Do Dogs Grieve For Each Other?
Grief is defined as intense sorrow in response to loss. Many social species such as primates, whales, and elephants show behaviors attributed to grief following the death of a companion. But aside from the occasional report of wild wolves burying their dead cubs and dingoes carrying their dead pups for days, the response of canines to death is rarely observed. Anecdotally, guardians have reported displays of “grief” in their dogs following the loss of a canine companion. But what are they experiencing, and is it really “grief?”
Researchers asked 426 Italian dog guardians about the behavior changes their living dogs showed following the passing of a companion dog. To explore the possible “risk factors” related to these behavioral changes, researchers collected information about the guardian, the relationship between the two dogs, and the activities and resources they shared while living together. The level of dog-guardian attachment, the guardian’s bereavement experience, and their views on life, death, animal rights, human-animal differences, and life outlook were also collected as possible risk factors.
Behavioral changes in surviving dogs were reported by 87% of guardians. These changes included increases in attention seeking (67%), sleeping (35%), fearfulness (35%), and vocalization (30%). Decreases in play (57%), general activity (46%), and eating (32%) were also reported. The majority of changes were observed for less than six months (62%), but 25% of guardians reported changes that lasted longer than six months.
Researchers found behavior changes were strongly associated with the quality of the dogs’ relationships with each other. Friendly dog relationships were correlated with a decrease in activity and playing and an increase in sleeping and attention seeking after the loss of their companion. Dogs with friendly relationships were 1.3 times more likely to play less after their companion died, but 0.78 times less likely to show a decrease in eating. Parental dog relationships were correlated with a decrease in activity, playing, and eating, and an increase in attention seeking, fearfulness, and vocalizing behaviors. Dogs that had antagonistic or mutual tolerance relationships did not show any significant changes in behavior following the loss of their companion.
Interestingly, the duration of the relationship was not predictive of any behavioral changes, indicating it is the quality, and not the length, of the relationship that matters. On a different note, dogs that shared food were 1.58 times more likely to be less active and 1.82 times more likely to sleep more after their companion died.
Guardians’ emotional responses to the loss of their companion were strongly associated with behavior changes in surviving dogs. Using a bereavement questionnaire, researchers found that high anger and grief scores were correlated with an increase in the surviving dog’s fearfulness. Most significantly, guardians who experienced anger were more likely to report an increase in fearfulness in their dog. Guardians who experienced grief were more likely to report a decrease in eating and attention seeking.
There are multiple possible explanations for the behavior changes reported in this study. Firstly, dogs rely on cooperative relationships and cohesive social groups for survival. When a member of the group is lost, this social structure is disrupted, which can cause anxiety. This can be worsened by changes in household routines. However, if this were the sole cause, dogs with longer relationships and more established routines should show more behavioral changes, which was not observed in the study.
A second explanation relates to attachment bonds and separation. The attachment we form with our dogs is thought to explain the intense grief we feel at their loss. We know dogs experience intense distress when separated from an individual to which they have a strong attachment (human or animal). When a companion dies, this permanent separation could cause separation-related behavior. This is supported by the finding that closer relationships were strongly associated with behaviors seen in separation distress like vocalizing, attention seeking, and eating less.
A third explanation is that dogs respond to changes in their guardian’s own emotions. The emotion of fear is thought to be subconsciously transmitted between individuals through sight, sound, and even smell. It’s possible that dogs respond to changes in their guardians instead of directly responding to the loss of their companions. Even if this transfer of emotion was not subconscious, it’s likely the guardian’s behavior toward the surviving dog changes following the loss of their companion. This could cause fear and anxiety for the dog — for example, if they’re met with anger, grief, or a lack of attention when seeking reassurance.
The results of this study indicate that dogs do respond to the loss of a canine companion and show changes in behavior associated with negative emotions. However, the reason for their distress is unclear. Although we cannot be certain whether dogs experience “grief” as we know it, these findings suggest that their wellbeing and welfare is negatively affected by the loss of a companion. With more dogs living in multi-dog households, these insights can help us improve their welfare. By recognizing changes in behavior during loss, identifying the factors that contribute to them, and understanding why they may respond this way, we can help support and address the emotional needs of our canine companions.