Two weeks ago, we had to say goodbye to a member of our family. Bruce’s cancer was causing his condition to decline rapidly and it was time. He was ready. I was not, but I was never going to be. I am still grappling with this loss. I do not have answers. I do not have a quick “5 tips for coping with the loss of a dog” to wrap up in a nice blog post. I honestly am struggling, and I am not the only one. Jack lost his best friend, and it’s gotten me thinking and reading about whether and how dogs experience this loss.
So I asked, do dogs experience grief? Do they mourn the loss of a family member? There have been a few studies conducted on this topic. One used “brief separation” between unrelated adult dogs living together in the same household. The results indicated that the dogs showed symptoms of separation distress while the other dog was away, sometimes involving a depressed state. The conclusion of this study was that “grief is a phenomenon possible to be experienced by non-human animals.” Another study surveyed owner perceptions of their dogs’ response to this type of loss. Participants reported that the majority of dogs sought more affection from their owner, spent more time in the deceased animal’s favorite spot, ate less and more slowly, and slept more for the six months following their housemate’s death.
I don’t really need a study to tell me that this is indeed happening, but it does confirm that the behavioral changes are linked to the loss of Bruce and not some other cause. Here are some of the specific behavioral changes I've noticed in Jack:
Lethargy. Moving around the house more slowly, less likely to get up or raise head when one of us enters the room or the house. Sleeping - a LOT.
Decreased interest in favorite activities. Not as motivated to do training, not as interested in playing with toys or his ball, will often just lay down on the floor next to the bed instead of jumping onto it, half-heartedly engaging in mealtimes.
Increased vocalizations. Jack was a very whiny, vocal dog when we first got him. I worked on teaching him other ways to make requests, and I myself got better at proactively meeting his needs so that he didn't have to whine for things. I've noticed him reverting to his old habits of whining for attention, outside, food, etc. He is also occasionally barking when he hears someone at the door. If you know Jack, you know this is a huge difference. He rarely used to bark.
Increased anxiety and lowered coping skills. We've had a few thunderstorms in Michigan lately. Jack has historically been very storm phobic, but a combination of pharmaceutical therapy and safe place training had vastly improved his ability to self-soothe and make it through storms. Since Bruce's death, he's taken a huge step back in that progress. As I'm preparing this post, actually, a thunderstorm is rolling in. Jack is reacting like he did before any of the drug therapy or training.
Clinginess. If not just sleeping, following me from room to room, needing to be very much on my lap/chest much of the time.
It’s also important to note that these changes may also be influenced by my own behavior. I myself have had many of these symptoms, maybe even all of them. Dogs are acutely in tune with their guardians’ emotions. My sadness is likely increasing Jack’s sadness. Vice versa, Jack.
I have to imagine that this all must be even harder to cope with because he doesn’t have the answer that I do. I understand death, I understand that Bruce is gone and not coming back. I'm not sure, and the research is inconclusive, dogs can understand that concept. He must be confused. Maybe he’s just wondering when his buddy will come back.
Love you forever, Bruce.