How to Help a Grieving Dog When Their Owner Dies

Updated on September 10, 2019
Judy HBerg profile image

I am a wife and mother of a 13-year-old and a 12-year-old Golden Doodle dog attempting to find balance in the rat race called life.

Loss is just as devastating for dogs as it is for their human counterparts. Here are a few ways to ease your four-legged friend's grief.
Loss is just as devastating for dogs as it is for their human counterparts. Here are a few ways to ease your four-legged friend's grief. | Source

When my mother passed away, it took a while for our dog Scooter to understand that she was really gone. When he finally did, his health declined rapidly, leading to a frightening vet visit where I was told he might not even make it through the night.

The good news is that with excellent veterinary care and several visits on my part to the animal hospital, Scooter made a full recovery. Despite the loss of my mom, somehow Scooter found it in his heart to love me and went on to live another 10 years! Scroll to the bottom for the full story Scooter's decline and recovery.

Do Dogs Grieve When Their Owner Passes?

Yes. If your dog recently lost a cherished companion—human or otherwise—it is very normal for them to mourn that loss. While some dogs, like Scooter, show physical symptoms of grief, others may only display behavioral changes. Some dogs may not display any noticeable changes at all, but be grieving nonetheless.

No matter how your pup's grief manifests, there are things you can do to help.

Signs of a Grieving Dog

  • A decline of energy and interest in things that typically are of interest
  • Change in or absence of play
  • Pervasive sadness or listlessness/moping
  • Refusing to eat or reduced appetite
  • Fewer or reduced interactions with others
  • Sleeping more frequently during the day
  • Less sleep or fitful nighttime sleep
  • Declining weight

How to Help a Grieving Dog

The first step is acknowledging that your dog is in the grieving process. Luckily, there are things you can do to help your dog through this time.

  • Provide additional love and affection. Extra affection will help your dog through this troubling time. This might mean you will need to spend extra time with your dog and/or supply special treats in order to increase food intake.
  • Stick to their usual routine. One way to relieve grief-related stress in dogs is to maintain their routine as closely as possible (i.e. feeding and walking them at the same time as usual).
  • Be patient. Just like with humans, dogs need time to grieve. Most dogs will come out of their grieving process and form new attachments. This may take as little as a few days or weeks to several months.
  • Contact your vet. If you are concerned with your dog’s behavior, do not hesitate to contact a vet. Explain what the circumstances are and what behaviors your dog is exhibiting. Getting help is a great way to prevent another potential loss, especially if you too are suffering from the loss of a loved one.

Ways to Help Your Pet Cope With Loss

Our Story: Scooter's Reaction to My Mother's Passing

It appeared to be another typical day in Scooter’s life as the little champagne-colored poodle mix happily raced to the front door when he heard the familiar sound of the car. This was the day that Scooter’s world came crashing down; this was the day that he would learn that his beloved master of eight years was no longer alive.

The changes actually happened some weeks earlier, but Scooter had not fully understood what had occurred. Scooter spent the first several months of his life living with me, as I was a then 24-year-old teacher who couldn’t resist taking the little fella under my wing. After realizing that apartment living and a new puppy wouldn’t mix, I asked my parents to take in the cute ball of fur who loved scooting around the floor chasing after anything that moved. After all, my mother and father had an aging dog of their own and a puppy would keep the older dog company and also provide a wonderful pet after their mature canine passed on.

Not wanting to disappoint their daughter, my parents took in Scooter and enjoyed eight years together.

Scooter circa 1990
Scooter circa 1990

It was quite a surprise when after eight years, I learned that I would be getting my dog back as my parents announced that they would be downsizing from my childhood home into a condominium. My parents felt that it was unfair for Scooter to be without a yard to play in, and so it was decided that since I had moved from an apartment into a home of my own with a big back yard that it was time for Scooter to return me.

Scooter Was Deeply Attached to Mom

It was a good thing that we only lived less than a mile from my parents, as Scooter had grown extremely fond and protective of my mother and being apart was a bit confusing at first. Scooter quickly adapted to his new home, as he loved the back yard as well as me, becoming just as protective of me as he had of my mother. Scooter looked forward to seeing my mother on a regular basis and learned the sound of her car as it would pull into the driveway. It was Scooter's custom to hear the car and start barking, and with a smile on his face, he would run to the door to greet my mother.

One January, I tried to explain to Scooter that his former master had died, but it didn’t seem to sink in until one day that March. To Scooter, the familiar sound of the car signaled that he was about to be greeted by the woman who took care of him for eight years and who still snuck his favorite treat to him despite the fact that his new master frowned on such behavior.

The Sound of Her Car Caused a Frantic Search

That chilly day in March marked the day that Scooter really learned that his former master was no longer alive. It started out with the familiar sound of the car in the driveway and Scooter hauling off in a mad dash to the door, barking loudly to say hello to his good friend. It wasn’t until the person at the other side of the door wasn’t my mother, but rather my brother, that Scooter knew something was wrong.

