Do Dog’s Grieve?

Dear SPCA,
My elderly lab recently died. We’ve all had a difficult time coping with the loss but I am concerned about my other dog, Rhea. She doesn’t want to play, lays around and even went to her friend’s crate, went inside and howled and whined. I have since donated the crate to a local shelter. Do dogs grieve? What can I do to for her? Should I get another puppy right away? Thanks for your opinion – M.

Dear M.,
Scientists have long debated whether or not dogs and other animals have emotions, even though it seems clear to those of us who live with them that they do. The current consensus is that they do have emotions, but that their emotions don’t map directly to human ones.

Since Rhea does sound like she is distressed and the distress began with the absence of your other dog, you can describe her behavior as grief-related. However, it may also be, in part, a reaction to your changes in affect as well as changes to her daily schedule and amount of enrichment. Stimulation in the form of extra exercise, outings, games and toys loaded with treats could serve as a welcome distraction for her. Extra training sessions could help, too. Learning new behaviors tends to suppress emotion. Short, fun sessions, where she can earn food and/or interactive play with you could help perk her up and take the edge of your grief as well.

If she is too stressed to learn well, start with easy versions of things she already knows, reward her extra well to catch her interest and then work up to more difficult training. As for not being ready for a puppy, don’t feel bad about that! You can’t assume her life would be improved by a potentially troublesome puppy, who will require a disproportionate share of your time and attention. Furthermore, the puppy will grow into a boundary-testing adolescent and then into a socially mature dog. Depending on how old and how bold Rhea is, she could then find herself challenged for control of resources such as her bed, her people and her food that she used to have free access to in her own home. If your lab was her only canine friend, she might not need or want another companion at all.

Dogs who live with another dog but do not regularly meet and play with other dogs in different environments often become unused to other dogs and do not interact well with them. An earlier blog entry, Does my dog need a friend?, talks about choosing a canine companion for a formerly “only dog”. If your family (including Rhea) is up to it, you could even try some of the suggestions about introducing her to other dogs to see whether finding a companion for her is even desirable. Assuming Rhea likes dogs, here’s another idea – foster one! There are many organizations that desperately need temporary homes for dogs. You can provide Rhea with a friend who is well-matched in energy level and temperament without having to find a dog with all the other qualities that you want in a “forever dog” and without going through puppy rearing! At the same time, you can heal your grief and honor the memory of your lab by saving dogs’ lives. Fostering is very rewarding, but it can be hard not to get attached. The secret is to think of your foster as a visitor en route to his home. As you discover all the great things about your foster, you write them up to help him get chosen and free up your crate to save another precious life like his. The Houston SPCA has a sizable foster program, which gives many animals a comfortable foster home and loving foster parents while they wait for their forever home. Although we have many labs, if you are looking for a specific breed, age, and/or temperament, you may want to try rescue groups. Most are small, all-volunteer, non-profit companies. To find one, try an internet search using the keywords “dog rescue Houston” adding the name of a breed if you wish. For more ideas for enrichment activities for your dog or if you need to discuss your concerns further, call the Houston SPCA Animal Behavior and Training Department at 713-869-7722 ext. 190 or email us at

Posted by houstonspca at April 30, 2010 05:20 AM

I know that ‘science’ can’t prove (OR DIS-PROVE) animal emotion – those of us who know animals know that they DO indeed grieve. Grief is nothing more than an awareness of an absence. That absence is made recognizable by changes in routine, sounds; smells; and activities. Grief manifests itself in physical symptoms such as chills or warm flashes; appetite changes; muscle pain or tenseness; and a variety of other measurable responses to a loss. Emotionally that transfers into confusion, inattention, in ability to focus, and basic stress. All mammals share this overall process. Our interpretations of grief vary based on our history, environment and upbringing. And yes, our species.

Posted by: Just__A__Thought at April 30, 2010 12:21 PM

Of course dogs grieve. Dogs have emotions, like all mammals, including humans. Indeed, presumably most higher vertebrates, including mammals, birds, and reptiles have emotions. And even the lower vertebrates (like fish and amphibians) probably have some primitive emotions. Given the great anatomical similarities of all mammals, not to mention the genetic DNA similarities, this should not be a surprise. It would be more of a surprise if they didn’t. The part of the brain that processes emotion is one of the oldest and earliest evolved parts of the brain, long before humans or our immediate ancestors came around, so for that reason alone one would expect emotions to be widespread in the animal kingdom. Science is about making observations.

We can’t see inside a dog’s brain to see if it is experiencing some emotion, but we can’t see inside a human’s brain to see if it is experiencing some emotion either. However, we can observe events that seem to trigger specific emotional reactions in humans and then check to see whether common physiological responses occur. We can do exactly the same thing in dogs and other animals and see if they have similar responses. If we do consistently see such responses, then it is reasonable to assume the existence of emotions similar to our own in these other species. And in fact actually observing animals (as opposed to simply making some pronouncement with no observable basis, often only on the basis of personal prejudice) shows they do have many emotions similar to ours, which again should be no surprise at all. The reason it is a surprise to many people is that strong cultural attitudes to the contrary have existed for a long time.

