Do Dogs Experience Grief?
And Is There a Difference Between Grief and Feelings of Loss?
Originally published in slightly different form on September 1, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
The popular website, IFL Science, recently posted a piece on grief in dogs “Why Do Dogs Sometimes Wait for Years by the Graves of Their Owners?” featuring stories told by Dr. Stanley Coren.
One of the stories Coren tells is about Hawkeye, a Labrador retriever who reportedly attended his master's funeral in 2011. There were, at the time, a few misunderstandings in the media on how and why Hawkeye happened to be there, misunderstandings that I attempted to rectify in a post I wrote for PsychologyToday.com.
Here's that post:
A video, which originally aired on The CBS Evening News, is currently getting a lot of play on the internet. It shows a Labrador retriever named Hawkeye lying near his master’s casket during the young man’s funeral.
Hawkeye's master was Petty Officer Jon Tumilson, one of the 31 U.S. troops, most of them Navy SEALs, whose helicopter was shot down near Kabul on August 6th, 2011.
Dr. Dale Peterson is a highly-respected scientist and author. He’s written nearly a dozen books on conservation, natural history, and animal behavior. In his blog here, he wrote the following about Hawkeye’s behavior at the Tumilson funeral: “During the service, Hawkeye walked over to the casket and lay down right in front of it for the duration of the service. The dog lay prostrate before the casket, hardly moving—as if (I thought as I watched a video) he were seized by a powerful feeling of . . . grief.”
On the internet, this video clip is almost always described this way: “Dog refuses to leave his master’s side.” And “Dog guards his master one last time.” These are heart-rending statements. Unfortunately, they aren’t exactly true. If Hawkeye “refused” to leave his master’s side, who tried to stop him, and why doesn’t the video show us exactly how the dog refused? Also, did Hawkeye somehow arrive at the high school gym on his own, uninvited? One can clearly see from the video that Hawkeye isn’t guarding anything. He’s lying on his side, with his eyes closed. He seems despondent, but not vigilant.
Another thing to consider is that the funeral was held in Rockford, Iowa, on August 19th, a hot sunny day. And the venue was a high school gymnasium with no air-conditioning. So the heat could’ve also played a decisive role in Hawkeye’s behavior. (If you look at the original video, aired on CBS, you can see people fanning themselves during the service.)
The Des Moines Register revealed that Hawkeye’s new master is Tumilson’s close friend Scott Nichols, who, along with his wife, had been Hawkeye’s foster parents while the fallen SEAL was stationed overseas. The couple also own two Labs of their own.
I spoke to a public relations officer at Ft. Bragg about the dog’s behavior, how he came to be at the funeral, etc., and I was told the following:
Nichols, knowing how much Tumilson loved his dog, and how much the dog loved him, thought it might be appropriate to bring Hawkeye to the funeral. After getting permission from the Tumilson family—particularly Jon’s mother—Nichols did just that.
As the mourners filed into the gymnasium, Nichols led Hawkeye, on a leash, down the center aisle. He then brought the dog to a spot about 3 feet in front of the casket and told him to lie down. The dog, who was very well trained, obeyed. Nichols then told Hawkeye to stay, and Hawkeye complied. In fact, he held the down/stay during the whole funeral service, which took about half an hour. Hawkeye is a very obedient doggie.
This gives us a very different picture of what happened than the very sweet, but untrue idea that the dog “refused to leave his master’s side.”
One also has to wonder how much the dog actually knew about what was going on. First of all, Hawkeye wasn’t with Tumilson during the Taliban’s attack in Afghanistan when Tumlinson was killed. He was in Iowa at the time. Perhaps he could’ve sensed his master’s death, telepathically. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence supporting that kind of thing. But it would have been virtually impossible for the dog to have learned about his master’s death in any other way.
Secondly, a dog’s primary source of information about the world around him comes through his nose. Could Hawkeye have smelled the embalmed body of his former master through the heavy wooden-and-metal casket, and know that Tumilson’s body was inside? It seems unlikely.
