During my time in Japan in 2008, I became fascinated with the story behind a memorial at Shibuya Station, one of the biggest train stations in the world, for an Akita dog named Hachiko.
Hachiko would meet his owner at the Shibuya Station every day after his commute home. His owner died while at work in May 1925; Hachiko continued to wait for his master every day in the late afternoon at the station until he died in 1932.
The Japanese people so were moved by Hachiko’s loyalty that a memorial statue and wall was constructed at the station in 1935. Every April, a festival is held at the station to remember Hachiko and his devotion to his owner.
I was also moved by the photograph of Sully (the service dog) laying in front of George H. W. Bush’s coffin; this piqued my interest in this topic. Did Sully comprehend what was going on? Was Sully grieving or just a very well-trained dog doing a stay?
In an informal survey, clients of mine reported that their dogs did appear to grieve when another animal in the household passed away; dogs stopped eating, slept more than usual and were lethargic. Some dogs developed symptoms like hair loss, some constantly looked for the deceased animal in the home and some became increasingly clingy to their owners.
The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) website describes a recent study involving 279 multiple pet households where the owners were surveyed following the death of a pet. While the authors of the study acknowledge that “there were limitations to interpretations,” the results were still interesting. In most cases, the surviving pet appeared to be needy, lost his appetite, slept more and some pets wandered around looking for the deceased pet. This study also looked at the practice of letting the surviving pet see the deceased pet’s body and found there was no difference in how the surviving dog acted if he saw – or didn’t see – the deceased dog. The AVMA notes that “new investigations might help to establish whether the behavioral changes are a reflection of loss, a change in owner behavior following a loss, or the reduction in competition for owner attention and resource.”
Stanley Coren, Ph.D. and author of numerous books about the dog-human relationship, asked in a Phycology Today article whether dogs can “comprehend the meaning of death and do they grieve because of it?” Coren believes that dogs do feel a deep sense of loss but notes that grief implies an understanding of death. He states that “this is beyond the mental ability of human children before the age of four or five years, and since evidence suggests that mentally and emotionally dogs are equivalent to humans aged two to three years of age this would imply that dogs do not yet have the capacity to understand that concept as well.”
Jessica Pierce, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Colorado Denver recently wrote an article for Smithsonian.com titled “Do Animals Experience Grief?” Based on research she has done, she feels that “a growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that nonhuman animals are aware of death, can experience grief and will sometimes mourn for or ritualize their dead.”
She also acknowledges that there is a prejudice against the idea that animals can feel grief among scientists but goes on to say “But, I argue, that they don’t know because they haven’t looked.”
I agree. It will be fascinating to see what future research shows.
In the meantime, what can we do to help our dogs accept the loss of a someone important to him?
- Keep daily routines as consistent as possible.
- If your dog loses his appetite or stops eating and there is no improvement within a few days, take him to the veterinarian but in the interim, try to keep diet and mealtimes the same.
- Give your pet extra attention.
- It’s OK to acknowledge your dog’s grief; try to redirect him by taking him for a walk or playing a favorite game.
- Remember that dogs synchronize with our emotions so try to keep your own grief in check around your dog.
- Don’t toss beds, clothing, etc. too quickly; your dog may find comfort in the scent of the deceased on these items.
- Be patient; like humans, every dog is different in how they adapt to loss.
“The greatest fear dogs know is the fear that you will not come back when you go out the door without them.” Stanley Coren