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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Do dogs understand death?

I've seen a change in R, since around the time when his sister died last summer. He seems more introspective, less puppy-like, and more attached to us.
Of course, I've worried that his more mature (less puppy-like) behavior is related to his health situation. But, there's an alternative explanation, first proposed by our vet. Perhaps K's death deeply affected R. Perhaps he thought that our pack was immutable. Perhaps, prior to K's death, he didn't understand the concept that animals and people can die and then suddenly be gone from our daily life.

He'd been through one death before K's, but it occurred when he was a puppy. His older brother, a sweet yellow Lab (S), died when R was about 6 months old. As we always do, we let R see his brother's body after he was gone. R definitely did not understand that his brother wasn't alive. He tried to play with his departed brother.

R behaved very differently when we let him see K after she was gone. He sniffed her quickly, and then he sat forlornly on the opposite side of the room. It seemed like he understood that something huge and bad had happened.

I've pondered the seemingly permanent change in R over these months. Then, recently, I saw unusual behavior from R when Shyla was gone for an entire day to be spayed. Shyla went to the vet very early in the morning (I'm not sure that R was fully awake yet when she left with the Runner). Then, later in the day, I found him lying directly in front of Shyla's empty crate, gazing into it. He kept returning to that spot, even when I tried to convince him to sit with me. When Shyla finally arrived home, R wanted to lie right next to her all evening and through the next afternoon. Normally, he prefers to have a dog bed to himself but not then.

I suspected that R had been scared that Shyla was gone for good, like K. Of course, Shyla wasn't gone.
But, these events have left me pondering what dogs really understand about death. Do they understand it at all? Or, does the other dog in the family simply disappear in the mind of the remaining one? Are they puzzled about why their sibling is gone?
I used to be convinced that dogs did understand death. When K was about 6 months old, her elderly brother (Astro) died. K was in the room when he was euthanized. She was a well-behaved pup so she did a quiet down-stay while we said goodbye.

In retrospect, that event was too overwhelming for K. When we arrived home afterwards, she instantly developed a whole range of fears that she'd never had before. A crate that she had previously liked suddenly terrified her. A spot on the floor near our bedroom door seemed to be haunted to her. The cracks between the boards of the deck freaked her out. The intensity of these fears decreased over time, but in times of stress throughout her whole life, they'd reappear. I believe that being present when her brother died overwhelmed her emotions and was just too much for her. In that case, I believed that K understood death.

I am curious about what others think about this issue. What have you observed in your remaining dogs when one of your pack has died? Do you think that they understand what happened?
I'm sorry to discuss such a macabre subject today but I suspect that many of you have been through this and I'd be very interested to hear your insights. It might help me to understand the change that I've seen in R.


  1. I think they smell the 'death' long before we do -

    So they aren't surprised - their noses already clued them in to what was transpiring -

    Great pictures to temper the subject - but of course, it is reality - so why not pose the question!

  2. What a thoughtful post. it made me think of Jamies passing and how the pack was affected. Immediatly but respectfully Abby stepped up to the position of head dog in the family, which totally surprised me as she has always been in the back ground. Never participating, mostly watching. AFter Jamie died Abby started supervising play dates. Like today, Bert was playing with a male guest dog. Abby stood by like a referee, and when ever the play got to rough, she would slip in and snap at the worst of the two.

    Yes. I beleive they understand the passing of family members. How they handle it is always a beautiful thing for me to watch.

    AT least most of the time.

    Bert's My Vickie

  3. Yes, I definitely think dogs grieve very deeply. And my heart breaks to know that one day we will lose Ellie or Lucy. They are so close and never away from one another.

    I also believe that it is best for the remaining dog to see and touch the lost friend, rather than having the other dog simply disappear. I haven't had the experience, but I suspect the dog would be less fearful than if their brother just suddenly was gone.

  4. I don't think they understand the exact concept of death, but I do think they feel lose, remorse, pain and tragedy just as much as we do.