Dr. Peterson writes, “If you should feel that only humans have emotions, that animals are essentially so far ‘below’ us as to be incapable of such a psychological experience, may I suggest you look at the video of Hawkeye at the funeral? You can find it, plus an accompanying post by Anahad O’Connor at her New York Times blog of August 26.”
The original video snippet shown on CBS was :05 seconds long. The video O’Connor posted on her NY Times blog was :30, but only because that :05 snippet had been cut and pasted over and over. So it’s hard to take it at face value. [The video posted above has been altered so that it plays out in slow motion.]
There’s no question that this video plucks at our heartstrings, and does so for any number of reasons. And I do not for a second doubt that Tumilson and his dog shared a deep emotional bond. Nor do I doubt that the dog had an emotional awareness of the gravity of the situation he’d been put in  by his new owners. Dogs feel what we feel. If a situation feels “heavy” to us, a dog’s behavior will often reflect that.
Just look at Hawkeye and you’ll see that he can barely lift his head off the ground. If he has no mental awareness of what’s going on (and how could he?), we can at least hypothesize from his actual behavior that he does, perhaps, feel the gravity of the situation.
Dr. Peterson writes, “We have a word for the over-humanizing of non-human animals: anthropomorphism. But there is a second kind of false thinking about animals, which is the reverse of anthropomorphism. Instead of wrongly exaggerating the similarity between humans and animals, this second kind of error wrongly exaggerates the dissimilarity.”
I’m not denying or minimizing the love that Hawkeye felt for his master. In fact I’m very much on board with celebrating and honoring the ways in which all of our dogs love us and express their love, loyalty, and fidelity. However, Dr. Peterson seems almost certain that Hawkeye was grief-stricken, which is where I see a clear dividing line between human and canine emotions.
If Hawkeye were actually capable of feeling true grief, it would mean that the dog would, first of all, have to know the difference between life and death, and to be able to engage in mental time travel, i.e., the ability to reflect on the past and entertain thoughts about hypothetical future events. In actual fact, in his life outside the video, Hawkeye is reportedly a very happy doggie. He lives in a home with several other Labrador retrievers, and is very playful and easy-going. He has a happy—not grief-stricken—life.
I would agree that dogs and humans share many of the same basic emotions, or what I would call “simple emotions.” Most of these are rather more like feeling states than actual emotions. The second type—the kinds of emotions which are only experienced by humans and some cetaceans—involve an attendant mental thought process, one that’s designed to help us cope with our emotional states. I call these complex emotions.
Feeling the loss of someone would be a simple emotion, one that most mammals—social mammals in particular—are no doubt capable of. But grief, on the other hand, is a very specific, complex emotion, one that seems to always involve a number of mental thought processes that dogs are incapable of engaging in, especially the stages of anger, denial and bargaining, etc.
A window into how unlikely it is that dogs feel grief, as opposed to loss, is that both the feeling of loss and the complex emotional state of grief, can also be experienced when one loses a limb or learns that they have cancer or are going blind, etc. Except for understanding the cancer diagnosis, many dogs find themselves in these situations. But I’ve never known or heard of a dog who exhibited any sign that they were grieving about their amputated leg or their diminishing eyesight. Most dogs seem emotionally unaffected by such things.
I agree with Dr. Peterson that animals have emotions. But instead of anthropomorphizing dogs, I think we need to dogthropomorphize ourselves. We need to do everything we can to see things from the dog’s point of view, rather than imposing our own thoughts and feelings onto their behaviors.
Dogs are the most amazing animals on the planet. We need to honor them for who they truly are instead of making them into four-legged versions of ourselves. After all, only human beings are capable of creating the horrors of warfare. And our soldiers, their mothers—and sometimes their dogs—are among those who suffer the most.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1) Petty Officer Tumilson’s mother reportedly felt some regret about allowing Hawkeye to attend the memorial service because it drew the spotlight away from her son and focused it on his dog. She knew how much her son loved that dog, and vice versa, but understandably felt the focus should be more on her son’s sacrifice and military service.