Much of the time, when a beloved dog dies, that’s our first experience of death, and it basically sets us up for coping with other losses – that of a parent, for instance. How do dogs come to terms with death, though? Do they understand that it’s forever?
One thing we do know is that dogs handle death in a variety of ways. You might be familiar with the black Lab, Hawkeye, who was known for lying beside the coffin of his master, Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson, throughout his funeral in 2011. Hachiko, an Akita, became famous in 1930s Japan, for continuing to go to the train station to meet his human long after the man had died. There are also countless stories of dogs guarding their owners’ graves – Greyfriars Bobby is probably the best-known example.
Is this grief, though? Do dogs comprehend death?
According to psychology professor Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia, canine intelligence is roughly equal to that of a 2-3 year old child, and he believes that dogs can feel all the same emotions that humans do, including grief. He also believes, though, that they don’t understand the permanence of death. Their comprehension is much like that of a toddler who doesn’t understand why Grandma can’t come back from Heaven for a visit.
This most definitely doesn’t mean that dogs aren’t intelligent, and that they don’t form close relationships with us. However, Professor Coren maintains that “finality” is an abstract concept, and that it is probably the province of humankind, some of the primates, and perhaps other very cognitive animals, like elephants. A dog, he suggests, is very aware that his human is gone, but might not understand that the human is gone forever.
Concerning dogs that wait by their humans’ graves, Professor Coren is of the opinion that rather than mourning, the dog is waiting for his human to come back. Dogs do feel a sense of loss, though, and are quite capable of intense love. The human/animal bond can be so intense that dogs are willing to wait as long as it takes.
Another reason for grave-guarding is that dogs have a very intense sense of smell. It’s easy for them to tell where their humans are buried, and that could be a reason why they often wait so long beside their humans’ graves.
When it comes to a dog like Hachiko, waiting at the train station, he probably did so because that was where he always waited for his human to come and meet him. He associated the train station with his master in a very permanent way, and it was where he last saw the man, so that’s where he waited.
So, finally, do dogs understand death in the same way that we do? Probably not. And there is something incredibly heartbreaking in the idea of dogs waiting forever for their humans to come back to them. Perhaps it’s not all bad, though, since they do have that hope, however unfounded in reality it might be – we know that death is forever, but some dogs still have that hope of reuniting with their human. Sad though it may be to see a dog waiting for something that’s never going to happen, it’s a testimony to the strength of the human/dog bond. It’s a forever kind of love.