The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

Do Dogs Know Death?

How Do Dogs Feel About Death?

How animals perceive death has been a longstanding puzzle.

That animals understand death and grieve for their losses is no longer the question. For example, in her 'Coming of Age With Elephants', biologist Joyce Poole describes a mother elephant grieving for a stillborn baby-crying, slumped over, days on end spent desperately trying to revive her child. On another occasion Poole saw a troop moving through the forest when one of them fell over and died. The elephants spent a long time trying to revive their companion before moving off into the jungle, only to return the next day for further ceremony.

Mark Bekoff, meanwhile, has observed both magpies and llamas grieving. Chimpanzees too go through elaborate, multi-day rituals with the corpses of dead relatives- though they casually discard those relatives once they start to rot.

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In 2008, the internet was flooded with photos of Gana, an eleven-year old gorilla at the Munster Zoo in Germany, who refused to let go of the dead body of her infant son for several days, prompting New York Times science writer Natalie Angier to explain: "Gorillas, and probably a lot of other animals as well, have a grasp on their mortality and will grieve for their dead and are really just like us."

But how deep do these feelings go and how complicated are animal's responses to loss remain open questions.

I mention these things because, a few days back, my wife and I observed one of the most elaborate mourning behaviors we'd ever seen.

Readers of this blog probably know that we run Rancho de Chihuahua, a dog sanctuary in northern New Mexico. Typically, we specialize in the very old, the very sick or the really retarded. We don't often take in puppies, but over the summer we made a couple of exceptions.

One of the local shelters had a pair of Chihuahua/Dachshund blends (they call them Chi-Weenies for short) that had been abuse cases-—in both cases the animals had been starved almost to death—and were in need of a place to fatten up before they could become eligible for adoption.

We took them both home. Joey was a white-and-brown mix, not much more than 15 lbs., and one of the kindest dogs I'd ever been around. Willi, a solid brown dog of roughly the same weight, who was slightly (and just slightly) less gregarious than Joey.

We "placed" (that's the term rescuers use for finding an animal a home) both dogs with the same owner a few months later. This owner happened to be both our friend and neighbor and this happily meant we still got to see plenty of Willi and Joey.

Now the bad news. Over the weekend, Joey got run over by a drunk driver. The loss was devastating. The owner wanted to bury Joey at home, so brought his body back from the vet and put him on a bed in a spare bedroom.

We rushed over to be with our friend and to say our goodbyes to Joey.

Not long after, my wife was sitting on the bed, stroking Joey's head, when Willi quietly climbed up beside her, walked over to Joey and gave his body a thorough sniff.

When done, he walked over and picked up the edge of the bedspread in his teeth and carried it over Joey's head, essentially burying him under the blanket.

My wife just wrote it off as happenstance and, since she wasn't done saying her goodbyes, uncovered Joey's head.

This time Willi got agitated. He stomped around a little bit, got back on the bed, and—very deliberately—recovered Joey's head with the blanket.

Okay, that was strange, but perhaps still random.

It was then nearly dark so the decision was made to wait until the next day to bury Joey. In the morning, in preparation for that burial, the owner moved his body from the bed in her spare bedroom to a chair in the living room.

Joey was still wrapped in a blanket, but, in the move, his head, again, became uncovered.

And again Willi got upset.

He stomped around for a bit, then climbed up on the chair and tugged the blanket over Joey's face—essentially burying him for the third time in less than twenty-four hours.

In my years of working with dogs, I have observed thousands of instances of behavior that don't appear in the scientific literature, but this went slightly beyond those. As mentioned, this was the most elaborate mourning behavior I've ever seen in a dog and it again reminds me of a lesson I learn daily—that we humans know so little about ethology, yet pretend to know so much.

Which, I guess, in yet another example of inexplicableness animal behavior.

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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