Can dogs behave and grieve like humans?

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
January 2023

Matt Limb OBE reflects on the loss of a family dog and the findings of a recent report into grief among canine companions.

Recently and sadly not for the first time, the house was plunged into sadness, tears and chaos, there was great upset for me and the good lady wife as we lost our spaniel, Haig. Don’t get me wrong, we knew it was his time, he was fast approaching 13 and he had the most amazing and fulfilled life.

I have always had a bond with my dogs, but that connection will be different with each one. However, the bond I had with Haig was something incredibly unique. It was as if he knew when I rescued him as a young and lively 16-week-old puppy that we were destined to be together. From the day he arrived, for almost 13 years, Haig was like a shadow to me; absolutely devoted, as my wife once said, it was as if two halves of a coin had come together.

As I said, Haig was a good age and had a good and full life. He worked with me on shoots, which he loved. Add to that his many road trips to the Scottish Highlands when I travelled north on commissions. I remember him once jumping into Loch Lomond for a swim. My plan was to make just a quick stop, but Haig took his time having a paddle, then it took me ages to get him dry when back at the car. But no matter how you prepare yourself, you can never be ready. The hardest thing about owning a dog is saying goodbye, they never live as long as you think or would hope for.

I have heard it said that if it is a working dog the grief of loss can be worse, which I can agree with. Not only have you lost a much-loved pet in the house and home, but you also say goodbye to a work colleague that you have trained, plus they are a close working companion. It took time before any sort of normality returned to our house, but if I am honest, even now, months later and without thinking, in a moment of lapsed thought, I can still gaze over my shoulder in the office looking for him.

Yes, we have lost dogs before, but this time we noticed something different. You may laugh if you wish, but the loss was felt by the two other spaniels. I know not everyone will agree with me here, but I think given the nature of the three spaniels, the remaining two did suffer. All three lived in the house together, both girls arriving as young puppies and Haig acted the part of a big old uncle, playing with them and befriending them in their early days. But their behaviour noticeably changed when we lost him.

Most noticeable was the older of the girls, Islay. By her very nature, she is a sensitive dog, who hates being told off or hearing raised voices. But she lost much of her spark and bounce and was certainly not herself after losing Haig; it was apparent that she and the younger dog needed our reassurance and support. Given her nature, Islay may have simply picked up that my wife and I were out of sorts with the loss – but I do not think so.

Strangely, she came into my office far more often, which she would not normally do; far more likely to sit at the door watching and looking in. But she came in and sat where Haig would have been, then pushed her nose into my hand, clearly seeking attention. If you know your dog well, its personality and demeanour, then I believe she was mourning the loss as much as I was.

But why should dogs not feel the hurt and mourn the loss of a close friend? Recent research has shown that dogs can grieve the loss of a canine companion and even behave like humans as they mourn. The research was conducted in Milan, Italy and followed over 400 dog owners who had more than one dog over an extended period of time.

Following the loss of one dog, several negative behavioural changes were commonly reported in the surviving dog or dogs, with attention-seeking out of normal character being noticed in as many as 70 per cent of cases. Other noted behaviour included playing less and a reduced level of activity in over half of the reported cases, plus sleeping more and a general lethargic attitude. To this we can add eating less and in several cases restlessness, where the dog looked to the owner for reassurance far more than normal. Plus, some 30 per cent commented that the dog was far more vocal than before the loss.

Scanning over the findings of the report, I could associate with much of it after seeing the behaviour of our two girls around the house in the days after we lost Haig. But more worrying in the report was the finding that some dogs continued grieving for as long as six months, with a third of the dogs studied acting oddly for up to two months.

The report suggests that a dog may be reminded of the loss for longer than we might think, for example when fed.

You might be a creature of habit like me. The three dishes were always lined up in a particular order, then the dogs were called forward and they started to eat. For owners and dogs, that will change massively when you lose one of them and the suggestion is that the remaining dogs can feel this for an extended time, even if they do wolf down their food.

he change in both of our spaniels, it has driven home to me strongly the need to keep an eye out for the dogs in such grim times. If dogs have the intelligence we so often credit them with, then they may well also have mental health issues, as are now spoken about more openly among humans.

There is no doubt that a dog is one of the greatest friends that anyone can have. They may frustrate you as well as reward you, embarrass and surprise you. But they bring enjoyment and pleasure as they are always there ready for you.

It has been proven that dogs are good for our health in keeping us both mentally and physically active, but we may need to remember their mental as well as physical health – especially after they lose one of their own, as our two girls did with Haig.

Photographs: Matt Limb OBE

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