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How do dogs react when their owner dies?

The death of a beloved owner can be extremely traumatic for dogs. Dogs form strong bonds and attachments with their human families, so the loss of an owner leaves them stressed, confused and insecure. Understanding how dogs grieve and finding ways to help them through this difficult transition is important.

Do dogs understand death?

Experts believe dogs don’t have a full understanding of the concept of death and all its implications. However, they do understand the emotion and sensory cues that accompany death and loss. When a loved one dies, dogs recognize the sorrow, anxiety and unusual behaviors in the surviving family members. They also notice the absence of their owner which can be very disturbing and confusing.

Dogs may not grasp that death is permanent, but they feel the profound absence of their owner’s presence, scent, voice and routine. These changes disrupt their sense of safety and security. As social animals, this loss of their human companion can be traumatic.

Common signs of grief in dogs

When dogs grieve a departed owner, they can show many symptoms that mirror human grief responses. Common signs of mourning include:

  • Loss of appetite or appetite changes
  • Vocalizing more such as whining, barking or howling
  • Restlessness, pacing or searching behaviors
  • Anxiety or clinginess
  • Loss of housetraining
  • Sleep disturbances such as difficulty settling
  • Lethargy, depression or loss of interest in play
  • Irritability or short temper

These responses can persist anywhere from a few days to a few months after the loss as the dog grieves and tries to adjust.

Unique grieving behaviors in dogs

Some dogs exhibit unique behaviors in response to an owner’s death. These grief responses reflect their close bond and the depth of their sadness:

  • Searching behavior – Dogs may wander restlessly through the home looking for their missing owner. They may wait intently near the door or at their owner’s favorite chair or sleep spot. Some dogs return frequently to their owner’s gravesite.
  • Protective behavior – Many dogs become more clingy or protective of their family and home after their owner’s death.
  • Loss of self-care – Dogs may stop grooming themselves properly or show little interest in food or water as they pine for their lost companion.
  • Apathy – Once active and engaged dogs may become listless or detached from normal activities.

Helping a grieving dog cope

With patience and compassion, surviving family members can help a dog manage grief and transition to life without their beloved person. Tips include:

  • Maintaining normal routines and schedules as much as possible
  • Making sure the dog’s basic needs are met with regular feeding, exercise and attention
  • Allowing the dog to grieve in their way without punishment for symptoms like housetraining lapses
  • Spending extra quality time doing relaxing activities together
  • Providing engaging toys to distract and comfort
  • Using calming aids like pheromone sprays or ThunderShirts during periods of high anxiety
  • Consulting a veterinarian if depression, clinginess or other symptoms don’t start to resolve

When to seek professional help

In some cases, a dog may require intervention from a veterinary behaviorist or certified dog trainer if they display:

  • Prolonged loss of appetite leading to significant weight loss
  • Extreme lethargy, irritability or other personality changes
  • Ongoing inappropriate elimination around the home
  • Self-harming behaviors like excessive licking or chewing
  • Aggression or destructive behaviors like digging or chewing
  • Persistent anxious behaviors or vocalizing
  • Inability to be left alone

These professionals can assess if medication may help ease the dog’s depression or anxiety during acute grief. They also guide owners through training techniques to redirect problematic behaviors and rebuild confidence.

The grieving process in dogs

Dogs appear to experience distinct emotional phases as they come to terms with losing their person:

1. Searching

Initially dogs seem to go into problem-solving mode, where they search expectantly for their missing owner around familiar places and routines.

2. Anxiety

As the reality sets in that their person is gone, dogs may become anxious and restless. They may pace, vocalize excessively or show clingy shadowing behavior.

3. Depression

In the weeks after a loss, some dogs start to show signs of depression and apathy. They seem detached, may lose interest in food, play and other normal activities.

4. Acceptance

Gradually most dogs will adjust to life without their previous owner. Their spirits lift and typical routines are resumed as they bond with remaining family members.

5. Memory

While the acute grief resolves, dogs likely feel the loss on some level for the rest of their lives. Subtle signs like pausing by their old owner’s room or perking up at a certain name or vehicle may persist.

Do some dogs grieve more deeply than others?

The severity of grief often relates closely to the strength of the dog-owner bond and the permanence of the loss. Dogs may react more profoundly when:

  • The owner was their primary attachment from puppyhood
  • They did not witness the death of their person
  • No routine was maintained (like move to new home)
  • They lack remaining familiar people/animals for comfort
  • The dog is naturally anxious by temperament

Working dogs, like assistance, therapy and service dogs who lose their job and purpose along with their owner, may be deeply affected. Littermates adopted together into the same home can also form a very intense bond, so losing their sibling and housemate is a dual loss.

Do dogs ever die from grief?

The loss of a beloved guardian can be fatal in some cases, though this appears to be quite rare. Most documented cases involve dogs who completely lose interest in food and water after a significant attachment is broken. This dangerous apathy leads to malnutrition, organ failure and eventual death in especially vulnerable dogs.

However, dogs are generally resilient by nature and can bounce back from emotional trauma with support. The vast majority are able to adapt to loss when their basic needs are consistently met.

How long does grief last in dogs?

There is no set mourning period for dogs. Some adapt more quickly than others to life without their previous owner. Factors that influence grief duration include:

  • How suddenly the loss occurred
  • Consistency of routine
  • Stability of environment
  • The dog’s temperament
  • Remaining family bonds and interactions

While every dog is different, research indicates the most pronounced symptoms seem to resolve within about 6 months on average. But the memory of their lost human may stay with them much longer.

Do dogs grieve when re-homed?

Re-homing can certainly be difficult for dogs too. When relinquished by their family and introduced to a new home, common signs of distress include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive vocalizing and barking
  • Destructive behaviors like chewing or digging
  • House soiling
  • Pacing and restlessness
  • Depression and lethargy
  • Attention seeking behaviors

However, dogs are generally quite resilient and can bond with a new family, especially if done gradually through fostering. With structure, routine and affection, most dogs adjust to re-homing within 2-3 months.

Can dogs detect illness and death?

Dogs can often detect subtle changes in human physiology and behavior that may go unnoticed by others. This includes:

  • Smell – Dogs can smell biochemical changes in the body that may indicate disease.
  • Hearing – Dogs hear alterations in breathing patterns, heart rate, digestion that signal distress.
  • Sight – Dogs observe facial expressions, movement changes, swelling or discoloration.
  • Taste – Dogs sample biochemical changes in skin and bodily fluids.
  • Intuition – Dogs seem to detect emotional distress and energy changes.

These detection abilities mean dogs frequently identify illness and impending death in their owners long before humans realize what is happening.


The takeaway is that dogs absolutely grieve the loss of a close human companion. They feel anxious, unsettled, depressed and may temporarily lose interest in normal activities. However, dogs are also quite resilient by nature. With a little patience and consistency from remaining family, most dogs are able to adjust to the loss of an owner within a period of weeks to months.

Taking steps to maintain structure, provide comfort and redirect any problematic behaviors can help the grieving dog cope. If depression or anxiety symptoms persist and interfere with quality of life, consulting a veterinary behaviorist may be advisable. While the hurt of losing their special person never completely goes away, most dogs can focus on developing bonds with new family members in time.