QUESTION: I have two dogs that grew up together and one of them is very sick. I’m worried that when she passes away the other will be terribly grief stricken, so my question is: Do dogs mourn and what can I do to help?
ANSWER: It’s my experience and my observation that dogs do indeed mourn the loss of a canine companion. This syndrome is common when a dog loses its human too, and there are two very famous instances of this dynamic. One is the case of a dog in Scotland named Greyfriars Bobby who was so devoted to his master, John Gray, that after Gray’s death, he guarded the man’s grave for 14 years, until his own death in 1872.
And one of the most famous and touching stories of faithfulness and mourning between a dog and his departed human is the story of Hachiko the Akita, in Tokyo, Japan. His owner, a professor at the Imperial University, took the train every day accompanied to the station by his faithful Hachiko. Each day Hachiko patiently awaited his return, tail wagging, until one day in 1925, the professor, having taken ill at work, did not return home. The man subsequently died, but Hachiko maintained his vigil at the station for over 10 years until he ultimately passed away himself at that very train station. A bronze statue of Hachiko stands at the site today and it’s a very famous landmark.
Dogs don’t experience emotions the same way as we do, but they do experience a type of distress (which certainly appears to be grief), stemming from the survivor’s feelings of belonging (to a pack) having come to an end. In 1996, the ASPCA conducted a study on pet grieving and found that 36 percent of dogs ate less after the death of a companion, 63 percent vocalized more or swung the other way and went silent. Many of the dogs in the study slept in different places from where they had slept before, and over half of the surviving dogs became more affectionate, even to the extent of becoming clingy to their owners. Dogs develop relationships, create habits, routines and rules with each other. When one of them disappears or passes away, it’s only natural for the survivor to feel a sense of loss and emptiness. Those patterns of relationship create confidence, trust and familiarity with the world. When a dog loses its companion it can be like having to overcome an addiction, in a way, in that there’s an ingrained “habit” if you will, that the survivor has a hard time coping without for a period.
It’s possible to misread your dog’s emotions, though, and not pick up on the fact that because dogs are so sensitive to our feelings, he may be reflecting your own aura of grief. Now is when he really needs you to be his centered, confident and balanced leader. If you have shown solid leadership all along, his transition to being an only dog will be easier. Also, in spite of your own pain, be sure to give the survivor plenty of attention. Initiate playtime and engage him in the activities he loves. Spend extra time with him. A final note: Beware of rewarding bad behavior because you feel sorry for him. Some dogs take that as a sign of weakness, and that could invite hierarchy issues depending on the dog. When it comes right down to it, when that day arrives, you will need each other more than ever. Undoubtedly the passing of time will heal both of your hearts. It always does, but his will probably heal before yours.
Gregg Flowers is owner of Dog’s Best Friend dog training services and serves as behavioral consultant for Robinson’s Rescue and the Humane Society of Northwest Louisiana. Write to him in care of The Times, P.O. Box 30222, Shreveport, LA 71130-0222.