Humans think about death a lot. They worry about it, grieve over it, fear it, and in certain situations may even be thankful for it. But what do dogs know about death? They seem to know when we are not feeling well or when one of their packmates is sick. We say they are sentient, that they possess intelligence — but are they aware of life and death?
I don’t know the answer, but I will tell you a story about our dog Tino, who made me think that dogs’ understanding of the seriousness and finality of death runs much deeper than we might believe. It has made me rethink my attitude toward what dogs “know.”
We rescued Tino and his brother Bernie from a park in Los Angeles many years ago. Tino was in pretty bad shape: emaciated, tick-ridden, bruised, and battered with a torn ACL. We soon learned that both dogs also had distemper. Bernie succumbed to the distemper, but Tino pulled through, and he flourished with our family.
Tino was an outdoor dog. He loved being outside; he would spend the entire day outside roaming the yard (fenced), monitoring the neighborhood, and basking in the sun. At the time, we lived on a small cul-de-sac near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Our neighbors across the street had two dogs, a Golden Retriever, Buddy, and a black Lab, Chloe.
Tino carefully monitored our neighborhood activities, paying particular attention to the dogs across the way. He watched their every move and seemed to be weighing whether they were getting more walks than him, or more treats from the mailman, or more car rides with Mom and Dad. He barked, loudly and sometimes inappropriately, at their comings and goings.
Chloe would respond in kind, barking back her hello and sometimes running along the fence to play. But Buddy was old and not one to play, so he never joined in the raucous exchange or came in the yard for a play date. Tino had to settle for barking hello through the fence and watching Buddy from afar.
One morning after breakfast, Tino made his usual circuit around the yard, checking his property line for possible infiltrations during the night. Then, instead of settling in for a quick nap before his morning walk, he rushed inside, came to me, and turned right around and went back out. He did this over and over: came in, found me, and then hurried outside.
I’ve watched enough Lassie in my day to recognize when my dog is trying to tell me something, and Tino clearly had something to show me. I followed him out and found him standing at the corner of our yard, the corner closest to Buddy’s house across the street. He was just standing there, staring at Buddy’s yard.
At first, his fixed stare made me think he had a squirrel or a rabbit in his sites. But when I followed his gaze, I saw Buddy lying in the front yard on a blanket, with his mom, Hillary, next to him. I ran over to see what was going on, and Hillary said that Buddy’s illnesses, which they had been fighting for some time, had finally brought him to the edge and they were going to take him to the vet later that day to be euthanized.
I sat with Hillary for a while and cried with her over Buddy. At any other time, Tino would have been barking with his tail high and wagging, furiously running along the fence, wanting to join me in my visit with Hillary and Buddy. This time he was completely silent, watching me, watching Buddy, taking stock of the situation.
I left Hillary and gathered up Sally and Tino for our walk. When we returned some 30 minutes later, Hillary and Buddy were still there, waiting for the vet’s office to open. Tino resumed his silent vigil. A short while later Hillary’s husband, Reed, came home, and they carried Buddy to the car.
I assumed with Buddy gone, Tino would resume his daily activities. Instead, he sat there in the corner nearest Buddy’s house the entire morning. He saw Hillary and Reed return, but he stayed at his post. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon, after a steady stream of distractions, that he finally left his post.
I often wonder what Tino was thinking that day. He had never before behaved that way, never sat that still, been that quiet, that observant and respectful. Did he know what was going on? Did he sense it? Are dogs cognizant of death and its meaning? Was he silently saying goodbye to his pal Buddy? I don’t know, but I do know it still touches me.
Kate and her husband Steve live in Camarillo, CA, with their two dogs, SlimDoggy Jack and Maggie May. They are animal advocates and are active in the dog rescue and foster community. They write about their adventures with their dogs and about pet obesity, health, and fitness on the Slim Doggy website, Facebook, and Twitter.
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