Scooter sniffed my brother’s pant leg and then scooted past him because he was certain that our mom must have been coming up the walk. When Scooter got to the front porch and my mom wasn’t there, he was undaunted and tore off into another part of the house in search of his friend.

My brother and I didn’t realize what was happening at first, but after Scooter ran from room to room looking frantically and barking loudly, we figured out what was unfolding. Scooter was looking for our mom. Little did he know that my brother was now driving the car that once belonged to our mother.

Scooter Experienced Drastic Changes in Behavior

It was then that I scooped Scooter into my arms and began to cry and once again told Scooter that the person that we both loved had died three months earlier. Somehow, on this day, Scooter seemed to understand.

About three days after the incident, I noticed that Scooter wasn’t acting like himself. The normally happy-go-lucky dog was very sullen and withdrawn. He didn’t even try to chase after Salem, the black cat who was also a member of our household. Soon after discovering Scooter’s behavior, I witnessed that my dog was not eating or drinking. The situation was very serious, so I took Scooter to the veterinarian that he had seen since his puppyhood.

His Grief Quickly Led to Extreme Health Issues

The vet immediately took Scooter under his care and recognized just how grave the situation was. The vet told me that Scooter’s kidneys were failing and that he may not make it through the night. The doctor explained that I should consider staying by Scooter’s side at the hospital for an hour that evening, and if the dog were to live, I should visit him in the animal hospital at least twice a day just to comfort him and be by his side.

Luckily, He Made a Full Recovery

It was a very long night, but by morning, test results showed gradual improvement. This was wonderful news for me, as I couldn’t think of bearing the loss of my mother and my dog within a three-month span. The vet saw me in the morning and said he had never seen an animal survive under such conditions.

While scratching his head, the vet said to me “I cannot explain why Scooter’s kidney’s failed, or how he lived, but I need to know if Scooter has undergone any trauma or stress recently.” I recalled how Scooter had recently reacted to the sound of my mother’s car and asked if the death of my mother could have triggered the illness in my dog. The vet responded by saying that animals could sometimes react physically to the death of their master.

Please Take Your Dog's Grief Seriously

Thankfully, Scooter made a full recovery, but if I had not given credence to his grief and taken him to the vet, he would have died that night. If you think your dog may be experiencing grief, it is critical that you take it seriously. Don't make the mistake of thinking your pup's grief isn't real because "he's just a dog."

What Do You Think?

Do Dog’s grieve for the loss of their owners?

See results

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2011 Judy HBerg

Comments

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  • Judy HBerg profile imageAUTHOR

    Judy HBerg 

    4 weeks ago

    Oh Wanda, I'm so sorry to hear that you and China lost your pops. What a difficult time for you both! As I'm not a vet I'm sorry to say that I cannot offer any advice. Hopefully with your continued love and support China will begin to feel like her old self. I'm also hoping you might find some answers from someone qualified to deal with what China is experiencing. Best wishes and hang in there!

  • profile image

    Wanda1223 

    4 weeks ago

    My pops just passed away and he had a dog named China I took her in to take care of her and she’s grieving so bad I’ve had her for about a week I cannot get her to eat she was drinking plenty of water but now she’s not doing that I don’t know what to do for her it breaks my heart. And I can’t afford to take her to the vet and I don’t know what to do if there is anyone out there that can help me and tell me what to do that would be great. I don’t wanna lose her too.All she does is lay around but I do take her out pretty frequently for walks and she likes that but she won’t eat and I don’t know what to do please help

  • Judy HBerg profile imageAUTHOR

    Judy HBerg 

    7 years ago

    Dottie I am so sorry to learn of your loss and what it is doing to both you and your dog. I am glad that you found this hub to be helpful. You are in my thoughts and prayers.

  • profile image

    Dottie 

    7 years ago

    I looked up this subject because my Momma went to heaven 33 hours ago.Our chihuahua has quit eating, looks in her bedroom, and is very quiet. I have spent extra hours with him, wrapped him in my mom's robe, and kept an eye on him. He is truly heartbroke. If he gets worse, I will see about getting him to the vets. I am worried, thank you for this page.

  • Judy HBerg profile imageAUTHOR

    Judy HBerg 

    7 years ago

    Hi Mimi,

    Thanks for stopping by my hub. I am sorry for your loss and the challenges that you are facing as you and your German Shepherd are trying to define a "new normal".

    It sounds like you and I had a similar experience with our dogs and the sound of a car. It really is amazing and gut wrenching at the same time as it confirms how much our pets can identify with our personal "things" such as an engine sound and equate that to the car owner and also how their reaction can stir up so much grief in us.

