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Do Dogs Understand Death?

Adrienne is a dog trainer and former veterinary assistant. She has taken several specialized courses on hospice care for dogs.

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In the grand scheme of things, it appears that humans are the only animals that are capable of understanding the concept of death, but we all know too well how intelligent dogs are, and this gives us plenty of reasons to doubt this rather broad belief.

Many dog owners report changes in their dogs that appear to be suggestive of them acknowledging their impending deaths. They also appear to grieve after losing a person or dog they have grown very attached to.

Whether this is a true acknowledgment in the real sense of the word or simply an instinctive response to their bodies weakening or the changes that come from losing access to a favorite person or playmate, remains under debate.

So do dogs understand death? Let's take a look at what science and the experts in the field have to say.

Do Dogs Understand Death?

In the wild, animals encounter death on a frequent basis, considering how common it is for them to die. The high mortality rates are due to several perils associated with living in the wild such as disease, natural disasters, falling victim to predation and scarcity of food.

In grey wolf populations, death isn't that uncommon. Despite being near the top of the food chain, their death rates are close to other animals living in the wild.

According to David Mech, a researcher who has been studying wolves for more than 50 years, only about 30 percent of wolf pups survive from birth to 1 year of age.

With this in mind, we can deduce that wild animals must encounter death at some point in their lives. A mother wolf may witness the death of one of her wolf pups or the wolf pups may witness the death of one of their siblings.

Humans, unless in a certain line of job, are less likely to encounter death with such frequency. Even dogs, as domestic animals, may not encounter death with much frequency. This is just one of the many differences between wolves and dogs.

However, a lack of exposure to death doesn't necessarily translate into an inability to understand its concept.

According to David Mech, wolf pups in the wild have a high risk for mortality.

According to David Mech, wolf pups in the wild have a high risk for mortality.

Understanding Death in Its Basics

Death can be something complex to comprehend requiring sophisticated cognitive abilities (not even us humans fully understand death!), so in animals, we can expect them to mostly understand death in its basics.

At a bare minimum, we expect dogs to understand death as a state of no longer performing the behaviors that live animals usually do. Therefore, not moving, not eating, not grooming, not playing, not drinking and not breathing.

At the same time, dogs may as well come to understand death as an irreversible process, meaning that there is no going back and that movement and breathing have stopped for good, otherwise the dead animal would be asleep and not dead.

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Dogs may show signs of understanding death as a permanent state when they stop interacting with the deceased.

A mother dog may therefore reach of point of acceptance when faced with a deceased puppy. Such a state of "acceptance likely takes place when she starts ignoring him/her and taking care of the remaining puppies.

In the case of a dog sharing the household with a now-deceased dog, he or she may initially inspect and sniff the deceased corpse and then decide to no longer interact considering the lack of response.

Not an Overnight Lesson

Understanding the whole concept of death is not easy. One must just consider that, according to experts, in children, the concept of death really only starts to fully sink in when the child reaches the age of 10 years old. Prior to the age of 10, there is only some partial understanding of death.

Stanley Coren has compared the average brain of dogs to be similar to a two-year-old child, therefore, it makes sense for them to lack the cognitive ability to have a complete understanding of its meaning.

However, as the dog matures and gains further knowledge, it is possible for the dog to acquire a deeper understanding as he/she matures.

Even as human adults though, we can say that we don't fully comprehend the meaning of death. We can speculate on how it must feel and what may happen afterward, but it all still remains a mystery to us.

Evolutionary Advantages of Dogs Knowing Death

When we consider the many behaviors of our dogs, we can sometimes appreciate a deeper understanding when we take a look at their past history, back in time when they lived in the wild.

Despite centuries of domestication, we can't deny that strong instincts in man's best friend still prevail.

Even though they are fed food from a bag in shiny bowls, and wear collars studded with rhinestones, dogs retain many behaviors of their ancestral past, back in time when they were hunters and scavengers.

We can witness this through several behaviors that persist in the domestic dog despite no longer being necessary (in terms of survival) in present times. Here are a few examples;

  • Dogs circle before lying down for the purpose of patting down tall grass and scaring off critters even though they sleep on comfy dog beds.
  • Dogs shaking their toys to "break their neck" as if they were imaginary prey animals.
  • Dogs burying their bones as an instinctive way to start saving foods for scarce times.

