Understanding How Dogs Grieve and How to Help Them Through It
“How is Georgia?” Bless your kind hearts, I’ve been asked that a lot since Duke’s last day.
My answer is a slightly unsatisfying…I think she’s fine, maybe?
The reason I can’t give a definite answer is because it’s more complicated than whether or not she is grieving Duke.
Dogs absolutely feel grief, and I have no doubt that she misses her constant companion for the last year and a half.
From the first day Duke arrived, Georgia was so attentive to his every move, helping him navigate when he needed it and simply being in close proximity when he didn’t. It was a fact that I couldn’t bend down to pet Duke without Georgia zooming in alongside him to join in. I would laugh and call it POGO…Pet One Get One free.
Georgia had a bond with Duke that is unlike any other relationship I’ve seen her have. It would be hard to comprehend if she didn’t miss him.
But is she grieving?
Signs of Grief in Dogs
These are the signs of grief in dogs that I’ve been watching out for:
- sleeping more (or less) than normal
- eating less
- having accidents in the house
- withdrawing from people and other pets, or becoming more clingy
- showing more aggressive or destructive behaviors
- making more noises (like whimpering, whining, barking or howling)
- separation anxiety
- unexplained personality changes
Overall, Georgia seems happy enough. Nothing seems “off” about her personality. She is eating, exercising and playing with her new favorite toy, the stuffed avocado I gave her to cuddle when she was done saying goodbye to Duke. She also has been cuddling a lot with Lily, which is what they used to do before Duke came. It’s amazing how my camera photos used to be filled with pictures of Lily and Georgia together, then Duke and Georgia together, and now back to Lily and Georgia.
She has shown some signs of grief, though.
She slept in Duke’s bed the first night he was gone. She occasionally sits in front of me, ears back a little, and just stares into my eyes, almost seeming to plead for something I can’t give her.
She also has been sleeping a lot.
But they ALL are sleeping a lot. And that’s where the question of grief gets complicated.
The extra sleeping could absolutely be a sign of grief, or it could be them settling into the normal patterns they would have had if Duke wasn’t around to wake them up every two hours.
Duke had a fairly busy schedule for an old blind dog. His world was dark, so his stimulation came from getting up and walking around. We had a routine where he would wake up about every two hours, and I would escort him around wherever he wanted to go, usually ending up outside and then helping him back inside. The other dogs would always come along, of course, because where mom goes, everyone goes.
But the other dogs didn’t actually need to go outside every two hours. They just went because they didn’t want to be left behind.
So, are they sleeping more because they miss Duke and feel the heart-heaviness in their people?
Or are they sleeping more because Duke isn’t here to wake everyone up every two hours and give them a reason to go outside?
If in the next couple weeks they start to get more active, I think we could say it was grief. If they don’t, then we can say they’re just settling into the routines they would have had if Duke didn’t keep interrupting their naps!
How to Help a Grieving Dog
Either way, losing a family member is a big adjustment, and I’ve been doing several things to support them through it.
All the dogs are getting extra attention. That is one of the best things you can do for a surviving or grieving dog. Attention doesn’t have to be long, drawn out cuddle sessions if you don’t have time for it. It can be as simple as talking to your dogs while you’re doing other things, meeting their eye contact when you find them looking at you, or maybe an extra walk or extra time outside together. One of Georgia’s absolute favorite things is when I sing songs to her with her name in it, such as Georgia on My Mind by Ray Charles. She wiggles her tail and butt every time I get to her name, and luckily she’s not much of a voice critic.
Another thing I’m doing to support my dogs is keeping them on their regular schedule. There is enough change in their life right now that I don’t want them to have to navigate unexpected schedule shifts, too. Keeping them on the same feeding, walking and bedtime schedule they had before Duke left gives them the comfort of knowing what to expect out of each day.
Letting them say goodbye to Duke after he left his body was possibly the most important part of their grieving process. Georgia hasn’t had to look for Duke (a common occurrence when a dog dies away from home) because she was right there with him. I was so fortunate to have Heaven at Home Pet Hospice minister the euthanasia at our home, on blankets in the sunshine and grass in our own yard. Each dog took turns smelling Duke after he took his last breath, and then the vet pointed out what happened next: each one of them turned their back to Duke, including Georgia.
I don’t know what this means, but they stood like a wall around him, heads pointed out away from him, until a silent understanding passed through them and they all walked away. Tyler and Lily seemed to go back to their regularly scheduled business, while Georgia came back and spent quite a bit more time with Duke. She stayed very close to him as the vet gently moved his body onto a stretcher, and as my boys carried the stretcher to the car. She spent more time sniffing him and reaching her face close to his once he was in the back of the car, and Dr. Amy Hoss was gracious enough to give her all the time she needed. I believe this understanding of exactly what happened to Duke and where he went is the main reason they seem to be navigating this change so well.
Finally, I’m managing my own grief around them. I am not crying into their fur when I’m reminded of Duke, such as those moments when I’ve grabbed four leashes to walk three dogs, given Duke’s name to the vet when I meant to make an appointment for Tyler, or habitually reached to pick up a fourth food bowl that is no longer there. Those moments will bring you to your knees, but I prefer to handle them on my own. Not that my dogs wouldn’t gladly cuddle up for a cry if I needed them to, but I want to be considerate of the fact that their hearts might be hurting, too.
In time, I know that my grief, as well as theirs, will fade.
I love this beautiful message sent to me by life coach Lisa Carpenter last week:
“Just keep surrendering to the waves as they roll in, knowing they’ll roll back out and feel more gentle in time.”
If you or someone you know would like extra support while navigating the grief of pet loss, please check out these resources.
Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet (book, Amazon.com affiliate link)
Local Pet Loss Grief Support Groups