    I admire how you are attempting to meet the needs of your dog by taking her for a walk and throwing the ball despite the fact that it isn't the same as when your husband did it. I suspect that she recognizes the differences but appreciates your efforts none the less. I also suspect that she pesters for additional attention for a few reasons. Perhaps she is trying to affirm that she is coming to terms that your husband is gone and that you are still there and will continue to shower her with love and affection. I also suspect that she continues to pester in order to show you that she is there for you and she knows how much you miss your husband. You two have something in common and that is a bond that you share. She may be trying to help you and she does so by wanting to be close and show you that she wants to interact.

    It will take some time for the two of you to sort out new routines and eventually she will take your lead, but for now she is clamoring for attention and it must be a bit tiring for you! I am no expert but if I were in your shoes, I would continue to do what I could for her as far as taking walks and trowing the ball. I might also try to introduce some new activity that she will eventually associate with you (as opposed to your husband). Maybe throw a frisbee instead of a ball or if you ride a bike, attempt to have her run alongside since you don't walk as fast as your husband. A friend recently told me about a product called "walkiedog" (found on Amazon) which is something that attaches to your bike wheel that extends out and a dog leash attaches to it and the dog runs along side of the bike yet is contained and doesn't cross into the bike's path. I've never tried it but my friend runs her two dogs at once while she rides her bike.

    As you know first hand, the reality is that the grief process is complex and takes time and in my opinion isn't much fun. My experience is that it is similar for our pets as well.

    I wish you well as you and your dog navigate the maze of grief together. Hang in there!

  • profile image

    Mimi 

    7 years ago

    My husband just passed away a month ago and left behind his best friend...our German Shepherd. She is nearly 7 years old, and they were together all the time. I could barely get him to take a vacation or weekend trip because he liked being with her. Anyway, a month ago he passed away from cancer. We tried to let her see him ill, and he was home up until the last few weeks. After that, I took her to the nursing home.

    But I know she misses him. She usually goes through the house once or twice a day, and I just can't help but feel she's looking for him. She never used to go downstairs to the basement by herself. There's no other reason for her to go down there. We had an extra TV down there and he would go downstairs on occasion and watch sports.

    One day a few weeks ago, my sister and I took his pickup truck to town. When we came home, I opened the door of the house and she burst out, tail and ears up, all excited. She ran to the pickup and both my sister and I had a gut wrenching reaction when we saw her look inside the pickup truck and not see him there.

    She's eating OK, but every night she bugs for attention, even after I give her extra attention. I've been taking her for walks but I don't walk as fast as he did and I can tell it's not much fun for her. I throw the ball, and I can't do that very well either. She will run after it 2 or 3 times, then she keeps the ball. ( They used to do this for hours.) So we come inside, and not 10 minutes after I sit down, she's pestering for attention. I don't really know what to do!

  • Judy HBerg profile imageAUTHOR

    Judy HBerg 

    8 years ago

    :-) I am glad to know that you found this hub encouraging. Regarding your question, I am not an animal expert and can only speak from my own experience. In my situation I tried as best as I could to let my dog know of the loss but it was a full three months before the reaction occurred. My vet said that this is fairly typical (the time elapsed from the death to the dog's grief).

    I also know that when I found myself facing grief early after the loss, I would let my dog know why I was upset and I would have no clue if I was getting through, but it made me feel better knowing that I tried.

    I will say that it was extremely painful for me to witness my dog's reaction when it did finally occur because I had no way of taking his obvious distress away, and it reminded me of my own sense of loss.

    Having said that, it did however, help me to realize that he indeed did "connect the dots" and recognized the profound loss of his beloved owner.

    Best wishes as it sounds like you are facing a similar situation.

  • profile image

    :-) 

    8 years ago

    This was quite encouraging, as I've believed for years that pets can/do grieve much like us humans. However, my question is a little deeper. Do you think, in the event a pet owner dies, is it a good idea help the pet understand that the owner is no longer alive? Or is it better to allow the pet to just move on with life- however it may change and confuse them, hoping they don't fear that the owner deserted them some how?

  • Judy HBerg profile imageAUTHOR

    Judy HBerg 

    8 years ago

    Thanks for the feedback Puppyluv. I find your confirmation about grieving and depressed pets to be very interesting especially about how pets grieve for other pet buddies that have passed. I think that pets can also serve as a barometer for their owners as well!

  • Puppyluv profile image

    Serena Zehlius 

    8 years ago from Hanover, PA

    Excellent hub! I work at a 24 hour emergency veterinary hospital and I get phone calls all the time about grieving and depressed pets. They grieve for their owners as well as other pet buddies that have passed. Keep up the good work!

  • Judy HBerg profile imageAUTHOR

    Judy HBerg 

    8 years ago

    Marcoujor thanks for your comments as well as introducing me to the term fur angel- I love it and am glad that you were inspired to write about Alvin.

  • marcoujor profile image

    Maria Jordan 

    8 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

    JHB~~ What a poignant example of the intuition and love in our pets; this inspired me to write my own memories as my fur angel ALVIN would have been 16yo today. Thank you so much.

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