Ask Heidi

Video of O'Fallon dog seems to show grief at owner's departure. Do dogs really get sad?

Older dog, returned by multiple owners, needs a home

Bree has been returned to Spencer Kennel twice after she was initially found abandoned in a garage. The video of Bree has gone viral and the kennel owner talks about the difficulty of finding a home for older dogs.
Up Next
Bree has been returned to Spencer Kennel twice after she was initially found abandoned in a garage. The video of Bree has gone viral and the kennel owner talks about the difficulty of finding a home for older dogs.

Q: I recently read a story in the Belleville News-Democrat about a dog named Bree who cried when her owner left her at the kennel in O’Fallon. Is a dog, cat or other animal’s behavior changed by emotions? Does it take them long to get over heartbreak or do they never recover?

A: Bree’s story tugged the heartstrings of many in Southern Illinois and beyond. The video, of Bree’s cries and efforts to follow her owner as she’s left behind, has gone viral.

The 9-year-old, mixed-breed dog, which was originally found abandoned in a garage, was returned to Spencer Kennel in O’Fallon two times.

The first was when her adopted family had a baby. The second time was because her owner was single when he adopted her, but had recently married and could not keep her.

Michelle Parker, the owner of Spencer Kennel, said Bree’s response was unusual. Parker said she shared the video online because, “People need to see what these animals go through.”

In a recent email to the BND, Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary and the author of the book “How Animals Grieve,” said, “many animals, including cats and dogs, and many wild and farmed animals too, feel emotions ranging from joy to grief.

“Bree’s case is a heartbreaking one and although I cannot evaluate the claim that she shed real tears, I do see that she felt genuine upset and sadness at yet another abandonment in her life,” King said.

“In my work, I have compiled reports from scientists and other animal observers that show how often animals may grieve deeply at separation from a loved one — whether through death or because of other reasons,” King said. “They may withdraw socially, or fail to eat or sleep well.”

In “How Animals Grieve,” King examines multiple instances in which she believes animals are genuinely grieving.

There is a mother dolphin which pushes or carries her deceased infant for days without eating, a duck which laid its neck on its deceased friend and then visited a favorite lake for days after the other duck’s death, a cat which wailed when her sister died and elephants hovering over and inspecting the bodies and bones of deceased elephants. And more.

King said, “Just like humans, most (animals) recover with time, but some simply cannot.”

Like people, “I would caution that our dogs and cats are individual personalities,” King said. “Some may feel intense sadness but not show it as visibly as the way Bree did.”

“This knowledge compels us to be as kind and compassionate as we can be to animals, not only those in our homes but also those in the wider world,” King said. “Beef and dairy cows feel as deeply as do dogs.”

What does being sad mean?

Dr. Colleen S. Koch is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, which certifies veterinarians who are “specially trained to advance the behavioral health of animals through research, science-based behavior education, and the practice of clinical behavioral medicine,” according to its website.

Koch says there are fewer than 80 diplomates in the U.S.

“I do feel they (animals) have emotions,” Koch said. “I feel there is enough evidence for that, but they communicate a lot differently than we do.”

Koch sees behavior patients at her practice at Lincoln Land Animal Clinic in Jacksonville, an Illinois town about 85 miles north of Belleville, and for a University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine clinic in Wentzville, Missouri.

She believes animals have emotions but we can’t define them the same way that we do for emotions in people.

For example, the emotion of happy and sad means different things to people in different cultures. The behavior displayed is different too.

“Just because someone is crying doesn’t mean they’re sad or grieving,” Koch said. “They could be really happy or in pain.”

Koch said, “If you ask 10 kids, ‘what does being angry mean’, you’ll get 10 different answers.” She said the same would probably be true for a group of adults.

“When we look at this from just the human side of it and how complicated it is, even between different cultures, how can we put those labels on all animals and say what it means,” Koch said. “We can’t.”

“We can easily misinterpret different behaviors based on our own biases,” Koch said.

Two people could stay at the same luxurious hotel and come away with two completely different experiences.

“You could say it is the most wonderful thing on earth but if I prefer to camp, I might think it is the most horrific place on earth,” Koch said. “We want to anthropomorphize but again, we may be doing total injustice to those animals. That really impacts welfare.”

Kings and queens of non-verbal communication

Margo Sutter, of Equus Rescue and Therapy in Millstadt, believes all animals have emotion, and horses are “the kings and queens of non-verbal communication.”

“Animals are highly emotional creatures,” Sutter said. “That’s why they’re so effective in therapy with human beings and giving back to us.”

The rescue and therapy center is a non-profit group that not only rescues horses, but also has a therapy program called Equine Angels that helps at-risk youth. Further therapy programs are currently in development at the center to help veterans or those with post-traumatic stress syndrome as well as the elderly.

Horses and dogs are similar, according to Sutter, in that both animals moved in groups, so they have highly developed communication and bonding skills.

Sutter said, “And they’ve never lost it, even through domestication, because it helped them survive.”

She said horses have terrible vision and memorize people and other horses through their scent, voice and energy. “They never, ever forget you,” Sutter said.

When a four-legged member of the herd dies, Sutter said, “They usually gather in a circle around the body and stand quietly with their heads dropped.” She compared the behavior to people paying their respects at a funeral home.

“It is very somber. They usually touch the body, some have tears,” said Sutter.

Sutter described the herd moving on but the horses may still look for the deceased animal and “call for it for awhile like a mother does with its foal.”

Emotions may not be something that can be tested scientifically, distilled in a chemical lab or even defined. But Sutter believes you can’t dismiss the impact animals have in our lives because of that.

“They’re on four legs and have been serving us forever in so many ways,” Sutter said. “They don’t have to be our friends.”

She added, “They honor us with their lives.”

Suggested reading

In “How Animals Grieve” by Barbara J. King, she addresses the question of emotions in animals and shares stories of their observed behavior.

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat