When someone close to us dies, dogs can often be the friend we turn to the most for support. It's not uncommon for humans to say things to their dog that they can't or won't say to even their closest friends or family.
No matter how much power, status or wealth you have, losing a loved one can bring you to your knees.
HM Queen Elizabeth II is just as likely to lean on her small army of dogs for support whilst grieving the death of her husband as a homeless person might whilst going through the same emotional journey.
This article explains how dogs can help humans grieve, what they understand and the role they can play in helping us heal.
Why dogs are often the friend in times of need
Researchers have been exploring the connection between humans and dogs for over a century now. From studies on war-time grief, the public response to the Titanic disaster, the effect of helicopter parenting on the behaviour of adolescents,the effect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on the behaviour of children, dogs are constantly studied.
Research into pet dogs really gathered steam in the 1960s. For decades, scientists and researchers has been trying to understand the role dogs play in human society and particularly how we leverage the emotionally healing powers of dogs when we are going through the most traumatic events in our lives.
Coping with grief
Some people feel the only way to get through a deep loss is to simply keep moving. However, psychologists suggest it's important to find ways to help ourselves through grief.
Research shows that finding ways to manage our own emotions can be helpful in improving our sense of well-being, which can help us cope with our grief.
Dogs, it will not surprise you to learn, have a remarkable capacity to understand human emotion and feelings. They have also been shown to be sensitive to human distress.
Dogs can detect when humans are about to get sick and we know for certain that dogs can tap in to things that are going on in the human mind in ways that even medical science finds difficult to explain. It's real. It's proven. Dogs do have a connection with humans that is incredibly well developed.
Dogs know when we are sad, happy or even just mentally distracted. They can sense it, they can even smell it. They know when we're frightened and they know when we are something other than our normal selves. They know. It isn't an illusion and it's not wishful thinking, your dog really does know how you are feeling.
The role of dogs when we are grieving
There isn't a right or wrong way to cope with grief. Humans are the only animal born in to the certain self-awareness that their time here is finite. Contemplating our own death is one thing, having to live on following the death of someone we loved is quite another challenge.
Perhaps you think that you're “supposed” to grieve by yourself. Perhaps you think your loved one would want you to move on quickly and you feel like you're somehow letting them down by being unable to go forward. You can't do grief wrong. You can only do grief in the way you are feeling.
Leaning on our dogs at times of grief can provide an emotional shoulder to cry on or laugh with that we know will never come back to haunt us. Perhaps you want to share a funny story about the person you are grieving for, but you daren't introduce humour to that person's friends or family. Don't worry, your dog won't judge you. Perhaps other people seem to have got the hang of 'celebrating the life' of a departed person but all you feel is stomach knotting, emotionally crippling sadness and despair. Don't worry. Your dog will never judge you for it.
Your dog can sense when things are different. They can adjust. If you're sad and they seem to be sad too, don't worry. It's not permanent. You're not giving your dog depression because you are in a dark place. You'll be surprised at how quickly your dog will match your emotional status whether your sad, happy or just trying to find the best way to process something.
The benefits of having a dog when grieving
The whole world was sad when Princess Diana died. No one even knew who those people who were crying were, they were just a big pile of grief. Dogs can't really help people to cry, but it has been proven that they can help people to feel less alone. Dogs are able to bond with their humans through emotional expression. Just as the main reason humans interact with dogs is to make them happy, so they interact with other humans because they want to be happy. The more dogs bond with their owners, the more they know how to get what they want from them. A study showed that when people saw photographs of their dogs shortly after the death of a loved one, they reported less intrusive thoughts and more happiness and health.
Do dogs understand when we are sad?
Dogs can sense when we are sad, and they make an effort to comfort us. One way that can happen is through their extreme attention to us, as one psychologist put it, "even when we are upset, distressed, or even unconscious, dogs are always looking for signals..".
However, even when we try to hide our feelings, dogs are not fooled. You'd never want to play poker against a dog. They can spot a bluff very easily.
Are dogs aware of the concept of death?
In short, we don't know. We can speculate about any number of things that dogs do or don't understand; jealousy, envy, retribution, shame. These are all words that have been applied to recognisable dog behaviour but do they really understand the underlying concepts? Maybe. Maybe not. It's not as important as what we can see with our own eyes.
If you leave the home, your dog will be sadder and less happy than when you were there. When you come back, they'll be happy again. For different dogs, the strength of these emotions will be different. But if you left the home and never returned, your dog would recognise something is very different. Some dogs will move on and others will be in a permanent state of sadness until the day they die.
You see, it doesn't really matter so much whether dogs understand the permanence of death. What matters is they understand loss. They absolutely understand that concept.
Every dog is different just as every person is different.
Some dogs in shelters will struggle to ever adapt or accept the fact that their life with their previous owner is gone. Others can adapt and move forward at remarkable pace.
Dogs understand death in so much as they recognise a change to the way things were. How deeply it impacts them is down to the individual dog's tolerance for change and how they cope with loss.
Do dogs grieve?
Dogs have been the subject of numerous studies since the dawn of human civilisation.
Like all domestic animals, dogs have adapted to live in groups, or packs, in order to achieve the best survival outcomes. These groups often contain people as well, of which most research suggests dogs are very aware and sensitive.
We know from studies of dogs that they show anxiety or stress when humans are ill, and that if they see their human family members in a bad mood or upset they themselves might become upset, too.
As we have learnt more about the feelings and actions of animals, we know they have emotions that are very different to ours in some respects and very similar to ours in others. Studies show that dogs are more attuned to human emotional states and needs than we had previously thought.
Dogs have been shown to demonstrate emotion that absolutely resembles grief. But remember, some dogs act as if their entire world has ended when their owner pops out to the shops for a short time. Different dogs, different emotions.
Dogs often understand far more than we give them credit for. They’ve had to deal with existential struggles of their own and they are not immune to the intense emotion associated with grief and loss.
If you are grieving or thinking of starting to grieve, it’s important to remember that, as sensitive as a dog’s response may be to your grief they are capable of helping you heal. Their unique set of skills in the animal kingdom has brought them to our homes in their millions.
Never be afraid to share your grief with your dog. They will understand.