Whether it’s a death in the family, a child leaving home, or a divorce, your dog will notice that one of his “pack” members is missing. Learn to help him deal with his grief.

Grief has many forms, and can arise from many situations besides the death of a loved one. A relationship breakup, a child leaving home, even a prolonged business trip or hospital stay are all examples of family changes that can cause feelings of loss and grief in those remaining at home. That grief can be felt even more keenly by your dog, who doesn’t understand where the missing person is and when or even if s/he will be back.

My own dog became extremely sad when my husband left for an extended trip. Every time I sat down, he jumped in my lap (no small task since he weighs 50 pounds), lay his head on my arm and sighed pathetically. He poked around the house with his head drooping like a deflated balloon.

I asked veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman about my dog’s behavior. “Dogs can get into a funk or lose interest in life because of separation,” he told me, adding that even short absences can cause changes in behavior. “For instance, if a man goes out to play a game of golf for five hours, the dog will feel temporary loss, but will be relieved when the owner returns.

“With long term separation or loss, dogs suffer bereavement and get depressed, not unlike humans,” Dr. Dodman adds. “Dogs have a difficult time adjusting to an owner or family member being removed from the household. This is especially the case if the person is someone to whom the dog is close — for example, a dog sleeps in someone’s room and then suddenly that person is out of the picture. The dog can’t understand why that person has disappeared.” 

Symptoms of bereavement or loss

Here are some common symptoms that indicate your dog is grieving over a separation or loss:

  • He seems down and depressed.
  • He has lost interest in things he formerly liked to do.
  • He’s listless, not playing with toys.
  • His appetite changes – typically, a grieving dog eats less and may lose weight.
  • He shows signs of anxiety.
  • His energy seems low when he’s out for walks.

In extreme cases, bereavement can cause compulsive behaviors like incessant licking.

How to cheer him up

Many separations and losses in life are inevitable, which means you have to help your dog adjust to the absence of the missing family member. If you’re also grieving, it might be easy to overlook your dog’s feelings; but one of the best ways to help both of you is to try and find ways to make life happy and interesting again.

  1. Act in an upbeat way around your dog; sympathy will actually make his depression worse because he’ll pick up on your own emotions. Dog behaviorist Bill Campbell calls this the “Jolly Routine”: when you act happy or jolly, it helps lift the dog’s mood. An old proverb states that “a cheerful heart is good medicine”. Being upbeat, fun and positive is good medicine for your dog (and for you).
  2. Give your dog lots of attention — treats, new toys, extra walks or play sessions. Throw a ball. Let him play with other dogs. Consider getting him a new friend in the form of a puppy, if circumstances allow. When you go back to work after the loss or separation, don’t leave your dog at home alone. If your workplace allows, take him with you, or have him stay with a friend or family member he knows well.

The good news is that your dog’s grief will ease over time. He may feel low for a few weeks, but it’s generally temporary. As his owner, being aware of his suffering and taking the necessary actions to help him through it will speed his (and your) recovery and adjustment. 

Losing a dog buddy is also hard on him

Dogs don’t just grieve when people in their lives die or go away. It’s also common for a dog to grieve over the loss of another dog he was closely bonded with. Dogs in the same household may play together, sleep together, operate as a pack, so the loss of one has a deep impact on the other.

Here’s one dramatic example involving two dogs in the same home. The older dog became terminally ill and needed to be put to sleep. The owner arranged for his healthy dog to go for a long run while the other was euthanized. Back home, the owner buried the older dog in the garden, covering the grave completely so it was basically indistinguishable from the surrounding area.

When the healthy dog was brought back from his outing, he ran around the house looking for his buddy, then begged to go outside. He immediately went to his friend’s grave and lay on it for three days.

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