    When Charlotte died, Nola was in the room. Nola watch, when over to Charlotte, and laid down for a short while after Char had passed. Then she stood up, and followed me outside to bury her.
    Nola didn't play with Boston and Auggie for almost a month after that. Her separation anxiety has increased since Char died, too.
    So, I know they feel as much as we do, but I don't know how much they actually understand.
    Nola's MOm

  5. I would have to say - of course they do. I have had dogs that were very depressed and moped for a long time after losing a friend. Or, they act weird towards the last person seen with that dog, or the thing they remember that dog being near. Horses are the same way.

  6. I had two cats who were brothers, littermates. When one brother was dying from lymphoma, I made an appointment at the vet for the euthanasia to take place atthe last appt. of their day. During that afternoon, the sick brother, Roey, was lying in a cat bed on our dining room table, and Ed, the healthier brother jumped up onto the table, and eased himself into the cat bed with Roey. Roey lifted his front leg and put it across Ed's front legs. Ed turned his head towards Roey and they stayed that way for a long time. For over a year after that day, Ed would cry out at night, wandering around the house. He stopped sleeping on the cedar chest near my bed for about the same amount of time. Slowly, he stopped crying at night, and did occasionally sleep on the cedar chest, but never as much as when his brother was alive. No doubt that Ed felt something. They are now buried side by side.

  7. Yes, doggys understand. Mom had one doggy, a Boston Terrier. When his best friend and sissy died, he cried, than died of a broken heart (the VET agreed) three months later
    So sad
    Benny & Lily

  8. KB, I am sure they do understand, far more than we realise. When my Dad died at our previous home, our cat Capser slept on his bed the
    very last day, and when the undertaker came, went literally crazy, and jumped on high shelves trying to get out of a window that did not open. For the next 6 weeks, she walked past his room, not even glancing in, then that 6 week day, she walked in, sniffed all round, and slept on the bed.That same day, in the mail , a dear friend sent me a book by Helen Steiner Rice, and I cried lots. So maybe she sensed my grief. Here, after Toto was gone,Poppy ( both female cats)waited and waited each afternoon, sitting on the high wood box that had been one of Toto's favourite spots.This went on for weeks. So R will be feeling something I am sure.Does he sleep inside, in your room? next to Shyla? Maybe after years together he just misses K so much. Fond greetings to all, from Jean.

  9. I wonder if R isn't just filling the void left in the pack since k's death. That being said, I think Bart has been more attached to us, too since Gizmo died. We had Gizmo euthanized at home. The vet had me put Bart and Ruby outside while she did it. At the moment Gizmo "left the building" Bart let out a short bark. When I let Bart and Ruby back in the room, Bart walked right past Gizmo like he wasn't there - because he wasn't - and Ruby, who is less sensitive curled up on the bed next to Gizmo. They were both depressed for about six weeks, but eventually became their own unit of two. Playful and cuddley with each other.

  10. Yes we understand. We know what is going on. And we are affected by it. While my MOM has only had one dog at a time as an adult she has seen how it has affected me with some of my close friends who have passed on. Like my friend Major. Major was Mark's dog before Gunner. The first time Mark came to our house without Major I kept running to Marks truck and kept looking inside for my friend. The next day when I was at Mark's house I just laid on the floor with my head on Majors bed. MOM said I even shined a little. So yes, we understand.

  11. It is well documented that dogs experience grief and we have all heard of cases of dogs refusing to leave a dead human or mate. I have no doubt that they understand the concept of death and can carry a sense of loss their remaining days.

    In the WDA I am awestruck constantly by how compassionate and nurturing the others are to Quinn as he goes through the manic episodes of his seizures. They shepherd his and protect him from harming himself and go out and bring him inside when he is too confused. Yo came into the house a prime alpha boy and challenged Quinn once in the first week but he has learned from the others and our help to turn off the macho and yield space to the easily frightened Quinn and to swallow his instinct to whirl and attack when Quinn stumbles on him (remember YoYoMa is blind on top of everything). When Puff was in intensive care for over a week all of the pack guarded her sleeping area and cried that she was not with us.

    Do they understand? Without a doubt. Your vet is very wise to bring up that aspect of R's changes.

