The passing of a pet provides many people’s first contact with death, helping us to come to terms with the fragility of life and the inescapability of our own mortality. Like pets, people also have a tendency to go kaput, although whether or not our furry companions are able to comprehend the permanence of our departure is something that we may never know.
What is clear, however, is that dogs react to death in a number of ways, ranging from the heartbreaking to the bizarre. Among the most touching examples are the likes of Hawkeye, the black Labrador retriever who famously lay beside the coffin of Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson for the duration of his funeral in 2011. Elsewhere, an Akita called Hachikō became a national sensation in Japan in the 1930s when he started turning up at the local train station at the same time every day in order to greet his owner as he returned from work. One day, Hachikō’s human failed to show up, but that didn’t stop the dog from continuing to appear at the station every day for the rest of his life.
However, whether or not these count as genuine examples of grieving is difficult to say, as it’s impossible to know what dogs are actually thinking and feeling.
Do dogs understand death?
University of British Columbia psychology professor Stanley Coren told IFLScience that “all of our current research tends to show that dogs have a mind which is roughly equivalent to a human child between the ages of two to three years.” As such, he says that man’s best friend is more than capable of experiencing pain, sorrow, and even depression, but probably lacks the intelligence to comprehend the permanence of death. “Prior to the age of about five, children don’t understand some very basic concepts about death, and the major thing they don’t understand is that death is irreversible.”
Hawkeye lay beside the coffin of Jon Tumilson during his funeral. Lisa Pembleton / Getty Images
That’s not to say that dogs are by any means stupid, and an ever-increasing body of research into canine cognition indicates that they are emotionally complex animals with a high degree of social intelligence. For instance, recent studies have revealed that dogs are able to understand human vocabulary while simultaneously judging the tone of a person’s voice in order to decipher the true meaning of what they are saying. It’s this social intuition that allows dogs to form such close relationships with humans, and which generates such poignant responses from pets when their owners die.
However, Coren insists that the ability to grasp abstract concepts like finality and death may be beyond the capacity of canines, and is limited to humans and possibly a small number of other highly cognitive animals such as elephants and some primates. “Dogs are extremely social and are highly aware of the loss of an individual who is important in their life, but they don’t have this idea that they are necessarily gone forever,” he says.
Regarding the likes of Hawkeye, Hachikō, and the numerous other dogs reported to have waited faithfully by their owner’s graves for years at a time, Coren says they are probably waiting for them to return, rather than mourning their loss. “I don’t think the dog would be particularly astounded if his master or mistress sat up and walked out of the box,” he explains.
How emotionally connected are dogs to their owners?
Most scientific research points to the fact that dogs don’t just see their owners as a provider of food, but are in fact capable of loving them intensely. For instance, one study revealed that when dogs catch a whiff of their owner’s scent they experience a flurry of activity in a brain region called the caudate nucleus. Part of the brain’s reward circuit, the caudate nucleus plays a role in generating feelings of pleasure, and tends to be very active in humans when we are in the early stages of romantic love – which, as many people know, is often the most passionate phase.
Dogs are capable of forming incredibly deep bonds with their owners. VGstockstudio/Shutterstock
Another study compared the reactions of dogs and cats when playing with their favorite humans, focusing particularly on their oxytocin levels. Sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin is what causes us to feel love and affection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, dogs tend to release five times more oxytocin than cats when interacting with their owners, meaning they love us much more than cats do.
The fact that dogs remain so loyal even after their owners have died is, according to Coren, “a testimony to the emotional bond” that exists between the two species. And while this loyalty may be driven at least in part by ignorance, it’s clear that “this bond is much deeper than the cynics claim when they say that dogs hang around us because we’re the cupboard, we’re going to feed them. A dog does not demonstrate this sense of loss and hang around all this time because he’s expecting a cookie.”
What does a dog actually expect?
Decomposing human bodies release almost 500 different chemical compounds, and tests have revealed that dogs are much better at detecting these than even the most sophisticated machines. So unless a corpse is embalmed (which, these days, they often are), a dog can tell where its owner is buried, which explains why they sometimes wait by graves for such long periods.
Yet Coren insists that even more powerful than any residual scent is the memory of having last seen a particular person in a particular place. In the case of Hachikō, for example, the train station was permanently associated with the memory of his owner. Coren therefore says that the dog’s poignant behavior was simply driven by “the thought that ‘this is the last place I saw this person who’s special, and if they went in maybe they will come out’.”
Yet dogs do not expect their owners to rise from the dead like zombies, but to return unchanged, as though nothing had ever happened, in order to pick up where they left off and rediscover the unbreakable bond that exists between them. “I hate to say this – but in some respects they may have it better than we do, because at least they still have that glimmer of hope, which has flown for those of us who have the concept that death is final,” says Coren. At the same time, however, “it does leave them waiting, and that can extend out through their lifetime.”
Hachikō the Akita appeared at his local train station every day of his life, hoping for his owner to return from work. Photo via Wikimedia Commons