Millions of hearts sank this week at the sight of Sully, the service dog that provided support and companionship to President George H.W. Bush, resting by the late President’s coffin. It was a clear and heavy-hearted reminder of the kind of loyalty dogs hold for their owners and human loved ones.
The Labrador service dog was assigned to President Bush in June of this year, aiding him in his later months through struggles with Parkinson’s disease. The disease caused the 41st president to have difficulty balancing, he was moving slower, and eventually needed a wheelchair, all with Sully at his side. Having been trained by America’s VetDogs, Sully was reportedly able to summon help if it was ever needed and even open doors. Needless to say, he seems like a great service dog President Bush got to spend his late months with, and those images of Sully staying by his side are also a reminder of more than just a dog’s loyalty; they also beg the question of how dogs mourn the loss of a loved one.
According to news reports, Sully will eventually join the service dog program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he’ll help wounded veterans and service members during recovery. A person certainly would need some emotional recovery time after the loss of a loved one. Can or will Sully simply pick right back up and go back to business as usual?
“When an owner passes away before her pet, it can be a confusing, sad, and difficult period, even if arrangements have been made for the animal to be taken care of by someone else,” says Russell Hartstein, a certified behaviorist and dog trainer based in Los Angeles.
Dogs may not necessarily understand the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one or even fully comprehend that person has passed away. However, they definitely recognize a change of routine as well as the absence of a person, their scent, sight, and sounds that are specific to that person, and this can trigger the emotional sensations of loss. A dog will absolutely grieve the absence of a person who was once a part of their daily life.
“My definition of grief is that a surviving animal shows distress through behavior that is markedly divergent from his routine,” says Barbara J. King, professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and the author of “How Animals Grieve.”
Many people will notice that changed behavior in everything from temperament to a change in a dog’s gait. While there’s no concrete way to gauge how each particular dog processes grief, there are certainly physical markers that can act as signs of their emotional state. Some dogs may be affected longer than others. And in extreme cases, some dogs may never be the same.
Panting, barking, whining, pacing, fidgeting, loss of appetite, weight loss, lack of energy, listlessness, and a loss of interest in normal physical activities are all things people are advised to look out for as signs that a dog is still processing grief. Emotional stress can actually create and raise existing levels of stress hormones, blood pressure, and heart rate, with all having the potential to lead to death in the most extreme cases.
“Losing a loved one is a terrible loss, and emotional heartache can cause physical problems, too,” said Dr. William H. Frishman, a cardiologist, professor and chairman of the department of medicine at New York Medical College, and author of “Triumph Over Tragedy.”
So how can you help a dog grieving the loss of a loved one? Like us, most will recover with time. Being aware of existing routines and doing your best to stick to them can help a dog relax back into a feeling of normalcy. Spending more time with them is also considered a good tactic for comforting a grieving dog, as well as giving them extra attention and more specifically, more touching, as well as increasing playtime. Essentially, all of the tactics you would mindfully apply to help a human friend process loss can also help dogs with similar emotions.
“I have no doubt that dogs miss us as much as we miss them, and like us, they need time to heal from a deep emotional loss,” says Sally Morgan, a holistic physical therapist for animals and humans.
According to Dr. Christopher Pachel, a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist, many major interruptions to a dog’s life can contribute to depression and changes in their emotional health, such as bringing home a new pet or a new baby being welcomed into the home.
“It’s a natural human tendency to want to console, to comfort, to soothe, to nurture, yet it is possible to feed into the negative emotional process,” Dr. Pachel warns. For instance, “If the dog is reluctant to eat and then gets more attention for sitting by the bowl rather than eating that’s a great way to create a picky eater, at that point.”
Cesar Millan himself suggests we manage this by being aware of our own behavior and adjusting it accordingly. Reinforcing negative or harmful behavior while a dog is mourning can prolong their grief or potentially damage their health. And this relates directly back to the idea of getting back to and sticking to whatever routines your dog was accustomed to as quickly as possible. “Maintaining a normal routine for your pet, such as maintaining a familiar eating time or playtime, is the best way to help with the transitional process,” Millan writes. “Take a tip from animals that live in the wild. They don’t have as much time to grieve as domesticated animals,” adding that in the wild, grief absolutely exists but animals don’t have the option of stopping life simply to grieve. They have to pick back up and get on with life.