Dogs and Death
October 24, 2018 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Dogs are said to have supernatural vision; they can see faeries and sprites, and even Death himself, and bark to let you know they’re near. […] A dog’s howl was said to predict death in many cultures; Egyptians, Hebrews, Irish, Romans, and Greeks all have ominous associations to a dog’s howl – especially at night. This could tie into the idea above that they could see Death. Dogs were also sometimes viewed as guides to the afterlife. Mayan remains have been found buried with dog remains, their dog a faithful guide to the end. […] So do real life dogs understand death? Do they mourn?
posted by Johnny Wallflower (27 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can tell from Thea the German shepherd's picture that she is a good girl with a robust theory of mind and a bittersweet understanding of our mortal frailty.
posted by Iridic at 10:52 AM on October 24, 2018 [16 favorites]


My mother's dog appeared to mourn the passing of her cat. The dog and the cat treated each other warily. Roommates, not friends, we said. But when the cat passed of natural causes, she had climbed into a closet, behind some boxes, to be alone. The dog led my mother to the cat's body, and appeared to mope for days afterward. Maybe more than roommates after all, we said.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:05 AM on October 24, 2018 [14 favorites]


A carnivore that couldn't tell when another animal was dead wouldn't make it long.

It is just silly to pretend dogs don't miss people sometimes. When my son was little and went off to camp, his dog took his shoe, climbed up onto his bed, and lay there every day with her nose stuck in his shoe. You have to go a very long way around to interpret that as anything but missing him.

Do dogs miss people more when they know they are dead because they know they are dead? I don't know how one could possibly ever tell.
posted by ckridge at 11:52 AM on October 24, 2018 [14 favorites]


My mom took in a starving, flea-ridden, and very sad little scottie dog. Dog recovered, was happy all the time, and just loved life and apparently loved my mom. Dog became her best friend. They did everything together.

Years later, my mom became ill. Had a stroke. Had a heart attack. She was 95 so we got hospice assistance, and let her stay at home. I was with her the entire time. Dog didn't know what to do about it, but I'd put the dog on her hospital bed every morning. Dog seemed to like it when mom would pet her or just let dog lie next to her.

The night came when my mom died. It was a good death, at least as good as it gets. Mom's sister and I were there. It was at home in relative comfort without the harshness of the hospital. There was a flurry of activity almost immediately after the death. The hospice nurse came over. The people from the funeral home came over. A few relatives came over.

There was no sign of mourning from the dog. I put her on the bed for a minute to let her know mom was truly gone. But the dog didn't seem to worry. She was excited at all the activity. Excited to meet new people. And adjusted to her new life very quickly over the next few weeks.

Dog lives with me now. She's a good and loyal companion, but there's a part of me that's a little bothered by how little she was affected by what happened. Maybe the harsh part of her early life, being abandoned and almost starving, made her a little numb. "Life changes fast and there's no need to be sentimental about it," might be what she thinks. Or maybe it's just me anthropomorphizing her, and she's just ultimately unknowable to me.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 12:05 PM on October 24, 2018 [14 favorites]


Recently, I had a very bad flu. Really very bad. I went to bed one night feeling extremely ill, and with a high fever. In the morning I woke with my dog in the bed. He is not allowed in my bed under any circumstances, and he respects that always. Except for that night when when I was really, really ill.
posted by mumimor at 12:21 PM on October 24, 2018 [11 favorites]


My dog was in the room when the Gatsby cat died. Nothing about her behavior changed. She continued to show impatience that I was showing affection to an animal that wasn't her. When I put the Gatsby cat down, Zelda showed no interest in the body.

The surviving cat, the Gatsby cat's littermate, is still in mourning. She howls as she goes to all the Gatsby's cat's favorite spots and when I ask her what's wrong, she imitates one of Gatsby's more peculiar mannerisms, which she's never done before and is, frankly, a little creepy. We need to get another cat soon. Ariel is lonely and is lashing out at the dog. I mean that literally. I found out on Monday how much dog's noses bleed. So much blood.

