Dogs and Grief

The events of last Monday, with the incredible scenes from London, will have raised lots of emotions in many people. Grief takes many different forms. On the Mind website (mind.org.uk) author and life coach Rhiannon describes her own experience and the change in her mental state:

Grief is a fickle thing, and it hits you in ways that you aren't prepared for. I've always been a fairly confident person so the shift in my mental health that came with grief took me by surprise.

For me, amongst the many poignant moments of the funeral on Monday, two particularly struck me, namely the attendance of the Queen’s pony Emma and her corgis. Fell pony Emma stood between flowers on Windsor Castle's Long Walk as Elizabeth II's coffin passed, whilst Corgis Muick and Sandy were brought outside the castle ahead of the coffin’s arrival.

But do animals, and specifically dogs, experience grief? According to the Blue Cross (bluecross.org.uk), “What we do know is that many species are affected by loss and experience feelings of sadness and loneliness.” The charity suggests that when an owner or housemate dies, dogs may experience:

•    loss of appetite

•    change in sleep patterns

•    crying

•    searching

•    a need for extra attention

•    a generally sad demeanour

Our school dog, Jess, is a familiar sight around school now. The children enjoy her company and it is interesting to see the effects on children’s emotions when Jess is around. On many occasions I have seen Jess sit at the feet of a child who, although not explicit in their emotions, is feeling low. Not quite healing powers but Jess certainly has a positive impact on our wellbeing as staff and children.

With the Queen’s corgis in mind, I have been conscious of Jess’ behaviour this week, following the departure of my son to university. Jess and James share a special affection for one another, and he is the one who would normally let her get away with more than anybody else at home. Since his departure, Jess has sat at his bedroom door on many occasions. If she gains access, rather than jump up onto his bed as she normally would, she lays at the foot of his bed, almost mourning his absence. With this I am reminded of two stories about dogs and their commitment to their departed owners.

Bobby, a Skye Terrier, belonged to John Gray, who worked for the Edinburgh City Police as a night watchman. When John Gray died, he was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard. Bobby led his master’s funeral procession to the grave and later, when he tried to stay at the graveside, he was moved on by the caretaker. But the little dog returned and refused to leave, whatever the weather conditions.

Despite the combined efforts of the keeper of the cemetery, John Gray’s family and his friends, Bobby stubbornly refused to be enticed away from the grave. The only time he did leave was to get food and water, and this was triggered by the firing of the one-o-clock gun at Edinburgh Castle. It is believed John Gray always went to lunch and fed Bobby at the same time in the same place, and that was at 1 o’clock.

Bobby became famous for spending the rest of his life sitting on his master’s grave until he died fourteen years later at the age of sixteen. He was buried near his master’s body.

In Japan, a dog named Hachikō was renowned for walking to and from the local train station on his master’s commuting schedule for over nine years after his owner, a professor in agricultural science at Tokyo University, died. The professor had previously commuted each day to work and his beloved dog went to the station every day to see him off, returning later to greet him after work.

One day the professor died suddenly at work and never returned home. From that day onwards, Hachikō went to the train station daily in the hope his owner would get off the train, until he died.

We may never fully understand what goes through a dog’s mind in these circumstances. Whether it is through loyalty, devotion, dedication or love, there is no doubting the bond that is created between dogs and humans and how grief can manifest itself in different behaviours of dogs.