Most dog videos on the internet are strictly for grins, but every so often, a tearjerker comes along. One recent example shows a boxer named Mollie sniffing around her dying owner as he lies unconscious in a hospital bed. In explaining the video, a family member said they wanted Mollie to see the terminal man one last time “so she’d know why her human never came home.”
Other videos in the same vein show dogs lying dutifully near the caskets of their deceased owners, trying to revive canine companions who have fallen, and even seeming to cry for lost friends. We can never truly know what goes on in the head of a dog in cases like these. Still, it makes us wonder: Do dogs understand death?
The answer depends on what the word “understand” means to you. Clearly, dogs have a relationship with death – they perceive it, are affected by it, and ultimately experience it firsthand. But what do they know about it? That’s harder to say.
Do Dogs Mourn?
One thing we know for certain: Many dogs act depressed when they lose a close companion, be it a beloved human or a fellow pet. They might skip meals, mope around the house, or even revisit places and activities associated with the dearly departed. We dog owners are quick to ascribe these behaviors to grief, in large part because we assume dogs have the same emotions as we do.
However, dog owners must also admit that their canine pals are nothing if not creatures of habit. Therefore, what might seem like grief – what we might actually want to believe is grief when we’re grieving ourselves – could actually just be the dog’s reaction to a sudden change in routine. After all, a lot of the same canine behaviors pop up when a new baby comes home from the nursery – we just interpret them differently, if we notice them at all between diaper changes and late night feedings.
So, do dogs experience a profound sense of loss similar to what humans go through? Or is canine grieving more like depression brought on by unexpected life changes? No matter how strongly dog owners might feel about it, there’s no proof one way or the other.
Can Dogs Sense Death?
We don’t know if dogs experience the same range and depth of emotions as we do, but in the sensory department, they definitely have us licked. In fact, people often give dogs credit for a sixth sense that allows them to predict things like earthquakes, epileptic seizures, and yes, even death.
The truth is that a sixth sense isn’t necessary when your other senses – smell, in particular – are super-charged. To the extent that dogs can sense (or even predict) death, it’s likely because of subtle cues that go completely under the radar for humans. There’s evidence that some dogs can even detect cancer and other illnesses in humans, so it stands to reason that they know something is very wrong when they encounter a lifeless body.
The question is, what do they make of it? In some cases, people have witnessed dogs attempting to revive the deceased human or animal, indicating they don’t understand the finality of death. In other cases, they’ve been seen to lie down next to the corpse – behavior that people are quick to interpret as mourning, but could actually be for any number of reasons.
Do Dogs Know When They’re Dying?
Making the decision to euthanize a pet is excruciating, which is why many of us hope our dogs will “tell us” when it’s time to go. We don’t want be responsible for making that call, and we certainly don’t want to think we’re making it because the vet bills are high or because caring for our fur baby has become inconvenient. And so, the notion that dogs know and accept that they’re about to die is attractive – but also dubious.
One common belief about dogs is that they simply wander off when they’re ready to die. This idea likely stems from the fact that dogs will often look for a place to hide when they’re sick, possibly because they feel vulnerable. Additionally, older dogs – much like older people – can easily become disoriented and get lost even in familiar surroundings.
Sick dogs may also turn down food and play. When they’re in a lot of distress, they may even cry or howl. These can all be signs that a dog is dying, but they can also just be symptoms of (non-terminal) illness. In any case, none of these things are evidence that dogs really understand when the end is near.
That said, dog owners can be forgiven for believing dogs know more about death than they really do. Part of it is our conviction, reinforced through our daily interactions with dogs, that they’re just like us. Another part is our desperate hope that they understand when it’s time to say goodbye.