Anyway, the dog is insanely attached to me, and will lay staring at the door the whole time if I'll out and the family isn't, so I think she'll be sad if I died. She bonded with me immediately, to a point where it surprised the shelter people, because she had been so scared of everyone else. She is very much MY dog.
posted by Ruki at 12:24 PM on October 24, 2018 [10 favorites]


Also, I've seen my ponies grieve. It's not like their lives end, it's exactly like how we do it, we fell less enthusiastic about stuff, we look at the things that remind us of our loved ones, we reflect when we do stuff we used to do with our loved ones.
posted by mumimor at 12:24 PM on October 24, 2018 [4 favorites]


My little mutt dog loves all humans, but typically will only jump on the couch to be next to his primary person (me). He can be called to the couch if a towel or his blanket are provided to show him his spot, in which case he carefully jumps up and curls up on the blanket. In the presence of multiple humans who might be cajoled into cuddles, snacks, or other attention, he will ignore the couch to caper between all of us, unwilling to deprive himself of any cuddles.

We went to visit a seriously ill relative. The house, well known to the dog, was dotted with people happy to see the fluffy joy bundle. Seriously Ill Relative was sitting, despirited and half asleep, on the sofa. Max shocked me by flinging himself onto the sofa immediately next to the invalid, landing in a perfect position to lie down, and dropped his head onto the sick man’s leg with a sigh. He ignored everyone else for some time.

The year before, I’d taken Max to visit two of my siblings in hospice. He’d been lifted into bed to lie quietly with them. They were happy to see me, but they were THRILLED to see Max. I wondered, remembering this, and watching Max, if he remembered that hospice visit a year before, and if he sensed similar illness in the present case. Can a dog learn an expected behavior in two repetitions, and take his own initiative the third time to repeat the behavior?

When the relative passed, we were all subdued, and I thought Max was reacting to our sadness. And that may be true. Since our relative’s death, whenever he’s in her presence, Max has singled out the widow for special attention. He may well have learned “go to the one most in need” as an unspoken command. I don’t think he’s necessarily grieving. He IS being especially needy, though, I think, following me from room to room when we’re home alone..

Or maybe he just senses that sometimes, I am the one most in need.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 12:26 PM on October 24, 2018 [11 favorites]


Teegeeack AV Club Secretary said it extremely well, that they are "ultimately unknowable" to us even though we feel such an incredible psychological bond with them.

Maybe this anecdote of what happened with our dog can help with understanding your dog's "lack" of remorse, maybe not.

We used to have 3 dogs, now we have 1. Roughly 5 years ago when we still had 3 dogs one of them (the middle one in age) had cancer and passed somewhat unexpectedly at the vet in surgery. The youngest dog who was closest with this one never got a chance to "say goodbye" and was uncharacteristically "melancholy" the next few weeks when she didn't have her partner in crime. When we put the oldest one down a few years later, at the suggestion of our vet (the procedure was done in our home) we let the youngest one smell her before we buried her.

It "seemed" to make a major difference. No "moping" from the younger dog. So in my head canon (and also my vet's), the younger dog instinctively knew what death smelled like and ultimately meant and "said goodbye". Perhaps it was the same with your dog and your mom?

All quotes indicate my anthropomorphizing of dogs who are again very much not just tiny furry people and definitely unknowable.
posted by NervousVarun at 12:27 PM on October 24, 2018 [6 favorites]


I have a good friend who has fostered and adopted many rescue dogs. One such dog was a sweet, three-legged Golden Retriever named Rusty, who was found injured and near starvation by another woman whom I'll call Anne. Anne rescued Rusty and nursed him back to health as a foster, but then had to find him a permanent home, which is where my friend came in and adopted him.

One night several years later, my friend woke up in the middle of the night and heard whimpering downstairs. She found Rusty huddled in the bathtub, crying. She couldn't get him to leave and went back to bed. The next day, she found out Anne had had a heart attack in the middle of the night and died.

