Do Dogs Mourn Over Their Dead Owners?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 4 2013 4:06 PM

Will Your Dog Mourn Your Death?

Or just hop into the next warm lap?

U.S. Capitol Police K-9, Thea, a 4-year-old German shepherd, sits for a picture outside of police headquarters, Oct. 23, 2009.
U.S. Capitol Police K-9, Thea, a 4-year-old German shepherd, sits for a picture outside of police headquarters, Oct. 23, 2009.

Photo by Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

A photograph of a police dog laying its paw on the casket of his slain master went viral over the weekend. Photographer Jonathan Palmer said, “It seemed like the dog was aware of what was going on.” Do dogs mourn the loss of their owners?

They sometimes mope, but a dog’s emotions are a mystery. If you’re inclined to believe that dogs grieve over their fallen masters, there are plenty of anecdotes to support your view. Dogs sometimes wail plaintively at funerals, refuse to leave the cemetery, and even track down a deceased owner’s grave weeks after the death. The ASPCA conducted a study showing that two-thirds of dogs experience lethargy and loss of appetite after another dog in the household passes, suggesting that dogs are capable of mourning fellow canines, if not human companions. (Prozac is prescribed to deal with intractable canine grief.) Skeptics, however, believe they can explain these stories without attributing humanlike emotions to canines. Unfortunately, the only way to surmise a dog’s emotional state is through its behavior, which is variable and open to interpretation. How you answer this question has more to do with your preferred view of the inner lives of dogs than the evidence itself, which is inconclusive.

The photograph of Figo, the police dog at his master’s funeral, is relatively weak evidence of grief. Dogs are remarkably responsive to subtle human cues. In a 2005 study, food was placed in one of several opaque boxes. When a human pointed, gazed, or nodded in the direction of the box containing the food, most dogs picked up on the signal and found the treat. (Chimpanzees perform significantly worse than dogs in such tests.) It’s entirely possible that curiosity, rather than grief, motivated Figo to inspect the box that was receiving so much attention from the assembled mourners. His behavior away from the funeral, such as his eating habits and energy levels, would be more indicative of mourning than a single snapshot.

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Dogs who sit endlessly at a master’s gravesite may be waiting for him to return, rather than mourning his death. 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. (Apes accept death more quickly: Some have attempted to revive their fallen companions, only to howl and pound the walls of their enclosures when they appear to realize the efforts are in vain.)

When a dog recognizes that its owner has died, the results aren’t always touching. In 2011, seven dogs lived for more than a week by feeding off of the remains of their deceased owners. Both dogs and cats, in fact, occasionally feast on their owners’ dead bodies. Skeptics point to this as evidence that dogs are quick to move on once they’re certain an owner is dead, but it’s possible that some dogs are simply more attached than others to their owners.

Evidence of mourning is far stronger for other members of the animal kingdom. Elephants often congregate over the body of a dying matriarch and suffer physically in the days after the death. Chimpanzees have also exhibited mourning behavior, falling silent for days and refusing to eat.

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Explainer thanks Barbara J. King of the College of William and Mary, author of How Animals Grieve.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.