Do Dogs Grieve As Deeply As Humans Do?

Behavior & Training
Canine Grief

Do dogs grieve? Having recently lost our 11-year-old Australian Shepherd, Miles, I asked about 25 dog friends their thoughts on canine grief. They overwhelmingly believe dogs, as well as other animals, experience grief and admitted they had seen it in their own animals. Granted, it is a long way from scientific data, but the problem is that not a lot of data exists on whether or not dogs grieve.

Most experts agree that dogs experience grief. Although this information is more empirical than scientific—meaning it is based more on personal observation and anecdotal evidence than on science. However, the topic of canine emotion is gaining in popularity and scientists are starting to pay attention to animal grief. Consider, for example, Emory University Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, who spent decades using MRI imaging technology to study the human brain, recently released a book, How Dogs Love UsA Neuroscientist And His Adopted Dog Decode The Canine Brain (New Harvest, 2013) that chronicles his research project into the canine brain.

Even with high-tech gadgetry like MRIs—how do we know what dogs are thinking? Observing a dog's behavior does not tell us what he is thinking. Since losing Miles, his litter mate brother, Moses, has been in quite a funk. Normally high energy and unbelievably ball crazy, I have noticed he doesn't want to fetch anymore. He is not all that interested in the ball, he mopes around the house, sleeps more often, and just looks unbelievably sad. He has never been a dog to cuddle, but recently he has started crawling up in my lap and laying his head on my chest.

Are these symptoms of canine grief? Experts say yes. Is he steeped in grief? Barbara King, a professor of anthropology and author of How Animals Grieve (University of Chicago Press, 2013) notes, "My definition of grief requires that an animal's normal behavior routine is significantly altered, and that she shows visible emotional distress through body language, vocalizations, social withdrawal, and/or failure to eat or sleep."

I fear it would take nothing short of a life-threatening illness for Moses to give up his food, but he does exhibit many classic symptoms of canine grief. A colleague suggested that Moses is probably getting a double-dose of grief—his own grief and then trying to help me deal with my grief.

Skeptics pooh-pooh the idea of canine grief and chalk it up to anthropomorphic projection. In other words, attributing human characteristics to dogs or other animals. Are humans inadvertently but wrongly projecting their feelings onto their dogs? That is a legitimate debate, but King believes "if we open our eyes to the depth of animal thinking and feeling it is going to tell us what we see is real."

All animals and people have the same core emotion systems in the brain, according to Temple Grandin's book, Animals Make Us Human (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). Most owners probably believe their dogs have emotions, but do dogs grieve like people? Do their hearts hurt? Are they sad? Depressed? Do they need or want comforting?

Some animals appear to grieve more than others, but many experts stop short of saying all animals grieve or even all animals are capable of grieving. Is it as simple as saying some dogs mourn and others don't? Dogs, like people, are individuals and possess unique personalities. Like people, they probably establish different relationships that no doubt vary greatly from dog to dog or other animals. It stands to reason that they are likely to grieve differently depending on the depth of their love and loss.

How to Help Your Dog

It has been nearly three months and Moses continues to behave as though he is experiencing grief. He is slowly returning to his normal energetic, ball-crazy self, and I realize the best thing I can do is to always be there for him. Experts say it is important to recognize that, just as no one can make your heartache go away, you can't fix your dog's grief either. But you can help him.

I talk to Moses a lot and tell him, "I know you miss Miles and I do too, but I don't think he wants us to be sad." I know, that sounds utterly crazy and I was beginning to think it might be too until I read Patricia McConnell's blog and she suggested the same thing. If McConnell, a Ph.D. and noted authority on dog behavior, suggests talking to your dog—obviously I'm not that crazy!

She writes, "I don't think it matters that much that your dog understands the words, or even the concept of death. There's just something about giving voice to an emotion that, just happens, might help a dog sort out his or her confusion over what's happening."

Long walks are physically and mentally therapeutic for both dog and owner—especially if a dog can run and explore off leash in a safe environment. Consider taking along another canine buddy to help your dog change his emotional state. Others suggest a game of fetch, teaching new tricks, or any other activity your dog likes. Long walks are our favorite, and Moses is slowly coming out of his funk—at his own pace.

Experts note it can take weeks to months for some dog to have their spirits lifted and return to normal. If your dog continues to exhibit signs of grieving or if he appears depressed or sad, it is always wise to consult your veterinarian.