Grieving in dogs presents a challenge.
Hell, grieving in humans presents a challenge, but when you factor in the language barrier, grieving in dogs adds a whole new dimension.
At least, when we as humans grieve, we have the option to communicate our needs.
“I need to be left alone.”
“I need to spend time in their room.”
“I need to be with family”
But when it comes to our dogs, their ability to communicate their needs with us is limited so we must rely on other tools to provide them the comfort they need.
Grieving in Dogs: Do Dogs Grieve?
The first, and most commonly asked question about dogs and grief, is “do dogs grieve?”
For those of us who have witnessed it firsthand, the answer is undoubtedly, yes.
But what about those who haven’t seen it firsthand? How do we prove that dogs grieve?
In early 2017, the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association published an article covering the results of a study on grief and dogs. The study was funded by the Morris Animal Foundation and surveyed 279 dog owners following the death of another pet in the household to determine whether the remaining dog in the household exhibited signs of grief.
The results of the study showed that dogs exhibited different patterns of behavior after the loss of an animal companion. These behaviors included increased time spent sleeping, decreased food consumption, and decreased eating speed.
Behaviors we commonly see as the product of grief in humans as well.
For these dogs, these behaviors were not their normal pattern of behavior and could be linked directly to the loss of a companion.
What Should We Do When Our Dog is Grieving?
As our dog’s “parent” the natural instinct is the same as it is for any other member of our family who is experiencing grief. We want to make it better.
The problem, however, is that we don’t particularly know how to make each other feel better during grief, so how can we begin to comfort our dogs?
Not surprisingly, the often given tips for helping a dog to grieve aren’t all that different from the tips we give each other when we lose a companion.
- Monitor your grieving dog for extreme reactions to the loss of their companion. Should an extreme reaction occur, consult your veterinarian and consider pharmaceutical intervention or a plan of increased activity.
- Maintain Usual routines. Consistency is important during grief. Like us, dogs going through grief feel as though things have spun out of control, they aren’t how they “should be”. By providing routine structure, we give back some of that control and structure.
- Continue to offer meals at mealtime. Waning appetite is not uncommon for anyone who is grieving, but continue to feed your dog their usual meal at the usual time to keep up the structure of their life before loss. Although it’s important to maintain this schedule, you should monitor your dog for any signs of malnutrition of complete resistance to food. If you see these symptoms, talk to your vet as soon as possible.
- Don’t overwhelm your dog. Keep in mind that your dog is grieving just like you are grieving. During grief, we have limited resource availability to offer to others. Even though you may feel like crying into your dog’s coat over the loss of your furkid, try to remember that your distress is going to cause your dog even more distress. Do your best to stay calm and parent your dog rather than ask your dog to parent you.
- Don’t reward the negative. If I were to give you extra treats anytime you cried, you would make the association between these two things and be reluctant to pursue a healthier behavior. The same goes for our dogs. When your dog is grieving it’s just fine to handle things in the way that seems right for you and your dog, just try not to enforce negative behavior by creating a positive association with it.
- Don’t run right out and get another dog. Just like us, our dogs move through grief at their own pace and may or may not be ready to accept a new companion into their lives after the loss of another. It’s important to consider the possibility that your dog may need time before you bring another dog home.
- “Time takes time you know”. It’s one of my favorite lyrics from Ben Folds, but it’s also true. As much as we want things to be better and back to normal right away, it takes time for things to readjust to the shift and time takes time. Give yourself AND your dog time to grieve and time to get used to the new “normal”.
There is also a school of thought that says pets should be present at the death of a companion. The idea behind this thought is that they allow your surviving pet to find closure in the realization that their companion has passed on. Some people believe that this is healthier for a dog as opposed to leaving them with questions as to their companion’s whereabouts.
Now, I have known people who have chosen to have a pet present at the euthanasia of a companion, and I have known people who chose not to. In my experience, the reaction of the surviving dog depended less on their presence at their companion’s death than it did on the surviving dog’s personality.
I believe that just like us, our dogs cope with grief in their own way and personally, I wouldn’t choose to subject one of my dogs to experiencing the death of their companion, in the same way, I would never subject a human being to the same thing. I believe that our dogs understand the concept of here and gone. I believe that our dogs feel the loss of a companion whether they see that loss take place or not. And I believe that as my dogs’ mother, it is my job to spare them any unnecessary hurt (this includes the visual picture of their companion being put to sleep).
How Do We Know How to Console Our Dog When They Are Grieving?
When our dog is grieving, how do we know how to best console them? How do we know if they want space or closeness?
The answer is simple, we trust that our dogs know what they need.
If your dog is grieving, trust that he will seek out what he needs from you. All you need to do is to be there to provide it.