At a primal level, being aware of death can be helpful in a variety of ways. Understanding its concept could therefore provide several evolutionary advantages that would help with survival. Below are several adaptive advantages of dogs understanding death.

Awareness of Threats

By becoming aware of the risks for death, animals could avoid potential threats in their environment. In other words, by understanding that certain situations could be deadly, animals could therefore avoid them and up their chances for survival.

Avoidance of Corpses

By being aware of dead bodies, what they look like and how they smell, animals can learn to avoid them considering how they can be sources of potential disease.

Awareness of Consequences

When a member of a social group dies, animals can prepare for several changes that must take place.

For instance, if one of the main hunters dies, one of the other members must take over that role, if one of the last wolf pups dies, parents should no longer spend energy on hunting for him.

With these advantages in mind, it makes sense for natural selection to have inculcated in animals a basic understanding of death.

Dogs "mourn" as many other animals do and often this leads to reduced appetite

Dogs "mourn" as many other animals do and often this leads to reduced appetite

Mourning as Proof

Perhaps one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that dogs understand death is mourning behavior.

Sure, dogs do not organize memorial services or funerals, but they may respond to the death of another dog or owner by exhibiting signs of sadness, confusion or apathy.

Dogs aren't the only animals to show signs of grief. Marc Bekoff describes dolphins struggling to save an infant or elephants standing guard over a stillborn baby for days.

Many dog owners can attest to signs of their dogs '"mourning." What isn't clear though is whether dogs are reacting to the death as we understand it, or more to the changes associated with the absence of a person or dog and all its negative repercussions.

A Dog Reacting to Changes

If dogs do not witness the death directly, I think we can assume they are reacting mostly to the changes, rather than death as we know it. I have some personal experience to back this up.

The Story of Boby, the "Inconsolable Dog"

My uncle "Ciccio," who lived in a small town in Italy, used to own a white dog named "Boby" who grew very attached to him.

This dog was very smart. Indeed, he was even used as a "courier." My uncle used to tell him to accompany my mom home and he would accompany her home and then spend the night with her.

One day, my uncle Ciccio decided to travel to the United States. It was the time when The Big Apple attracted hundreds of Italians who would flock across the pond in hopes of a job and living the "American Dream." The promise of working for the big Ronzoni pasta factory was very appealing to him indeed.

The day of his departure arrived and my grandma and mom were to take over Boby's care. As my uncle entered the car heading for the harbor, the unexpected happened: Boby chased his car through town until his little heart and little legs could no longer resist.

This was unusual as Boby saw my uncle leave by car many times before, but wasn't chasing. It's as if Boby by intuition knew there was something different this time.

Only a bit later, as he watched the car leave, he made an about-turn and headed for my grandma's house. This dog's days filled with joy came abruptly to an end, replaced by days filled with sorrow, always longing for uncle Ciccio.

He missed my uncle deeply. So much so, he became sad and withdrawn and decided to stop eating despite my grandma trying to feed him tasty morsels of food. He eventually got weak and died. His 14-year-old heart just couldn't cope with this change and gave out.

Did this little dog know that uncle Ciccio was still alive and doing well across the pond? Very likely no, but his reaction was similar to many dogs who lost their owners from an accident or disease, so I guess a dog can "mourn" regardless, of whether the owner is alive or not.

And then we have Hachiko as the ultimate proof of dog loyalty and mourning. This dog just like Boby didn't really know what happened to his owner, only that he never came back so he reacted accordingly, waiting for him at the Shibuya train station for 9 years. Unlike Boby, he didn't starve himself and die, but his heart must still have been broken regardless.

One year anniversary of Hachiko's death.

One year anniversary of Hachiko's death.

A More Direct Experience With Death

Things are likely perceived differently with a more direct experience with death. Death becomes more "tangible" when there is a motionless body, and in some cases, associated smells.

Do dogs understand when another dog dies? This is a good question. We must think so, based on our anecdotal evidence.

Back when working for a veterinarian, we had euthanasia appointments scheduled on a daily basis. These were often scheduled at the end of the day when the hospital was less busy.

We often got questions about the procedure, and one of the most common questions was, "Should I take my other dog along for the procedure?"