  12. Otis the Scottie and Eddie, a little mixed breed about Scottie size were best pals for years. Eddie suddenly had a development where he had to be put down. Otis never got to see him again and he was just broken hearted. We would be walking and he would see a small blonde dog and start barking at him and then looking frantically at me as if to say " There is Eddie, go and get him." We went up to one dog and Otis knew from the smell it wasn't Eddie but every other dog MIGHT have been. It took six months at least for him to see Eddie wasn't coming back. Normally I would have wanted Otis to see Eddie in death, but it didn't work out that we could, so little Otis paid the price for that. Makes me cry just thinking about this time and how hard it was for Oatsey to miss his pal, and how happy he would be on the street when he'd "think" he had found him again.


  13. After many years of living with many dogs, I'm quite sure dogs mourn and understand loss, the absence of a family member - whether canine or human - that they loved. The ways they show grief vary, just as with humans. The duration of their grief also varies, just as with humans. But anyone who thinks dogs [and other mammals] don't feel loss and pain and fear - and love and joy - just isn't paying attention.

    We're so very happy to read that R doesn't have cancer! It would be comforting to know what is going on, but as long as he is cancer-free and is feeling good and eating well, that's enough to be going on with.

  14. I just experienced this myself a couple of years ago when Zippo passed away. Chloe was so, SO attached to him...he was her very BEST friend. I talk to my dogs...I have real conversations with them. I believe that they do understand on some level. When I took Zippo to the vet for his last ride...Chloe and LadyBug were in the yard to say goodbye. They could feel my own I was a wreck. I could not stop crying...I was trying so very hard to be strong...but I do believe that they all knew what was going on. Tears still fall when I speak of him as he was such a special boy. Sigh. We have a new neighbor that just moved in a couple of days ago. The new neighbor has a dog that looks VERY similar to Zip...he is all black with a white patch on his front and he is also a newf mix. The only real difference is that he is much taller...longer legs. Every time Chloe has seen him in the yard, she stops in her tracks to take a long look at him. I have to wonder if that dog brings back memories for her. We have not yet gone over to introduce ourselves...we will one day soon, but they are just in the process of getting settled, so we will give them some time.

  15. Mitch didn't go with us to the animal hospital. He and Maggie said their good-byes at home. I'm sure he wondered where she went and when she was coming back. He was depressed and clingy and of course, it wasn't long before Molly appeared on the scene. Some days I wish he could talk!

  16. Yes I am sure dogs know all about this. There are many examples where dogs will sit on their Moms grave and also when one of the dogs in the pack will die. Ayla did change for one month after Nova went. She was not so happy and searched for Nova. Ater a month she was her again. Its probably different from dog to dog as we humans

  17. It's not at all macabre. Dogs (and so many other animals) understand so many things that people have never given them credit for. They are so sensitive to the world around them.

    Over here, we had a touching experience when Sen-Chan (cat) died at 18 months. He seemed fine, went to the vet one morning and never came home. Tama (cat) was only five months at the time and simply adored him. I was away that week and had house-sitters staying. As soon as they returned with an empty crate, Tommy (dog - who also adored Sen-Chan) realised what had happened and took it upon himself to console and look after little Tama. He never left her side, cuddling her and playing with her until my return.

  18. Hi KB,

    We can relate with your post today as our Wai-Pai just recently had pups of her own but all 3 of them died within 3 days after giving birth to them. We really felt that Wai-Pai felt bad when she could not find her pups when we've buried them. It even seemed that she was crying to Piappies Mom and wanted to be comforted.

    K was very much part of R's life and we believe you're right.

    We really need to support them as much as they support us. Thanks for this post, KB.

    Hugs to R and Shyla from the Piappies

    Piappies Fudgie, Princess, Frappie, Mocha, Sugar, Wai-Max, Wai-Pai & Forgie

  19. When sweet Cisco passed, Sam mourned for several days, carrying his fox with him and staying very close to us. Even our horses mourn when a stall mate has passed. I'm not sure if they understand the loss, but they understand something has happened.


