Our canine companions have a shorter lifespan than us, and the very first contact with the fragility of life is often the passing of a beloved pet. There are, however, instances, where the pets are the ones who are left behind. There are numerous stories of dogs who wait by their owner’s graves for days, even months, and many say dogs are mourning the passing of their owner.
This makes everyone sentimental, but people have the tendency to explain animal behavior through human behavioral patterns. In this article, we will explain why some dogs stay at their owners grave and explain the science behind their sense of smell and whether or not dogs can smell graves when they are near a cemetery.
Signs Dogs Can Smell Graves
Most dogs will not have any particular reaction to graves. Some might be interested in things that you can find on graves, like lanterns or various flowers, for instance. Most commonly, dogs will just pass the grave without taking any interest. If the dog’s owner is deceased, however, the dogs might stay near the grave because this is the last spot they smelled the scent of their owner. The signs that can indicate that include:
Whining – the dog is distressed because they can smell their owner but can’t find them anywhere. The dog might stay near the grave for as long as they can smell the owner, and even longer, because this is the last spot they caught their scent.
Ears dropping – since the dog is distressed, they will often drop their ears and be unwilling to move.
Guarding – the dog will not move from the grave and will come back as soon as they can. They might even react aggressively to anyone who tries to get close.
Pacing – the dog might pace around the grave, or even try to dig in an effort to find the owner.
The dog might also show other signs, like loss of appetite, aggression when you try to get them away from the grave, depression and anxiety symptoms, and more.
History of Dogs Smelling Graves
Probably the most famous example of a mourning dog is an Akita called Hachikō that lived in Japan during the 1930s. He became a national sensation after his owner died and Hachikō kept coming to the local train station where he met his owner every single day after work. The dog would wait for the owner for hours, only to return home without him. Hachikō did this for the rest of his life, for a full decade after his owner died.
There are many instances of such loyalty in dogs, like the Russian dog that appeared in the local hospital where her owner died 2 years earlier, or Hawkeye, the Labrador Retriever who didn’t want to get away from the coffin of Jon Tumilson, a Navy SEAL, during the whole funeral back in 2011.
Dogs have been our companions for a long time, and as such, have developed a very close bond with us. But are dogs that visit their owners at their graves actually grieving, or is there something else that brings them there?
Science Behind Dogs Smelling Graves
Even though many explain the dog’s behavior as grieving, there is not a lot of scientific data to back this up. Dogs probably do not have the same understanding of death, as their intelligence is that of a 2- to 3-year-old child, and this is not enough to understand the concept of finality. They can’t comprehend that this is something that is irreversible.
The University of British Columbia psychology professor Stanley Coren explained that quite well: “Dogs are extremely social and are highly aware of the loss of an individual who is important in their life, but they don’t have this idea that they are necessarily gone forever.”
He explained why Hachikō and other dogs waited for their owners and visited their graves too. He states that they are simply waiting for them to come back. They will visit the place they last saw their owner, or better say, where they last smelled their owner. Even a whiff of the owner’s scent releases oxytocin, the hormone that causes feelings of affection and love.
Therefore, dogs use their noses to smell the person in the grave rather than the grave itself. This means that they may not notice graves of people they do not know. Specifically trained sniffer-dogs have been developed to help find buried bodies at sites of a crime scene using their powerful sense of smell.
Training Dogs to Smell Graves
Dogs are curious by nature - especially puppies. Very often, just smelling an object won’t do, and they will try to interact with it in some way. This is why it’s important that your dog is trained when you are around cemeteries. There are a lot of new and interesting smells there, and if there’s fresh dirt, especially after a funeral, your dog might find it’s a good idea to go and dig around a bit.
While most dogs won’t be interested in the deceased, do not let them anywhere near the grave. Always make sure to keep them on the leash and close to you so they don’t damage anything. Another reason why it’s important to keep them close are the various flowers that are often present in cemeteries, as some of them can be toxic to dogs. In case your dog managed to get a hold of such a plant, call your vet immediately and go to the clinic as soon as possible.
Dogs can be trained by professionals to be rescue dogs or to help solve crimes. Rescue missions and crime solving often includes finding people who are deceased. The dog’s keen sense of smell lets them locate a deceased person much quicker than any human or machine can. Because of this, it is not far-fetched that dogs can smell graves when they are near a cemetery and can even catch a whiff of their owner that has left this world before they did.
Such dogs will need a lot of love and affection to make this change in their life bearable. Take your time and work on a daily basis with such a dog, and shower them with all the affection they are missing because their owner is gone.
By Charlotte Ratcliffe
Published: 05/18/2018, edited: 04/06/2020