By Melodie Veldhuizen
Some animal-behaviour scientists doubt whether dogs can really feel grief when a human parent dies. Experts claim that dogs function on the same intellectual and emotional level as children of four to five years old. They do not understand the finality of death and therefore they expect the deceased person to come back.
And yet, from the behaviour of dogs it is clear that they experience loss when a human parent dies. The intensity with which dogs experience loss and the extent to which they grieve, depend a lot on how close the relationship between the deceased person and his dog-child was.
The behaviour of dogs that grieve are very similar to that of dogs who experience separation anxiety when their human parent leaves the house. These dogs do not react well to temporary separation such as when they are left in somebody else’s care for a while, and will also experience permanent separation such as when its beloved human parent dies as traumatic. A dog that is experiencing separation anxiety:
- follows its human parent around everywhere (Velcro dogs);
- experiences anxiety when it realises that its human parent is going to leave without him, and will bark and yelp the moment it is alone;
- is destructive and messes in the house;
- is depressed and inactive, licks itself and displays other repetitive or compulsive behaviour; and
- is excessively excited when its human parent comes home.
Behaviour of grieving dogs
At the loss of a human parent some dogs will display behaviour similar to dogs suffering from separation anxiety, but it will by its nature last longer and be much more intense:
· Loss of energy, listless, moping, depressed
· No interest in its environment or toys
· Does not want to go for a walk and does not run around
· No apetite, which causes weight loss and/or anorexia, and also drinks less water
· Diminished social interaction with humans and other animals
· Sleeps a lot by day, but does not sleep at night
· Bouts of yelping, howling, groaning, sometimes even when sleeping
· Negative body language, such as slower movements
· Negative behaviour as in the case of dogs suffering from separation anxiety
· Looks for its human parent in rooms where he spent most of his time and will even “camp out” there for hours
- Hyperalert around the time when its human parent usually came home.
How can you help your dog through the grieving process?
· Maintain its normal routine as far as possible, such as times for eating, walking and playing.
· Make sure that it eats and drinks, even if you have to feed it its favourite food.
· Do not leave it alone, especially at night. Let it sleep in the same room as one of the other family members or with the other pets.
· Keep it occupied by day with things that divert its attention ─ play with it, spoil it with its favourite snacks, or a new toy.
· Take it for a walk ─ physical exercise has a calming effect and increases its serotonin levels, which will improve its mood.
- Encourage contact with other people and dogs (social facilitation).
- Be patient. It is normal for a dog to grieve for a few weeks and even a few months. It is important, however, that it should eventually behave normally. Your own grief and depression while you’re trying to console it, could prolong its grieving process.
- Medication (prescribed by a veterinarian) could be used as a last resort in extreme cases (if it does not show any improvement after about three months).
Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201411/do-dogs-grieve-over-lost-loved-one