Dogs are definitely psychic about death.
posted by lunasol at 12:43 PM on October 24, 2018 [11 favorites]


Some interesting stories in both directions in the thread so far.

I'll submit what my grandmother told me a couple of years ago. Her sister passed away at home after an extended battle with severe diabetes complications. My grandmother stayed there at the family home with relatives for the week following her death. Her sister's faithful lab, despite having his other owner (my great uncle) and my grandmother there all week, roamed the house from room to room several times daily, looking for his best friend. At some point it's assumed he realized she was gone and he wouldn't eat or come out from sulking in her old room for an entire day. According to my great uncle he returned to normal at some point after my grandmother left, but it took a while.
posted by dreamlanding at 1:32 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


I love my dog and he has sort of learned our language, but he's a wild thing and has his own ways, and I have learned to respect that. I don't know how dogs experience death, and I don't know that they express what they feel the way we would, and that's okay.

It's useful to know you can love something so very different from you and they can love you back.
posted by maxsparber at 1:32 PM on October 24, 2018 [10 favorites]


Death is a fact of life, and as a pack animal experiencing the death of others in the pack is something that would be a normal part of their life experience. So it doesn't surprise me that dogs know or understand when somebody has died.

On the total opposite end of the spectrum, they also seem to understand birth. When we had our first child many years ago we were concerned, as first-time parents would be, about how our dog would react. When we brought our son home from the hospital we put him the bassinet and carefully brought the dog in. The dog was a dachshund. He approached the bassinet, got up on his hind legs, looked in, then gave me a look that I will forever believe very clearly said, "It's a baby. What the hell were you expecting?" He wasn't the least bit put out or surprised by the addition to the family pack, and he and our son (and eventually a daughter) were best buds for 7 years until the dog passed.
posted by COD at 2:10 PM on October 24, 2018 [7 favorites]


This is speculative, but:

We know that wolves pick out sick animals to hunt.

We know that some dogs can be trained to detect cancer by smelling the patient's breath.

It is possible, then, that some of these dogs who had flat affect when some some sick person eventually died had known perfectly well they were dying for a long time, and adjusted to the idea.
posted by ckridge at 2:20 PM on October 24, 2018 [8 favorites]


I tend toward the idea that some dogs mourn and some don't. The older I get the more ridiculous blanket statements sound to me.

I wonder though if many dogs don't respond more to the absence of someone than the death of someone? People sometimes do. The unknown vs the known.
posted by bongo_x at 2:36 PM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


they also seem to understand birth... When we brought our son home from the hospital we put him the bassinet and carefully brought the dog in... He approached the bassinet, got up on his hind legs, looked in, then gave me a look that I will forever believe very clearly said, "It's a baby. What the hell were you expecting?"

Your comment reminded me of seeing this imgur dog-and-baby clip on reddit yesterday. I've had a dog, and I don't know how to interpret the way the dog licks the baby briefly then pulls her head away strongly. Did she know she was breaking a rule doing that? She sure looks like she knows what she's doing, as if being coerced by the photog to break a rule. I didn't see any discussion of this in the /aww comments. Sorry I'm not talking about death. (Metafilter: )
posted by sylvanshine at 2:52 PM on October 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


It seemed to register with our lab Millie that the cat had died. She sniffed and then stared at him for a beat before walking over to finish the food in his bowl.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:59 PM on October 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


Nanuk laid next to Tyson when we put Tyson down to keep him company. And when we came back home to the kids, he was gently affectionate... which was unusual. Similarly, when it was his time to pass, while it was a horrible horrible death (everything gave out in a matter of hours), he still smiled and wagged his tail and put his paw on me before he passed.

And our new dog Ivy? She laid with my wife's uncle in his hospice bed, very gently... which is not her typical bull-in-a-china-shop routine.

So yes... I'm pretty certain dogs understand death.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:29 PM on October 24, 2018 [7 favorites]


I think the question of whether dogs understand death is the wrong one to ask. I think the right question is, does a particular dog understand death. Animals don't know what death is from birth any more than a human baby does. People learn about death, over time, and so it likely must be with them too.

