Stages of a Dog's Grief

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Dogs grieve just like humans.
Dogs grieve just like humans. (Image: Janie Airey/Lifesize/Getty Images)

Just like humans, dogs can grieve over a loss. Whether a dog is grieving over a companion -- another dog, a cat, or another family pet -- or its owner, grieving can last anywhere from a few weeks to many months. Symptoms of grief in dogs include a decreased appetite, sleeping more than usual and sometimes in unusual places, lost interest in activities, antisocial behavior, whining and barking more than usual, lethargy, not wanting to be left alone and illness.

Anxiety

When a dog loses its companion or owner, anxiety can set in. As most people know, dogs are pack animals and when a member of its pack dies, it no longer knows its place in the pack. If it was an alpha dog, it may no longer know who or what to lead, and if it was a follower, it is confused as to who or what it should follow. This anxiety and confusion is very stressful to the dog.

Stress Caused by a Disturbance in Routine

Dogs thrive on routine, so when a member of its pack dies, it becomes unsettled at the change in routine. Very often, the dog will wander around its home looking for the lost member, sometimes whining and barking as it looks. The joy it felt when playing games with its companion or owner is gone when the member is missing from the pack. This causes the dog to feel very unsettled and lost.

Depression

Now that the pack and routine have been disturbed, the unsettled feelings and anxiety contribute to its depression. Dogs are very perceptive and can pick up on human emotions, so if you or a loved one is grieving over the loss of a companion, the grief will transfer to the dog. The dog may become lethargic and not know how to interact without the missing pack member. It could display antisocial behavior including hiding from people or acting aggressively toward its owner.

According to the Small Dogs Paradise website, the degree of a dog's sadness depends on its personality and the level of serotonin present in its system. Dogs with a lower placement in the pack usually have lower serotonin levels and are apt to be sadder than alpha dogs.

Helping a Dog Overcome Its Grief

The Petalia website recommends three steps to help a dog move past its grief. The first is to "establish strong leadership." The grief-stricken dog craves a purpose and needs you to provide it direction. Working on basic commands (such as sit, stay, and down) before letting it inside or outside and before feeding will give it purpose and help keep its mind off its grief.

The second step is to "establish new routines" with the dog. Because the dog's normal routines have been disturbed by the loss, it is very important for you to create new ones with the dog. Change the time of day you take it for walks and feed it. If you have to go away for any length of time, leave it with a toy that can hold a treat inside so the dog stays focused on getting the treat instead of being left alone.

Finally, the Petalia site says to "increase the joys of life" for the dog. In other words, show the dog extra affection when it seems lethargic and keep it busy by playing games with it. When you practice commands with the dog, give it extra praise when it does what it should. Taking the dog for longer walks at off times and even trips to the dog park where it can socialize and play with other dogs is another way to bring more joy to its life and help it overcome its grief.

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