Have you ever looked down at your pup when they're making those sad, puppy-dog eyes? Whether it's begging for treats, wanting to go for a walk, or hoping for pets, we've all seen that face that makes us do whatever we think our dog wants.
But does that face mean that they're actually feeling grief? Do they really understand the death of a loved one, whether it be another dog in the house or an owner? Well, that actually depends.
While some psychologists and vets think that all dogs can feel grief and depression, most studies show that whether or not your dog can feel grief actually depends on the experiences they have had throughout their life, like how they were raised and if they had any other animal friends within your house growing up.
According to Gregory Berns, the director of Emory Center for Neuropolicy, researchers generally believe that "like people, some dogs mourn and others don't."
Signs Your Dog May Be Feeling Grief
It is hard to say for sure whether or not dogs can actually feel grief similarly to what we as humans feel from loss. In using tools like MRIs, we can see into both human and animal brains, and how they react to certain stimuli or experiences.
However, what human grief actually looks like from a brain scan is still unknown. As a result, it would be difficult to determine whether dogs experience grief from a purely neurological standpoint. If we can't even determine what our grief looks like on a scan, there's no way we would be able to determine what our pup's grief looks like!
That's not to say that there aren't behavior changes that can occur in your dog that may imply grief. Like humans, dogs who have experienced loss can withdraw from loved ones, owners, and other furry friends. If your pup grew up with another pooch who suddenly isn't there anymore, of course, you're going to notice a few changes in the way they act, play, and love you!
Other "depressed" symptoms can include lethargy, not eating, acting listless and disoriented, or just not loving the things they used to. Although it's hard to see our best friend hurting, this is relatively normal. Just make sure that your dog, while sad, stays healthy - keep an eye on their weight and demeanor.
Give them time, and hopefully, they'll soon be back to their playful, loveable self. Since your dog can't tell you with his or her words when they're sad or hurting, it's up to us as owners to recognize a grieving dog and give them the love they need to feel better.
The Science Behind Grief in Dogs
As previously mentioned, it's hard for us to know if dogs feel true grief or depression the same way we do. We've seen those videos of dogs at their owner's graves, crying or whining when they're missing a loved one, or even dogs trying to help each other when they're sick or wounded.
It makes us feel as though dogs - like humans - can experience grief. However, we can't even tell how humans experience grief, outside of verbal and behavioral confirmation. Our dogs, unfortunately, can't tell us when they're sad (maybe someday that will change!), so we need to look at their behavior in order to read their moods.
There have been various studies in regards to depression and grief in dogs that show that most canines will mourn the death of a family member or furry brother or sister.
According to one doctor's research, "some owners report that when one of the two [dogs] dies, the surviving dog becomes depressed." Whether or not this is just because of a change in routine, or if it's that the one actually does miss the other, studies have shown that at least 66% of dogs exhibit behavior changes when one of their family members passes away.
Just because we may not know for sure that this is grief or depression the way we feel it, doesn't mean that we can't help our little guys feel better after a loss. Despite the inconsistency in studies regarding depression and grief in dogs, one thing remains common throughout -with time, love, and patience, all dogs who have experienced loss (whether they show it or not) can be brought back to their normal, lovable selves.
Training for Grieving Dogs
While you can't (and probably wouldn't want to) teach your dog how to feel grief, you can work with them to make them feel better when they are obviously feeling blue. If your dog is showing many of the signs that we listed earlier, it's likely that they are feeling a sadness of some sort. To help them find happiness again, there are some key things you can do.
First, you want to make sure that you are paying close enough attention to spot these signs when they arise. If you are experiencing the loss yourself, you may be caught up in your own grieving process and not notice how blue your pooch has become. But it's worth it to pay attention! Investing time and effort into how your pooch is feeling can also boost your own spirits, and give you much-needed bonding time.
It's also important to reward only positive behaviors. Even though it may be tempting to dish out treats to make your pup happier when they are appearing very down, you may accidentally reinforce their negative behavior. Instead, work to hand out the goodies only when your pooch is exhibiting happy emotions.
By Katherine McCormick
Published: 02/07/2018, edited: 04/06/2020