DO DOGS GRIEVE THEIR OWNER’S PASSING?

Introduction

The most famous dog-grieving story of all time is that of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier owned by a Mr. John Gray of Edinburgh, Scotland. When Mr. Gray died in 1858 and was buried in Greyfriar's Churchyard, Bobby was one of the conspicuous mourners – and, as time went by, he never forgot his deceased master. Every day for the next 14 years until his own death in 1872, Bobby spent each night lying on his master’s grave come rain, come hail, and come snow. In honor of Bobby’s devotion, a statue and water fountain were erected to his memory in 1873.


Bobby was indeed an unusual dog – or was he? How many other dogs would grieve their owner’s passing and have a difficult time moving on following a sudden cataclysmic rift in their close bond? Quite a few it seems. While not many might show the same tenacity as Bobby to what was presumably a self-comfort maneuver, many have a significant degree of attachment to their owner that leads to anxiety and distress when even short term separation is thrust upon them, let alone bereavement.


Which dogs suffer

Dogs that are likely to be particularly hard hit following their owners’ demise are those that have the hyper-attachment syndrome of separation anxiety. Cardinal signs of this all-to-common condition, affecting up to 15 percent of dogs in the United States, are as follows:

  • Oftentimes a checkered history of earlier neglect or multiple owners

  • Excessive following behavior (“Velcro dogs”)

  • Pre-departure anxiety as owner prepares to leave

  • Barking, whining, or howling immediately after the owner’s departure

  • Destructive behavior only in the owner’s absence (and often directed toward doors and windows).

  • House soiling only in the owner’s absence

  • Inappetance in the owner’s absence

  • Depression/inactivity in the owner’s absence

  • Self-directed licking behavior in the owner’s absence (e.g. lick granuloma) or other repetitive, compulsive behavior

  • Excessive greeting behavior on the owner’s return


A score of 5 out of 10 of the above possible signs confirms separation anxiety. Some dogs with separation anxiety are so bonded to one person that if that person leaves the dog with other people in a crowded room it will display full-blown signs of separation anxiety. Such a dog will not take well at all to its owner going away on a trip or, indeed, to the permanent separation caused by bereavement. The initial fruitless panic engendered by separation associated with an owner’s demise will eventually give way to despair and depression. While we can’t ask a dog how it feels, we can (and do) sometimes see all the visible signs of depression in bereft dogs that we see in a recently bereaved or otherwise depressed person.


Clinical signs of mourning in dogs

  • Lack of energy and interest