder and longer than others. “There’s a lot of variability in how dogs respond. Some recover, some don’t. Some get so depressed, they just become ill, and you really have to watch for that. And some don’t get depressed at all,” says Dr. King. It depends on the dog’s personality, the dynamics in the home, and just how close the surviving dog was to the departed companion.
Dr. King recalls a woman who was concerned her dog wasn’t grieving enough. She had expected the surviving dog to become very sad and socially withdrawn after the companion dog’s death, and it didn’t happen. “She actually said to me, ‘What’s wrong, why isn’t my dog grieving?’ But the two dogs weren’t close, the departed dog was the alpha dog, and after he died, the survivor suddenly got lots more attention. He had every reason to be happy. So, I remind people that dogs are individuals just like people are.”
Help Your Dog Grieve
When signs of grief do become clear in your dog following the loss of an animal or human family member, stay attuned to his looks and behavior and try these key strategies to help him cope:
- Spend extra time with your mourning animal. Try to divert your dog’s thoughts away from her sadness by engaging in her favorite pastimes. Go for a walk, play fetch, take a ride in the car. “Give them a lot of attention,” says animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, PhD. “Approach them slowly and touch them softly or sit next to them and talk softly to them. Be there whenever they need you.”
- Be especially affectionate to a dog who has lost a companion. Pet him often throughout the day and certainly whenever he comes to you. Make eye contact and talk to him through everyday activities, in language he’s come to understand: “We’re going out now, OK?” “I’ve got some great treats for you!”
- Invite a few of your friends over to spend time with your dog and perk her up. “Human variety can pique your dog’s interest,” says Dr. Buzhardt. It may just get her off the floor and stop her moping.
- Leave entertainment when you go out. “Hide treats or fill a foraging toy with food to keep her busy,” Dr. Buzhardt suggests. Anything to divert her focus from her suffering.
- Reinforce good behavior; ignore inappropriate behavior. If he’s moaning or howling, let him. “Basically ignore it. Don’t give him a treat to quiet him, which will only reinforce the behavior,” explains Dr. Buzhardt. “Or call him to you, and if he comes or does any other positive behavior, then reward him — say, with treats, hugs, or a walk.”
- Consider replacing a beloved pet companion, but proceed with care. If your dog had a special relationship with the departed dog, you can’t just replace him with another and expect that to solve everything. Sometimes a new dog just adds stress, while at other times it can add new life and happiness. Your dog may or may not be receptive, but there’s a continuum of things you can try, from having a friend bring a dog over for a couple of hours for a playdate to full adoption of another dog, according to Dr. King. She recommends a younger dog, because it may awaken your dog’s protective instincts and get her out of her own head. “There’s something about nurturing a younger animal that can sometimes reanimate a dog’s emotions,” she says.
- Give your dog time to grieve and regain a sense of self. Some people think dogs live in the now, but neuroscience has debunked that old canard. Dogs have memories of past events, and they can be traumatized by loss. They may be remembering their companion, and the pain doesn’t always go away quickly. It may take time to recover, and they deserve that respect. So, if what you’re trying doesn’t work right away, don’t get frustrated; just give them time. Remain vigilant and attuned to your dog’s signs of anxiety. If her health ultimately seems compromised by the stress, get her to the vet. But above all, stay patient and keep giving her love.
8 Key Signs Your Dog Is Grieving
Though your pet can’t sob like a human or come right out and tell you she’s grief-stricken, these eight changes in behavior after a death are a neon sign telling you she’s in mourning.
- Reduced Friendliness and Social Withdrawal. Your dog no longer hangs out with human family members and may hide from you or visitors. “If the survivor is basically telling you, ‘I need a break, just leave me alone awhile,’ let him withdraw,” says Marc Bekoff, PhD. “Let him hide under the bed or go into his outdoor kennel. He’ll come to you when he needs something.”
- Reduced Independence and a Tendency to Cling. In contrast, many dogs become more affectionate, following you around demanding attention and becoming needy and clingy. A 2016 study in the journal Animals found that 74 percent of dogs behaved in this manner after a companion’s death.
- Searching. She keeps going to places in the house where her companion pooch used to sleep or play, possibly waiting there in the hope she’ll show up.
- Increased or Decreased Amounts of Sleep. “Many dogs sleep much more than usual, while others suffer from insomnia,” notes Lynn Buzhardt, DVM. Some may also change where they sleep.
- Decreased Appetite or Food Refusal. The ASPCA’s Companion Animal Mourning Project found that 36 percent of dogs had a decrease in appetite after losing a canine companion. A striking 11 percent refused food altogether.
- Less Playfulness. Their energy goes way down, and they stop taking joy in activities that formerly delighted them. “They may move around slowly, sulking around, or just lie there listlessly,” says Dr. Buzhardt.
- Altered Vocalizing. In the Companion Animal Mourning Project, 63 percent of dogs vocalized either more or less after a companion’s death. Some literally moaned and called out for their lost friend.
- Heightened Levels of Anxiety Increased stress can show up in several ways, such as panting and pacing, inappropriate elimination in the home, and unusual destructiveness.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Dog’s Mind, in 2022.
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