Dogs may be known as man’s best friend, but they can also form close bonds with members of their own species – and even grieve the death of their canine companions.
A 2022 study of 426 pet dogs found that following the death of a household dog, the surviving dog often exhibited behavior changes. Increased “attention seeking” topped the list, as well as lethargy, fearfulness, decreased appetite and more vocalization.
“Do dogs grieve the passing of another dog? Some do, but not all of them. For some, it’s like water off a duck’s back. It just changes the dynamic in the home,” says Nicholas Dodman, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, professor emeritus at Tufts University and co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Canine Behavior Studies. “But when there is a close bond, when the good buddy passes the (surviving) dog gets very low.”
Grieving Dog Symptoms
How dogs grieve depends on the individual, according to another study. That’s in line with Dodman’s observations.
According to Steven Feldman, president of the nonprofit Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) in Washington, D.C., the loss of another dog could cause separation distress and create behaviors of grief in the surviving dog.
“We know that dogs are social creatures, just like people, and can form attachments to other dogs living within the same household,” says Feldman. “It is also theorized that emotion from the human owner’s own grieving causes some dogs to change their behavior and mirror this grief.”
How To Help a Grieving Dog
Dodman recalls several of his patients showing such signs of depression after the death of another family dog. They looked dull, with “blank eyes” and showed no interest in usual activities like playing and eating.
Concerned owners can spend more time petting the dogs and trying to engage them with games or longer walks, since exercise generates serotonin. When dogs develop separation anxiety and no longer want to be left home alone, anti-anxiety diets, supplements or medications can help.
In extreme cases, Dodman recommends asking your veterinarian for a referral for a certified applied animal behaviorist or bringing home a new dog.
“I think the puppy is the best therapy for a depressed dog,” he says, adding that it’s important to make sure the relationship is compatible. (Many animal shelters and rescue organizations offer “meet-and-greets” for potential adopters and their pets.)
Dogs have grief that is recognizable to us but not identical to the way humans grieve, according to Philip Tedeschi, founder and director emeritus of the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection and co-director of the Institute for Animal Sentience and Protection.
Sometimes it involves distress from not understanding what’s happened to their companion when they leave home and never come back.
“Human beings can make death very complicated,” Tedeschi says. “We’ve added to it this sense of permanence.”
So, after one of his dogs is euthanized, he brings in his living pets to examine the body – and recommends that others do, too.
“Often, they’ll sit there with them and be with them for some period of time, and then you’ll see them eventually be able to get up and walk around and move away from the body. They’ll check them out thoroughly, but they eventually will feel like they can separate. And that allows, I think, for at least an understanding of what’s happened,” Tedeschi says.
Ultimately, recognizing that dogs are sentient beings with emotions – including the capacity for grief – will help everyone in the family recover from the death of a beloved dog. Feldman notes that dogs’ grief behaviors demonstrate the social interconnectedness of people and their pets, and the importance of maintaining our dogs’ mental and social wellbeing.
“Just as dogs support us during the grieving process, we have a responsibility to support them as well,” Feldman concludes.
Read more: How Do We Know If Dogs Have a Sense of Time?