  20. I think it's a very important subject to discuss and one we can probably all learn something from.

    The day that Mom died, I didn't know what to do about her little Muffin. I mean, I knew that Muffin was now mine, but I had to tell the poor little thing. At least that's what I thought should happen. Was I crazy, I don't know. I was so filled with anger and grief I just didn't know what the heck to do.

    So I came home, gathered Muffin in my arms and talked to her. I'll spare the details because you don't have enough kleenex laying around. Next to Mom dying in my arms, it was the second worst thing I've ever had to do.

    I saw changes immediately in Muffin. Muffin became more clingy to me and would not leave my side. If I moved, she moved, if I went into the other room, she followed. It was like she became my 2nd skin.

    I also noticed that whenever I came back home from someplace Muffin always looked for Mom to come in the door. When she didn't see Mom, Muffin would run through the house looking for her in all "their" favorite places. Muffin would then hop into "their" chair and burrow under Moms afghan. It really broke my heart!

    I cut up some of Moms clothes that still smelled like her and turned them into blankets for Muffin. I laid them down throughout the house. Muffin always went to one of those blankets and curled up.

    Tho now 5 years later and those special blankets have been washed many, many times, Muffin still seeks them out. Perhaps a piece of my Mom still lingers on in those blankets. I believe that the power of LOVE is stronger than any Downey scent on the market.

    To this day, when we first arrive at our Florida home, Muffin still runs around the house looking for Mom in all "their" favorite places.

    Do dog's grieve? You bet they do! Do dog's remember those who have gone before us? Yup! And I have Muffin to prove it.

    So cliche I know but.... Live like there's NO tomorrow!

    Mommy Kim

  21. When Kohl left River was in the room and saw what happened. She sniffed him very briefly and went clear across the room and just stayed there until we left. On our walks, for about three weeks after Kohl left, River would see a black dog from a distance and her ears perked up and she would run towards them. River would get half way to them and she would turn around slowly. I feel she was hoping it was Kohl and when she realized it wasn't her whole mood changed from excitement to sadness. I'm not sure if dogs fully understand death but they do feel loss and go through their own grieving process.


  22. So much to think about here. First the girls are the first time I have owned two dogs at once. However from the stories I have read from friends I do believe they understand when given the time to say goodbye.

    When Becky was spayed Kodee lied in front of her crate for a day as if to protect her. They have such strong instincts about each other.

    I also think a bit of what you describe is also the nature of the older lab. I have owned many labs and all go from unruly puppy to sudden easy going a little senior like it seems suddenly.

    Love the silhouette photo!

  23. Do dogs grieve? Yes I think they do - but depending upon the surviving one's age - I think there is a difference.

    I rescued Apples (mixed breed) at age 10 1/2 in 2005. She joined my 9 1/2 golden aussie Keelee and enjoyed a whole new life. When Keelee was diagnosed with a brain tumor in April 2008 - Apples would allow Keelee to sit next to her, on top of her - whatever. They were friends before, but never in each other's "space". When I made the decision to let Keelee go in the early hours of 5/22/08, Apples refused to go down the stairs as we took Keelee to the vet's office. Normally, she would always go out whenever Keelee would. WHen we returned a few hours later with Keelee's body, Apples refused to go near her or sniff her. She refused to eat for a few days, and was just moping for a few months.

    In October 2008, we brought golden Neeli home and Apples perked up. She became the teacher for Neeli and she had a purpose in life. For a year and a half, life was good. But Apples was diagnosed with mammary cancer/tumors (from not being spayed when she was young). We let her go on 10/21/10 and Neeli (who was a little over 2 years old) sniffed us when we came home, and looked for Apples, but didn't stop eating and was her usual cheerful smiling self.

    So I believe that the age of the dogs may make a difference - I think an older dog will suffer more and mix her companion as compared to a younger one. At least that's mine did.

    Love your pictures & really enjoy reading your blog.