The reason for these attitudes is not a surprise either. Humans have long used animals for many purposes, for food (both directly, for their flesh, and indirectly, for their products, like eggs or milk), for clothing (such as wool or fur), for protection (like guard dogs), to control pests (like cats eating mice), for sport (like hunting, dog fighting, cock fighting, bull fighting), for medical testing, for war (like horses or the elephants of the Carthaginians), for transportation (like horses), for hauling (like mules and oxen), for farming, and so on. Many of these purposes include killing or injuring said animals.

Consequently, it became very convenient for humans to pretend that animals had no thoughts or feelings (in spite of much evidence to the contrary). Because otherwise, we would have to consider potentially uncomfortable ethical issues in our treatment of animals. Or even worse, curtail some of these activities, which would threaten many people’s profits or livelihoods. Of course, we have even done this with other humans, as when slavery existed in this country, when black people were considered subhuman so they could continue to be exploited (though laws were also passed making it illegal to teach black people to read or write, which should have been unnecessary if it was really believed they were subhuman and thus incapable of reading or writing).

Also, we as a species seem to have a lot of species insecurity. It seems many of us have to try to downgrade the ability of other species to think and feel in order to feel better about ourselves as the supposed pinnacle of creation. I suspect this comes from our evolutionary heritage, with our ape-like forebears cowering in the dark and rain on an east African plain, hoping some great gaping maw does not materialize out of the dark to devour them. That probably made them pretty insecure, and although we have since developed all this technology to give us great physical power, that emotional insecurity is probably still there.

As far as direct evidence for canine and feline emotions, I have seen quite a bit myself, having had a number of dogs and cats over the last 24 years. I am a scientist by training, having studied math and physics and computer science and had courses in chemistry and biology and read extensively on paleontology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, so I have tended to observe my animals with the eyes of trained scientist. I have been especially fortunate in this regard in having had multiple dogs for a long time, because dogs are pack animals, like their wolf forebears that humans manually evolved over the last 10 or 15 thousand years or so.

Much interesting canine behavior thus only occurs in the context of a pack, so that if you only have one dog, or even only two, there is a lot you probably will not see. Between cats and dogs, I think I have seen about all the common simple human emotions, where they react to specified situations very much as humans would. Humans have some complex emotional behaviors, apparently bound up with our much higher intelligence, which I suspect are not seen in other animals. I doubt dogs or cats indulge in extreme infatuations or things like anorexia, for example.

But when it comes to basic, simple emotions, I think animals have most of them, including fear, depression, loneliness, boredom, grief, lust, jealousy, vindictiveness (particularly in cats), deceit, friendship, hope, love, mild dislike, extreme dislike, subdued animosity, hate, bullying, and perhaps others. I have certainly seen clear examples of all these things, often many times. I suspect fear is one of the oldest and most basic emotions, probably present even in simple vertebrates and maybe even in simpler creatures. Fear seems to go along with pain. Pain is not an emotion, but it does tend to produce emotional responses, which may produce fear of events which caused such pain.

People often tend to think fear and pain are bad things, but this is a great misunderstanding. Both are in fact great evolutionary advances, pain probably coming first, and very early, and fear later. If you were an early fish that had not evolved the ability to feel pain, some predator might chomp on you, and you would just calmly sit there and allow yourself to be eaten, meaning you would have less chance to reproduce and spread your genes for feeling no pain. But if you had evolved the ability to feel pain, when you got chomped on, that would hurt, triggering an attempt to either fight back or get away, giving you a better chance of spreading your genes for feeling pain. This means creatures that could feel pain would eventually out multiply and supplant creatures that could not, as seems to have happened. And fear is similar, because it allows you to tag past incidents that caused pain, so you can try to avoid them in the future.

So fear clearly had (and has) survival value (contrary to the dictates of the unemotional Mr. Spock). The problem of course with both pain and fear is that they do not discriminate well, being very simple and low level functions. Sometimes you feel pain which you cannot do anything about, in which case the pain is not helpful and maybe even harmful if it is severe enough. And sometimes you develop fears of things that are not really harmful, which can lead to all sorts of other problems. But the point is that both pain and fear work well enough most of the time to have overall survival value, again suggesting their long existence.

Most other emotions probably also have survival value, or they would probably not still be around. And this survival value again suggests why they are so widespread in the animal kingdom. I could spend a long time cataloging the examples of various emotional behaviors I have observed in dogs and cats, but I will forgo most of that, in the interest of space, and just describe one case I did not observe, but heard about from a couple I know, because it is relevant to the original question of whether dogs can feel grief.

The couple had a black lab for a long time, then after several years got a border collie mix from the SPCA. After several more years, the lab died of bone cancer, at 13, and the other dog basically just went nuts and about drove her owners nuts. About 6 months later the guy brought home a black lab puppy for Christmas, mainly for his wife, but the other dog quickly became normal again and became chums with the new one. Clearly the older one missed her previous companion, and it took another dog to erase her loneliness.

Posted by: Vernon Williams at May 1, 2010 02:25 AM