Golden Retrievers Speak: Do We “Grieve”?

Jeter:     This is such a complex question.    You can read different articles from different perspectives on whether we grieve when a member of our pack passes away.      I will say this – we don’t grieve like humans do.    Since we don’t really understand the concept of death while we are living, we can’t really “rationalize” it when another member of our pack dies.  However, there could be other dynamics going on.

Alanis:   For example, Daddy caught me the other day laying down in the middle of the kitchen.    The middle of the kitchen had become Josh’s spot for the last few months of his life.    This is not a spot I have been known to rest in, so why do I lay there?    The most plausible is that Josh’s scent is obviously still in the house – the humans probably can’t sense it, but we can.    It is also possible that I am wondering where the other dog in the house went, and since that is his spot, I am just waiting for him to return to it.    This isn’t necessarily “grieving” – it is me being a bit out of sorts because he has left.

Jeter:  Speaking of out of sorts, I have been a crazy dog since the dreaded day.  I am an excitable Golden Retriever – always have been.  But I have been extreme for the past several days.   When I go for walks, I am laser focused on the walk – today, I kept drifting over next to where Alanis was walking.    I have read (in those doggie books that only we can read) that one sign of a dog who is distressed over losing a member of their pack is the tendency to be clingy.  I have always been a clingy dog anyway, but I have taken it to new extremes lately.  I want nothing to do with being alone.   I should also note that I have done some sniffing around the house.

Alanis:   Do you think it is possible that we are acting up a bit because he was the alpha dog?

Jeter:   Maybe.    Although Josh was no longer leading us in the last few months, the respect was likely never lost.    Now we don’t have that respected leader.  Neither myself nor Alanis has alpha tendencies.   Sure, I am being fed first now, and Daddy usually leashes me up first for walks, etc.   But I have zero interest in the role of a true alpha dog….at least now.

Alanis:  You have been humping me more often though!

Jeter:   True.  And it is true that a dog that humps another dog could be showing some alpha.    But I used to hump Josh as well.  And I have always humped you.   But I am extremely submissive, and rarely do I bark at Alanis or any other dog if I am “angry” with them.     It could just be our pack dynamic right now in this house.  Neither one of us cares whether we lead – Josh took pride in being THE dog.   But that can change once the dust settles.

Alanis:    How about the fact that we both acted strangely when we went for rides in the car?

Jeter:   Josh’s scent was all over the car at that point.  We went through a bit of craziness because we knew that scent.  It doesn’t mean we necessarily understood everything, but it could have provided us some “doggie closure”.

Alanis:   Very true.   I usually get in the back seat and instantly go to sleep.   That day, I was going to a training class and I was going crazy in the back seat.

Jeter:  Yep.  I did a lot of sniffing.

Alanis:   So, do we grieve?    Yes and no.   If there was a dog funeral, for example, we wouldn’t walk in with our tails between our legs and our heads down.  We just don’t think of things that way.  What we likely CAN figure out is that our friend is no longer with us, for whatever that reason may be, and that we have some sort of sense of what a certain scent may indicate.

Jeter:  Indeed.  Don’t ask us to rationalize what “death” means.  But do realize that we likely have some sense over a dog that leaves with the intention of coming back vs. a dog that leaves that won’t be coming back.    And understand that different dogs can act differently.  I have heard that many dogs will start howling when one dog leaves the pack.  This is not necessarily grieving – this is likely the dog thinking their friend is simply lost, and they are trying to bring the dog back.

Me:     This is a topic that is impossible to really know the full answer to.  Researchers continue to find out that dogs are much more complex than we give them credit for sometimes.  The behavior of our two dogs has certainly changed a bit, and it is much more noticeable in Jeter.     Using human logic, it is easy to make a connection:  Josh was essentially Jeter’s leader – he let Jeter know on multiple occasions that he was the alpha dog in this house.  Jeter played with him, licked him constantly, went on many rides together, etc.  It simply is not a coincidence that Jeter would be more out of sorts than Alanis would be.    This all tells me there is an emotional thing going on – again, probably not the same emotions my wife and I feel.    

If you have two or more surviving dogs, it is very important to not force the issue with them in terms of house structure.  If one of them attempts to become the new pack leader, don’t jump in and say “NO!  We want this other one to lead the pack!”  It won’t work.  Let them figure out their own hierarchy.  Jeter’s increased “humping” of Alanis can certainly be a sign that he is trying to be a bit more assertive in this house, but there is really no way of knowing what the dynamic will be, if it changes at all.     Give your other dogs some extra love and attention.  Play with them, or let them go crazy with each other.   When humans go through a traumatic event, usually we do things to take our mind off of what happened.  Applying that same strategy to your dog can be beneficial for them to get past the loss of a pack mate.

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