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Dog grief: how to help

Jackie Murphy
Article written by Jackie Murphy

Date published 21 May 2021

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Grief is unique to each and every one of us, and the same applies to our dogs. When a dog loses someone, such as an owner or even another dog in the family, they have to adapt to a new and usually unwanted reality.

Do dogs grieve?

Grief is a human emotion, and we often interpret certain aspects of the dog's body language with sadness or joy. But do we really know that dogs have these emotions? How do you know if your dog is grieving?

Scientists find it hard to accept that a dog has feelings – although the majority of dog owners will certainly disagree with this. The reason is that humans have a language, and we can therefore label those feelings.

However, we now have research that is very specific on grieving. One study, 'The Companion Animal Mourning Project', focused on signs associated with mourning.1 Overall, they found that 66% of dogs experienced four or more behavioural changes after losing an owner or fellow household companion, which indicated grief. These signs included a decreased appetite, a change in sleeping patterns, clinginess (or reduced interaction), as well as less play or interest in activities.

If your dog has recently suffered a loss, signs of dog grief to look for include:

  • 'Closed' body language – their tail may be down with the body posture low. They may also avoid eye contact.
  • Frantic pacing or remaining very still (usually curled up). The dog may find an area that they consider to be safe and not want to move.
  • A change in vocal patterns, such as barking, howling or whining more – or they could become silent.
  • More frequent panting.
  • Not responding when spoken to, or moving away or crouching down when touched.
  • Visible shaking.
  • A lack of house training may also be observed.

God looking into camera

When dealing with a loss, you may notice that your dog retreats to a quiet space and avoids interaction.

How long will dog grief last?

As discussed, grief is unique, and there are a number of factors involved, including the age of the dog, its health status, how other members of the household grieve and the dog's relationship to other household members and/or pets. You could reasonably expect, however, that the grieving period will last between two and six months.

How to help a grieving dog
  • Allow your dog to adjust to the new situation and household circumstances. Do not be in a rush to remove all traces of the owner or fellow household companion. Leave a scent reminder, as this may be a comfort.
  • Keep to normal routines where possible, and ensure that mealtimes, their favourite walks and lots of games and fun activities are maintained.
  • Engage with your dog a little more and be more affectionate (for example, stroking and eye contact both release oxytocin).
  • Allow your dog to have some peace and quiet in the same area or ensure it is warm, secure and cosy.
  • Reinforce good behaviour and revisit training. This helps with mental stimulation and may help to deter them from unwanted behaviour, such as howling or barking.
  • Do not rush into finding a new dog or puppy as the introduction may add more stress to the already stressful situation. Dogs, as well as family members, may need time to adjust. Give your dog time and be patient.

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Jackie Murphy

About Jackie Murphy

Jackie Murphy is one of the UK's leading dog behaviour specialists with over 10 years' experience in behaviour training. She runs the Specialist Dog Training and Behaviour Centre in Borden, Kent.