    Nadine & goldens Neeli & ELle

  24. KB, I too agree with those that feel that our dogs somehow understand death and grieve deeply. When Sadie passed, Reggie was depressed for quite awhile; once he adjusted, he would still walk the yard smelling her scent. When we put two of our dogs down the same day, the second one seemed to sense what was coming. It must be as hard for them as it is for us. I also think our dogs presence can be felt too-although that just sounds kind of weird.

  25. In the decades I've lived with dogs, I've had dogs who didn't act any differently after their best pals died, but I've also had dogs who became subdued and seemed to go through a grieving period. Dogs are certainly capable of missing a beloved friend (including humans) and being depressed about their absence. They are also extremely sensitive and perceptive about their people's body language and moods. If you are showing grief, your dog will be affected. And, there are often changes in daily life and routines to adapt to. I won't speculate about what dogs understand (I suspect it's more than we think).

  26. I do believe pets grieve. We have lost many pets and the ones left behind always act differently. Our old girl Kara howled outside for two full weeks when Oscar died. My daughter's dog Tyler went and sat near/on top of Brucey's grave after he died for a month. The day Kara had to be help to the Rainbow Bridge, Tyler (who was a young pup at the time) slept by her side all that morning and would not leave her whereas usually he would be doing all the normal puppy things and not bother her. How did he know? Yes, they grieve in their own way. They love like we do and mourn too. This post has brought back many memories. Take care all. No worries, and love, Carol (and Stella and Rory)

  27. We agree that this is a very important subject to discuss. Your post is beautifully written, and I'm sad that you see these changes in "R". But from what I've read and eperienced, I'm guessing it is perfectly natural.

    My cat, Bella, loved our last dog, Carson, and when he was sick, she laid beside him the entire week, and that last night laid on top of him and simply would not move. When he didn't return, she would pace the house and wail, literally every night...until we got another dog (Bocci) that she now happily tortures-she is always by his side, much to his dismay.

  28. Being a relatively new dog owner, I haven't had to experience this yet. I enjoyed reading everyone's response.

  29. I definitely read your post with interest, but I haven't really experienced dogs around death, so I don't really have a formed opinion on what they understand. Really, I don't understand death either, so I can't blame them if they don't.

    I will say that Elka seemed particularly sad the first (and so far only) time that she killed a moth. She was following it and sniffing at it, and smooshed it against the glass of the front door. She then brought it to me and looked at me with big liquid eyes, like "Why won't it fly?" It was like a Disney movie.

  30. Beautiful post. Such an interesting and difficult subject to consider. I doubt we'll ever really know the answer but we can speculate.

    Personally, I believe dogs 'understand' things we don't begin to give them credit for. How they deal with what they know/learn/feel probably depends on the dog.

    I have long suspected that Bella's issues really came to a head when I broke my arm and was "whisked away" leaving her alone in the house. I have also believed she was left motherless at a very young age. Did she witness her mother's death? Did she compare what happened to me to what happened to her mother?

    I wish with everything I have inside that I could ask her, that I could explain it to her, that somehow I could comfort and reassure her.

    All that said, I guess my answer to your question is I believe they understand death. Not necessarily in terms we would use but in their own way. I hope R doesn't become too somber. Perhaps Shyla is just what he needs to bring his mojo back...

  31. I've been interested in reading everyone's response to this question of dogs responding to death. I believe that dogs can certainly smell death - dogs have actually been trained to sniff out certain illnesses, so any change in smell of the body would signal something to a companion dog. I also think dogs experience emotions - perhaps not in a "human" way, but they bond closely and surely know when they are bereft. I've only ever had one dog at a time (and no pets now), so I have not dealt with this personally. On another note, I love the large picture format you're using. Your portraits are amazing.

  32. I do think dogs understand death. When Gypsy died Holly smell her but continued to look for her days after. When her ashes came home I was going to seperate them to be buried in 2 places. Holly came in the room and smelled the ashes she went in the bedroom and moaned and cried. I put them up and went to see what was wrong. She did this all night. But I really think that was her grieving. From then on she has never looked for Gypsy again.

    I also had a hamster and Holly and Sandy always touched noses when Sandy died I buried her in the side yard I had Holly in the yard she was standing by the fence crying. While cleaning the cage Holly always "help" me. That day she went into the other room and would not come back till the cage was gone.

