By Dr. Becker
Many of you may recall the heartbreaking images of a black Labrador Retriever named Hawkeye laying in front of a flag-draped casket during funeral services for the dog’s owner, Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson. Tumilson was one of 30 Americans killed in Afghanistan on August 6, 2011, when a rocket-propelled grenade took down a U.S. helicopter.
When one of Tumilson’s friends walked to the front of the room to speak, Hawkeye followed. With a sigh, the dog lay down in front of the casket and remained there for the rest of the service.
Pet experts say it's not unusual for dogs to grieve the loss of a person or animal friend they are bonded with. According to Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and applied animal behavior specialist, dogs feel the same basic emotions humans do, including grief, fear, anger, happiness, sadness, and even possessiveness.
When a dog is mourning a loss, depression is common, says Yin. Signs of depression in dogs mimic those in people – sleeping more than normal, moving more slowly, eating less, and showing a limited interest in playing.
Do Dogs Feel Grief?
Barbara King, professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA believes that thanks to thousands of years of companionship, humans and dogs have grown quite in tune with each other. We seem to instinctively comprehend each other’s gestures, body language, and emotions.
Dr. King is convinced that dogs (and cats) feel deep grief. She cites the following video as an example. In it, a terrier runs onto a busy highway in Chile to rescue another dog who has just been hit by a car. With vehicles zooming past in all directions, the terrier somehow manages to grasp the injured dog with his paws and drag him from the middle of the roadway.
“When you look at that sort of example,” says King, “you see that these dogs are thinking and feeling creatures, and that sets the stage for grief.”
(For those of you who can’t bring yourselves to view the video, I should mention that eventually workers stopped to help the dogs, and thankfully, the dog who was hit by the car survived.)
Dr. King’s research has found that in homes where two dogs have lived together for years, some owners report that when one of the two dies, the surviving dog becomes depressed. Now, some people might say it was simply a change in the dog’s daily routine or the grief his owner displayed that caused him to grow depressed. But King disagrees.She believes that when you closely observe the behaviors of the surviving dog, you’ll see that he is clearly looking for and missing his canine pal, and the loss is causing him to feel depressed.
"Like People, Some Dogs Mourn and Others Don't."
Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta are doing functional MRIs on dogs to help them understand what and how canines think. They are hoping to shine new light on the dog-human relationship from the perspective of dogs.
However, even with the use of high-tech tools like MRIs, it will still be difficult to determine whether dogs experience grief – especially since we don’t know how grief looks in the human brain. If expressions of grief could be clearly identified in dogs, researchers could show a dog pictures or videos of a deceased owner or animal friend and look for this emotion.
Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher on the project says, “It would be fascinating to figure out. If I were to speculate, I would guess that, like people, some dogs mourn and others don’t.”
Dr. King agrees. Dogs, like people, are individuals with different responses to different stimuli. “Whether a dog grieves hinges on a dynamic mix of life experiences,” says King, “including how they were raised and what their people or animal housemates were like.”
If your dog seems depressed at the loss of a person or animal she was bonded to, Dr. Yin recommends engaging your pet in activities she enjoys – a walk, a game of fetch, or a trip to the dog park. It’s really a matter of distracting your dog with things she enjoys until sufficient time has passed and she’s no longer looking around every corner for the one who is now absent from her life.
And pet experts caution not to expect a quick fix. It can take from a few weeks to a few months before your dog’s depressed mood begins to lift.