Dogs’ loyalty to their human companions is the stuff of legends. But do dogs really experience grief?
Sentimental tales of dogs grieving for their departed owners once inspired statues. There’s the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye Terrier who maintained a vigil at his master’s grave at the Greyfriars Church yard in Edinburgh, Scotland for 14 years, until his own death in 1872. A statue was erected in the dog’s honor in 1873, and his story was also popularized in the 1961 Disney film “Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog.”
Today, photos of canine mourning go viral on the internet. In May 2016, for example, the family of Abraham Martinez, who had died in a car accident, tweeted a photo of his dog lying in front of a memorial set up in the family’s home.
Because of these stories, scientists, animal behaviorists and dog lovers alike all have their own thoughts on canine mourning.
Do Dogs Grieve?
Many scholars think that dogs and other animals experience emotions like grief, says Laurie Santos, director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory and the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
“People report that dogs grieve after similar events that might cause grief in humans, such as the loss of a loved one,” she says. “But it’s always hard to know what an animal’s inner emotional life is since they don’t have language to tell us. There aren’t many direct studies on this, in part because it’s hard for scientists to test what a dog’s inner feelings are really like using our normal scientific tools.”
Dogs have been companion animals throughout human history, and we have thousands of years of co-evolution with them, says Barbara King, the author of “How Animals Grieve” and emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, so it’s no surprise that dogs are very in tune with humans. The question is, are we just as in touch with the feelings of dogs?
How to Determine if a Dog is Grieving
Animals, including dogs, tell us what they feel by how they behave, King says. Grieving animals may exhibit changes in behavior that are similar to the way grief manifests in humans. This can include withdrawing socially, experiencing altered sleeping patterns, and displaying changes in their affections and expressions, she says.
Experts suggest a few ways to help a dog that you believe is having a difficult time. “In lots of ways, you can help a grieving dog like you’d help a grieving human—be sure to give lots of extra affection and try to provide some distractions,” says Santos.
King says that adding a new animal into the home may help as well. Pairing a grieving dog with a younger pet can help rejuvenate and distract the older dog by bringing out his or her nurturing instinct, she says. A new playmate may also help the depressed dog get more exercise.
Dog Grief: A Matter of Perception?
Dog owners shouldn’t jump to conclusions about their pet’s behavior, says King. Dogs may experience emotions like grief differently than humans, and it could manifest for a variety of reasons, such as missing a human loved on or experiencing a change in routine. Pinpointing the cause is unlikely, since dogs cannot put their problems into words.
Animal lovers also like to anthropomorphize animal behavior and label certain behaviors as grief, King adds. The media is particularly guilty of making assumptions about dog behavior. For instance, a photo of a German Shepherd that had dug a hole under a gravestone in Serbia made the rounds on the internet in 2015. Publications initially reported that the dog was mourning her departed owner, but in reality, news organizations eventually revealed that the stray dog had dug a hole to protect her four puppies in the best place she could find.
Even the heart-tugging story of Greyfriars Bobby has its skeptics. According to Dr. Jan Bondeson, a professor at Cardiff University in Wales, two terriers actually lingered at the gravesite, with the second dog appearing after the first one died, and neither belonged to the man buried there. The Daily Mail newspaper reported that Bondeson theorized the dogs were strays fed by the cemetery’s curator and people simply assumed the dogs were mourning their owner. As the story spread, visitors to the graveyard increased, as did church donations and dog food for the dogs. The curator and surrounding businesses had little incentive to dispel the story, the Daily Mail report noted.
Still, many examples of a dog’s devotion can’t be explained away.
During devastating flooding in Rio de Janeiro in 2011, the photo of a dog lying beside its owner’s fresh grave for several days captured the world’s attention. While it’s easy to believe that people see what they want to see in such photos, it’s also not difficult to believe that the relationship between a dog and his or her owner constitutes a strong and enduring bond, and that humans and canines feel and express the loss of the other in his or her own way.
Samantha Drake is a freelance writer & editor in the Philadelphia area who writes about pets, business & general interest topics.