    So I think dogs understand.

    Gypsy had 2 owners me and my grandmother. When Grandma was dying Gypsy did not leave the room unless made to. When Grandma died she got on the bed gave her a kiss and got off. We saved the sheets for scent and she layed on them for a week. I went by the cemetary about 2 weeks later Gypsy was in the car when we got there she got out of the car and went and layed on the grave. She had never been there before.

    Dogs do understand in there on way

    Hope this helps

    Leigh M.

  33. Dogs definitely understand. Whenever one of our pack leaves, we always let the others come to say their final goodbyes. We just buried Rusty a week ago. He was laid into his coffin and each of the dogs went through (they actually lined up....strange to watch) sniffed or licked him and then moved on. This was the first time that our new little girl, Pepper, saw death. She had bonded closely to Rusty in the two months since she came to live with us. She walked up to Rusty and kept trying to nudge him and wake him up. I think reality set in at this point and she crawled into the coffin with him and laid down on top of his blanket with her head resting on him. We had to pick her up and move her when we were ready to bury him. She was quiet for a little while and then latched onto Shelby for comfort. Now Shelby and Pepper can't be separated.

  34. That's an interesting thought. I'm not sure about the understanding of death because I've never lost a dog, so can't really comment. I did notice a marked 'growing up' of Flo from the moment Elsie arrived though, and I think that she saw her role chang from being the puppy in the pack to having big sister duties. Perhaps it's changing dynamics.

  35. It is an interesting thought. I don't really know if they understand death. I am sure they feel loss when someone either human or animal is gone from their life. I do believe that they accept it more than humans do and are able to move on sooner. I don't really know, but it is something to think about.

    Anne and Sasha

  36. I believe they know and understand. When a homed pup from our litter died unexpectedly and we came home from burying her, even though they hadn't had contact in almost 5 years, I believe they knew who she was and that she was gone.

    When Alex died and Silver was about four and Brut was 8 mos. Our whole household changed. We let each of sniff the body and Silver grieved for some time before accepting Brut. Brut would lie in all the same places that were Alex's. I do believe they understand the loss. And that they can smell death and know what it is.

    Good subject. I think death sometimes needs to be talked about more considering how short of pets life really are compared to ours.

  37. I think they know more, and feel more than we think they know and feel.

  38. It's an interesting question. Maggie our dingo was with our lab Moosh when he died and was frantic during his last breaths. yet she was content on her own last day to be let go. It's weird like that.

    I think it depends on the dog and the intellect of the dog and like humans how much denial they go into or how much they hang on. I think they probably grieve similarly in stages and understand a lot more than we think but for whatever reasons are affected emotionally differently, depending on the dog. Just like humans. I doubt that they don't understand death or dying, but that they are affect emotionally by it differently from dog to dog. Also by the bond they've had with that particular animal/being who passed.

  39. Our lab died at home, but before that Khumbu would sit and watch and look out for him. After though Khumbu seemed to carry on as normal.

    Bruno died in the hosptial and Khumbu was very very quiet (no woo wooing), depressed, he sat in Burno's places, he sniffed him out all the time, he was not interested in anything and was like this until Kyra appeared in his life. He was very stand off with her until he seemed to realise she was here to stay.

    Now was the difference because he got to say goodbye to the lab but with Bruno we had no idea that he was going to die that day or was it because Bruno was his hero, or was it because his pack had shrunk to an unacceptable level?

    I don't know the answer but it is an interesting question and one I've thought about a lot.

  40. touching subject. anyone ever owning a dog or cat can relate. whether they understand or just sense something we cant say for sure . but they certainly express the affect and i think they definately feel a loss. i've also experienced different reactions in my animals, of course even we humans are all individuals and react uniquely. what more can be said. certainly brings back memories of sad times.

  41. Hi...dogs and horses bond very deeply...I think that that feel loss very similar to the way we do...and each of us reacts very differently to the loss of a close family member.
    BrownDog's Human


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