I don’t believe all dogs, as a species, experience grief. They aren’t even sufficiently self-aware to recognize themselves in a mirror. I think many dogs instinctively react to the grief we, ourselves, feel – to our distress, to our sadness and sense of loss. But not all dogs.
There are species that we know do experience grief: elephants, dolphins, otters, doves, wolves, to name a few. I wonder why wolves grieve but not domesticated dogs? In any event, grief is not something uniquely human any more than love is uniquely human.
Let me tell you a story that I believe shows that some dogs can, and do, grieve.
Lucy was 10-years old when we adopted our second Boston Terrier, Rocky, in 2011. The relationship between these two was more of Oh, so you live here, too? rather than Oh, you’re my favorite brother! Until 2014.
In January 2014, Lucy started losing her hair, growing a pot belly, getting eye and ear infections, and having urinary and gastrointestinal problems, and was always thirsty. Our veterinarian, who had done her cancer surgery a few years earlier, said the hair loss and pot belly were due to age and treated the infections as unrelated issues.
Lucy kept getting worse and we switched to a new vet in April who conducted an ultrasound and diagnosed her with Cushings Disease. With treatment, a dog with Cushings can live as long as three years; but, the disease ravaged Lucy and she crossed the Rainbow Bridge just eight months after onset of symptoms.
As Lucy suffered and her symptoms improved from the treatment, then got even worse, the one constant throughout the entire ordeal was Rocky. For the last three months of her life, he never left her side.
During Lucy’s illness – or, perhaps because of it – she and Rocky formed a strong emotional bond. He became her constant companion right up until the end. Rocky ate when she ate – or didn’t eat when Lucy was too ill to eat. He sat or lay beside her. He slept when she slept. He even adjusted his bathroom habits so he went outside when she went – no matter how often she had to go out.
For the last three months of her life, he never left her side. Then the day came when we took Lucy to the vet and returned home without her. Rocky was disconsolate and kept searching the house and yard. And he grieved. Oh, how he grieved. He would stand or sit in his crate by himself, facing the wall, obviously depressed. He wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t play.
It was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of Rocky’s world. All the happiness and exuberance – all the things that made him, well, Rocky, were gone.
Animal emotion and cognition expert, Marc Bekoff, writes: Animal’s emotions are raw, unfiltered, and uncontrolled. Their joy is the purest most contagious of joys and their grief the deepest and most devastating.
My concern over his well-being led me to agree with Ellen’s suggestion to get a French Bulldog puppy. Even though Rocky and I were still lost in our grief.
And so, baby Stella joined our family.
Slowly, incrementally, things began to change as his interest in her grew.
And her interest in him grew.
And Rocky became her guardian and constant companion.
And slowly but surely, he got his Happy back.
But sometimes, when I couldn’t find him, I’d go into our bedroom where Lucy’s bed was still in the corner. And I’d find Rocky there. Sometimes sitting there staring like Lucy had been on her bed the entire time and his were the only eyes that could see her. Sometimes just lying there surrounded by her lingering scent, smelling her more clearly than my nose ever could, as if she had just that moment left the room.
I would sit or lay beside him, just Rocky and me, sharing a few minutes of silence, remembering Lucy, missing Lucy, grieving Lucy. Most of all, loving Lucy. In those moments, I knew that Rocky felt the same soul-crushing grief that I felt.
And that’s how I know that some dogs, at least, can grieve.
Not the least hard thing to bear when they go from us, these quiet friends, is that they carry away with them so many years of our own lives. – John Galsworthy
If you’re interested in reading more about animals and grief, check out these resources: