While research suggests dogs might not actually understand death, they do notice when their dog-friends stop coming home. Here is how to help your dog cope with the death of a housemate dog.
Recently, listener Deborah wrote to me about her two dogs, Greta and Oyster. The family adopted Greta two years ago, when they already had Oyster. Deborah says it was “love at first sight” for the dogs, even though Greta’s afraid of other dogs in general. Deborah brought her dogs to work, and a colleague’s dog, Lucy, would hang out in her office with Greta and Oyster.
Sadly, Oyster died, and now Greta’s afraid to pass Lucy in the office hallway. It seems as if Oyster gave shy Greta confidence, and Deborah wonders how she can best help Greta now that her companion is gone. This week, a look at how dogs react when a housemate dog dies, and what you can do to help them adjust.
Do dogs feel grief?
Probably most people assume that if housemate dogs are friends and one dies, the surviving dog will feel grief, or a canine equivalent. In my experience, this isn’t necessarily so. Our dogs Muggsy and Izzy were the best of friends. They’d greet each other eagerly after any separation, and they played and napped together. Conflict was rare. For a few weeks after Muggsy died, Izzy would respond to the sound of Muggsy's name by alerting and looking around. But she ate and slept normally and enjoyed her outings to the park as much as ever.
Last year, Izzy herself died at a ripe old age. Our dog Juniper had never known life without her. The dogs hadn’t played much, because their styles weren’t compatible, but they had a good relationship. Juni never really seemed to notice that Izzy was gone. Pretty shallow, right?
Dogs don’t understand death
I’m not so sure it’s shallow. Dogs probably don’t have the cognitive ability to understand permanence or death. Behaviorally healthy dogs take separations in stride—they don’t lose their marbles when we take one dog to the vet for a checkup and leave the other one at home. They do fine when we go on vacation and leave them with their friend the dog sitter. I believe that often, as far as Dogalini’s concerned, the late Zippy isn’t home right now, and that’s all there is to it. The longer Zippy stays away, the more Dogalini gets used to the new situation and accepts it as normal.
Dogs are exquisitely sensitive to human body language and tone.
However, dogs are exquisitely sensitive to human body language and tone. And we humans understand death and permanence all too well. Our distress at losing a beloved companion shows itself in our voices and our movements. Our dogs may respond with anxiety when we cry. Familiar routines may suddenly have changed. Like all animals, including us, dogs are most at ease when their environment is predictable—and your other dog’s death may change many things about your life in ways your surviving dog can’t predict or control.
Behaviorally healthy dogs take separations in stride—they don’t lose their marbles when we take one dog to the vet for a checkup and leave the other one at home.
Some dogs lose their appetites or act clingy
Some dogs lose their appetites for a few days after a companion’s death. Or they may act restless or clingy, or vocalize more. Sometimes behavior problems show up—for instance, there’s a condition some behavior specialists call “isolation distress,” closely related to separation anxiety.
A dog with isolation distress doesn’t panic at the departure of any particular person or animal, but only when left alone. The condition may be masked when two dogs live together, since usually either both or neither is home.
Household dynamics can change when one dog dies
If you had more than two dogs and one dies, the relationship between the surviving dogs may change. Perhaps the dog who died buffered their interactions, for better or worse. Sometimes the surviving dog blossoms, if the dog who died was a bit of a bully. If the dog who died was a confident friend, then a timid dog may act more timid in the aftermath of the loss. Add to that the surviving dog’s response to the distress of the humans in the family, and you can see why my reader’s shy dog Greta might be acting more afraid than she did while her friend Oyster was alive.
How to help your dog cope with the change
As usual, the reasons for a problem point to the best responses. If one of your dogs has died and the other’s acting perfectly normal, then keep doing whatever you’re doing. For a dog who acts distressed, keep up her regular routine as much as possible. You can’t reasonably or realistically hide your grief. But even if you feel terrible, you can take steps to add enjoyment and interest to your dog’s life. Consider more exercise, especially if your dogs used to play together. This could be a good time to play games and do reward-based training, as well.
Most dogs who seem to be grieving return to their normal selves within a couple of weeks.
For a dog like Greta, whose timidity was alleviated by her dog friend Oyster, I recommend making her routine as stable and predictable as you can. I say this over and over again, but it always bears repeating: reward-based training is not only fun for dogs but also a great way to help them perceive the world as manageable and safe. This might be a good time to have a qualified behavior consultant offer some individually tailored ideas for increasing Greta’s confidence. Meanwhile avoid dogs who scare her. Greta’s fear of Lucy isn’t Lucy’s fault, but it’s important to prevent further distress.
Reward-based training is not only fun for dogs but also a great way to help them perceive the world as manageable and safe.
Get help right away for behavior problems
If real problems, like isolation distress or fighting, appear after one of your dogs dies, get help right away. The sooner we get to work changing a difficult behavior, the better our odds are of reducing it or getting it out of the way entirely. But remember, serious problems are the exception. Most dogs bounce back after a few days or a couple of weeks. We humans usually can’t recover as quickly, but we can take comfort from our dogs’ joy in life.