How to help your dog as it grieves the loss of a two- or four-legged companion

Last week, I had to take Oliver to the vet to get a refill on his allergy meds. So I took him to work with me and left Madeline at home with Andrew, who was working from home for the day.

When I got home, Andrew told me that Maddie was not at all happy with her brother’s absence during the day. She sat by the door and paced for a few hours until she finally settled down and fell asleep. She just seemed out of sorts and even more anxious than usual.

When we finally arrived home, you would have thought they had not seen each other in weeks! Tails wagged, butts were sniffed, zoomies commenced around the house. It was a happy reunion.

They are clearly bonded after so many years, so when one isn’t there, the absence is felt hard.

When I think about their mortality, it does make me worry a bit, to be honest. Because they are both really, really old dogs now, and at some point, one will outlive the other.

When we lose a beloved pet, we aren’t the only ones it takes an emotional toll on. I’ve often wondered how I will be able to deal when that day finally comes when one of my babies will cross the rainbow bridge. But until now, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to how the dog remaining will process that grief.

Even though dogs do not verbalize whether they are happy or sad, astute pet owners interpret their pets’ emotions based on behavior. With these interpretations in mind, it is commonly acknowledged that dogs do feel happiness, sadness, possessiveness and fear. They also get angry and nervous.

So it stands to reason that they also, do indeed, mourn.

When a dog loses a companion, two- or four-legged, he grieves and reacts to the changes in his life. Dogs alter their behavior when they mourn, much like people do.

  • They may become depressed and listless.
  • They may have a decreased appetite and decline to play.
  • They may sleep more than usual and move more slowly, sulking around.

Pet owners recognize these changes in daily behavior as the same signs of grieving that humans exhibit. The common denominator in human or canine grief is the loss of a central individual (canine or human) along with the associated bond.

Skeptics suggest that dogs do not really grieve and instead attribute their behavioral changes to the alterations in daily routine resulting from the absence of an integral figure in a dog’s life. In other words, the dog gets “upset” because his schedule is off. With the loss of a companion dog, perhaps the surviving dog misses canine interaction and play time.

With the loss of a human companion, perhaps feeding and walking schedules are changed as the new caregiver takes charge. Since they may not actually understand death as something permanent, sometimes a dog will wait patiently, believing that the deceased caregiver will return.

Still others believe the dog simply is reacting to the grief exhibited by humans in the house as they deal with the death of a household member.

A recent study concluded that common signs associated with mourning are:

  • 36% of dogs experienced a decreased appetite following the loss of a canine companion.
  • Approximately 11% refused to eat at all.
  • Many dogs slept more than usual while some suffered insomnia.
  • Some dogs changed the area of the house where they slept.
  • About 63% of dogs exhibited changes in vocal patterns, with some vocalizing more, while others were quieter than they were prior to their loss of a human companion.
  • Surviving dogs were often more affectionate with their owners and became clingy.

The study, which assessed many different behavior patterns, concluded 66% of dogs experienced four or more behavioral changes after the loss of a family pet which indicated grief.

When signs of grief become evident following the loss of an animal or human family member, here are some ways you can help your dog to cope:

1. Spend extra time with your dog. Try to divert your dog’s attention by engaging in her favorite pastimes. Go for a walk. Play a game of fetch. Take a ride in the car.

2. Be more affectionate. Make a point of petting your dog more often. Make eye contact and talk to him by verbalizing routine household activities, “OK, Muffy, let’s load the dishwasher.”

3. If your dog enjoys company, invite friends over who will interact with your dog. A little human variety can pique your dog’s interest. We’re in the middle of a pandemic at the moment though, so you know, be responsible!

4. Provide entertainment while you are gone. Hide treats in popular (to your dog) household locations for him to find during the day or fill a foraging toy with food to keep him busy while you are gone.

5. Reinforce good behavior and ignore inappropriate behavior. Some mournful dogs vocalize or howl without provocation.  Although it is hard to do, try to ignore this behavior. Resist the temptation to give your dog a treat to quiet him, which will only reinforce the behavior you want to change. Firmly tell him to hush and reward him if he complies. The reward does not have to be food, by the way: A hug will suffice.

You may also try to break the howling cycle by distracting your dog. Instead of approaching him, which may be interpreted as positive reinforcement of the undesirable behavior, try calling him to you. If he heeds your command, praise him and initiate a distraction with a walk or a game.

6. Consider medical therapy. If your dog has prolonged difficulty following a loss, ask your veterinarian about the use of a behavior modification drug. There are several medications that can serve as adjunct therapy and may enhance your efforts at resolving behavior issues associated with mourning.

7. Think carefully about replacing a lost pet. If your dog’s grief is caused by the loss of a canine companion, don’t rush to find a replacement. Give your dog time to grieve and adjust to the loss. Introduction of a new dog may add more stress to an already stressful situation.

Establishing a new, comfortable social structure in the home following the loss of a human or canine family member is important for the entire family, but even more so for dogs. The reality is we humans have lives that extend outside the immediate family unit to help distract us from grief or place the loss in a broader perspective. We have friends at work, see people at the gym, and communicate with distant friends and relatives, electronically.

Dogs have a much narrower social structure with set boundaries that extend only as far as the inside of the house or the perimeter of the yard or the walking path around the neighborhood. Their days are focused on a much smaller social periphery that may include only the other pets and people within the immediate family unit. When a member of that family unit is gone, there is a huge void in the dog’s life and they may need help in dealing with loss.

Time, as they say, heals all wounds. Loss will become easier to bear and fond memories will replace the sorrow, in time. Just be patient with yourself, and with your remaining pets. You’ll get through it — together.