There are a lot of different animals that display behavioural aspects of loss, sadness and loneliness. The death of an important family member, human or animal, can have a major effect on all members of the household – including our pets.
There is very little scientific evidence that dogs experience grief as we know it, but stories such as Greyfriars Bobby, (the devoted Skye Terrier who allegedly guarded his owner’s grave for fourteen years), and feedback from a large percentage of dog owners, suggest that dogs (and other animals) feel emotions similar to ours when a family member or another pet dies.
It is important to remember that the death of a two or four-legged companion will have a huge impact on a dog’s daily routine. Walks, feed times and other important activities may change. A dog may continue to sit patiently, waiting for his owner to return home to take him for a walk. Following the loss of a fellow canine companion, the surviving dog will often spend time searching around the house – checking the sleeping and resting areas of their absent friend.
Don’t forget that the whole family will be grieving. Dogs are very aware of emotional changes in their humans. The family’s sadness and feelings of loss will affect the behaviour of the household dog as he tries to make sense of the range of emotions his human companions are experiencing.
In 1996, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted a study called the ‘Companion Animal Mourning Project’. Their survey studied common signs of grief and looked at these in relation to pets. Below are their findings.
The conclusion of the study was that 66% of dogs displayed four or more behavioural changes relating to grief and therefore it is safe to assume that dogs do experience emotions similar to ours when faced with the loss of a loved one.
It is important to remember that all family members will need support during the grieving process, and in many cases humans will find comfort in helping their dog during this difficult time.
Whilst the household may be in turmoil, keeping to a routine with daily activities will make your dog feel more secure and safe. Predictability is key to success; try to keep walks, playtime, meals and bedtime the same time. Ensure that you spend quality time with your dog – go for that lovely long walk in the countryside, spend time walking with your other dog-walking friends and have lunch in a dog friendly pub. If your dog is now ‘home alone’, make sure you provide him with entertainment when you are out. Your dog can no longer rely on the company of his canine companion so provide activity toys to keep him occupied when he is on his own. Just like us, our dogs can need a little medical help at times of distress so if your dog is becoming very anxious then there are various options available – speak to your vet for advice.
There is a school of thought that says it can help if the surviving dog sees the body of his companion. This is a difficult one because if the death has been traumatic it may be very upsetting for both the dog and owner. However, be aware that a dead body has a very different smell and your dog could be unpredictable in his response.
Many owners feel compelled to get another canine companion for their surviving dog. This is a complex decision as consideration needs to be made regarding the age of the surviving dog and how he may cope with a young puppy pulling on his ears. A rescue dog may need a great deal of focus and training which could make your existing dog feel more isolated and anxious.
Whatever your decision is make sure that your dog can adapt to the new social structure within his family unit. Our dogs have limited access to new social interactions (unlike their human companions) and when an important member of the family is no longer there, there is a huge hole in that dog’s life which he may find difficult to adjust to.