The Outside is a harsh place, even the subdued Outside of suburbia if there's no one to take care of a domestic species. Any creature born unowned and unloved will probably have some experience with death at some point. If the animal has had to hunt for subsistence, then all that much more likely. And for dogs, smell plays a much greater role in their lives than it does for us, and there is a scent that follows death. It is easy to see how a dog that has smelled a dead raccoon and a dead person could put two and two together.
posted by JHarris at 3:44 PM on October 24, 2018 [6 favorites]


So yes... I'm pretty certain dogs understand death.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:29 PM on October 24

Well, if we don’t accept YOUR testimony, I don’t know who we’d believe.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 4:30 PM on October 24, 2018 [4 favorites]


Dogs can be very stubborn when it comes to accepting their master is gone. An Akita named Hachiko was renowned in Japan for walking to and from the local train station on his master’s commuting schedule for 10 years after he died.)

This is supposed to be evidence that dogs don’t grieve?
posted by Miko at 5:03 PM on October 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


On the total opposite end of the spectrum, they also seem to understand birth.

I've had a dog, and I don't know how to interpret the way the dog licks the baby briefly then pulls her head away strongly. Did she know she was breaking a rule doing that? She sure looks like she knows what she's doing, as if being coerced by the photog to break a rule.

My sister-in-law has two badly trained dogs who are also both kind of little assholes to everyone not in the SiL's family, and some of the rest of the family was worried about how that would go when she had a baby. We were very unfair to those dogs. They were immediately very careful with and around the baby, and have been very protective of him around strangers as well, I think I heard. One of these dogs is real, real dumb, but still figured out how to behave around a baby right away, which was a relief. I'm inclined to believe the smart one helped with that, but who knows in a world.
posted by Caduceus at 5:41 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


Anecdotal based on experience:

- dogs mourn people and dogs who are missing.
- dogs don't mourn people or dogs who die in their presence.

Again, anecdotally, in my experience someone missing without cause is the worst thing and makes them pine like mad, but if someone/some other dog they are close to gets sick, they avoid them, and then if they're around when the person/dog passes, they adjust quickly.
posted by davejay at 7:11 PM on October 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


This post makes me think about dogs being sad, and that's just too depressing.
posted by praemunire at 7:48 PM on October 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


Then there's the story of Sejanus. He was the emperor Tiberius's factotum in Rome after Tiberius moved to semi-retirement on the island of Capri. (The part of Sejanus was played by a then hair-headed Patrick Stewart in the BBC production of I, Claudius.) Anyway, when Sejanus over reached himself, Tiberius ordered the man executed, which he was, and the body left to the crowd to abuse for three days until they got bored and dragged it to the Tiber, unloved, unmourned.

Except by his dog, who had watched the entire grim operation, helpless to do anything. Once the body was in the river, the dog followed, struggling to ensure that his old master's body remained above water.

Or at least, so it was said.
posted by BWA at 8:13 PM on October 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


Dogs can be very stubborn when it comes to accepting their master is gone. An Akita named Hachiko was renowned in Japan for walking to and from the local train station on his master’s commuting schedule for 10 years after he died.)

This is supposed to be evidence that dogs don’t grieve?


I don't know the details of this story, but I've always wondered if after a while going to meet the train simply became a habit in and of itself, i.e., perhaps the dog no longer associated the daily routine with the person who passed years ago. Granted, no one would turn this story into a movie.
posted by she's not there at 9:28 PM on October 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


My mother died here at home; our household was Mom, me, Mr. Ant and our two mutts. When Mom died I made sure the dogs had a chance to see and sniff her so they'd know what happened. I can't tell that they grieved for her but they gave us extra time and attention for several weeks afterward.

Now Mr. Ant has been unexpectedly detained abroad for quite a while, leaving me at home with the puppers. Their usual routine generally changes when one of us is away (sleeping arrangements especially) but I am interested to note that their routine remains disrupted even after more than three months.

I tend to believe that animals have robust inner lives.
posted by workerant at 4:59 PM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


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