Does your dog care if you die?
Yes, Dogs have behavioral and circulating hormone responses to the presence or absence of their owner — and in interacting with their owner — that parallel what we see when humans interact with other humans with whom they share a bond: close friends, family members, and children. That suggests that biological correlates of the human-animal bond are similar — at least in some ways — to human-human bonds. And we know that humans get very distressed if someone they care about and have a close bond with dies. That’s one line of evidence. Another is that, phenomenologically, we can see examples of dogs that show evidence of distress when they’re separated from their owner even for a short period of time. When the owner goes to work, a lot of dogs have separation anxiety. Or if the owner does die, then dogs commonly exhibit distress that can take the form of destructive behavior or something that might look like reduced activity levels — what depression looks like in humans.
One thing we don’t know is to what extent biological bonding mechanisms within a group of wolves are similar to the mechanisms that support bonding between dogs and humans. Another thing we don’t fully understand is to what degree different dog breeds might have different patterns of bonding with humans. It seems like a reasonable hypothesis. Some breeds of dogs have been selected for cooperative working behaviors with one individual human — really one-on-one cooperation. Examples of that could be border collies, Australian shepherds, and other livestock herding dogs that interact closely with humans handling livestock. Other breeds don’t have that cooperative working arrangement with a single human. A livestock guardian dog seems to form strong social bonds with the livestock rather than with the human. And then there are other breeds of dogs that have been developed for human companionship. It’s possible that they might show different bonding patterns, maybe less with one person and more with an entire household — but that’s speculation. Aside from genetic differences across breeds, individual dogs’ histories of positive interactions with individual people must also play a big role.
What do dogs do when their owner dies? (a story)
I observed my husband’s dog, Seuss. On April 9th, 2018, my husband received word that he had stage four non-small cell carcinoma (brain, liver, and lung). The Oncologist was very honest with us and said that he had weeks not months possibly days not weeks.
Seuss stayed by his side the entire eighteen days. She was in the hospital bed with him when he slipped into a coma. Her reaction was intense, she started howling and making terrible noises. She appeared to understand that something was very wrong with her human.
When I came home after my husband passed away Seuss was so unhappy. She had a habit of sitting and staring at his chair. For a while after his Celebration of Life, she would go to the garage and look for him. She didn’t want to eat and she refused to sleep in our bed. I often found her sitting in his chair.
Seuss lost weight and had to be hand-fed boiled chicken. She started having physical problems as well. By the end of September, Seuss no longer looked like herself.
I took her to the veterinarian on the first of October and after a brief discussion, we decided to let her go. My veterinarian is of the belief that Seuss didn’t want to be here without her human. She basically had willed herself to die.
Side note: I took my little old man dog (Mister) to the veterinarian’s office for that appointment. Mister was kissing Seuss as she took her last breath. I have found that dogs miss their dog companions just like we humans do. Later in October, I rescued another dog so Mister wouldn’t be alone.