Our vets instructed us to encourage this, so to give the surviving dogs a sense of closure, versus coming home dog-less which often led to the surviving dogs looking for their pals for days on end and feeling confused.

This to me was proof that dogs somehow understand death. Indeed, dogs who attended the euthanasia seemed to in general have a better understanding of what happened to their playmates versus dogs who greeted their owners upon returning home but were left wondering why their companions never came back.

Our Dog's Experience With Death

August 15th, 2018, our Rottweiler Petra woke up weaker than usual. She was diagnosed a couple of months ago with a very aggressive cancer going by the name of "hemophagocytic histiocytic sarcoma." It firstly impacted her spleen and then it spread to her liver.

That morning, my husband commented about how heavy she felt. He helped her walk outside to potty using a rolled-up blanket under her chest, and this time, my husband remarked that he was basically carrying most of her weight.

Outdoors, she had multiple bouts of diarrhea, which obviously didn't help her already weakened state. She had barely eaten anything the evening prior and was determined to still not eat that morning. She drank a good amount of water though which was better than nothing.

She was visibly drooling so I decided to give her a Cerenia tablet to help with nausea. Even though she was weak, she fought the tablet which was offered without food since she refused anything by mouth and appeared to have developed taste aversion. Finally, pleading her to take it, she ingested it and I expected it to work its magic, but it did not this time.

Her paws were wet from drool, but despite feeling sickly, she was soliciting attention. I pet her on the head and loved on her thinking how precious these moments were. When I stopped, I expected her to get some sleep, but she rolled her eyes in my direction asking for more. Usually, she would paw or nudge, but thinking back, she might have been too weak that day.

I called the vet to schedule a house call and the vet told me that she had one appointment left and she would soon be on her way.

I then got a phone call from my mom and my hubby took over the task of petting her. I talked to my mom overseas outside sitting under a mesquite tree on an old log, venting all my worries. After about 10-minutes, I saw my husband approaching me. I was a bit surprised and maybe even a little upset that he left Petra alone being in the state she was.

-"How's Petra doing?" I asked.

-"She died," he said as he looked down away from me.

-"OMG, she died? Why didn't you call me? How did it happen so fast?" I said sobbing.

Apparently, it did happen so quickly. Almost as if she waited for me to step aside because she knew how much it would hurt me. I started sobbing and I heard my mom on the other line sob too. I always thought when Petra would die, my mom would help console me, and there she was one phone with me, almost as if Petra strategically timed her death to just make it as painless as possible for me.

As I gained some composure and the courage necessary to find my sweet Petra dead, my husband explained how Kaiser, her 10-year-old littermate was hiding under the desk and started whining right the moment when she drew her last breaths.

Apparently, he knew what was happening and was somewhat upset about it. This was not unusual, as they were always together, and just like twins, he was very in tune with his littermate sister.

In the past, he would even know in advance when Petra was about to lose her dinner and would walk away from her with a slightly disgusted face. This, even before she would start drooling and then retching! His advanced notices gave me time to accompany her to a tiled area and prevent cleaning up a mess from the carpet.

This is just one of the many stories of dogs showing great intuition and signs of knowing when another dog dies. With a more direct experience with death, the "mourning" signs remain similar to a dog reacting to changes, but I truly think that with seeing the motionless body, there is an added element of closure.

After Petra passed, we noticed significant behavior changes in her littermate brother. He sometimes acted as if she was still around. He would stare into space and whine as if believed she was somewhere.

He even would guard his toys as if she was still around. This was initially alarming to us because it appeared as if he was guarding the toys against us which is something he had never done in his life. We chalked it up to him feeling deeply confused.

He sometimes appeared saddened and confused and he struggled in entering the role of "only dog." We tried our best to keep his routine the same and pampered him as much as we could while trying to hide the tears and sadness...

Statistics from the ASPCA’s Companion Animal Mourning project indicate that two-thirds of dogs exhibit negative behavioral changes after losing another dog from their household; these changes may linger for up to six months.

— Barbara J. King, How Animals Grieve

References

  • Star Tribune: Wolf pup survival a fragile thing, by Doug Smith, March 5th 2015
  • Monsó, S. How to Tell If Animals Can Understand Death. Erkenn (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-019-00187-2
  • How Animals Grieve, Barbara J. King · 2014

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli

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