When Another Dog in the Household Dies…

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

About a month ago Fred, my very confident 4-year-old male boxer, died suddenly from heart problems. Since then my timid 2- and 3-year-old mixed breed females, Lucy and Ethel, have become increasingly edgy and snappy toward each other as well as visitors to our home. Several people recommended that we give them lots of extra attention to help them accept his death. However, they’ve gotten worse rather than better. Should we being doing something else?

When the leader of a wild dog pack dies, a period of instability results during which the whole pack is at risk until a new leader emerges. This occurs because the leader not only keeps the peace within the pack, but also makes a wide range of crucial decisions, including how the group will respond to those who violate the pack’s territory and when and what to hunt. Consequently, until a new leader emerges all the animals exist in a state of physical and behavioral uncertainty. In addition to coming to grips with what the loss of the leader means to the canine pack, pets who live in multiple dog households often must cope with any changes this precipitates in the human-canine pack, too.

Given Lucy’s and Ethel’s behavior following Fred’s death, it seems safe to say that Fred served as the leader of their canine pack. Because all packs need a leader that, in turn, means that either Lucy or Ethel will need to assume this role. Although any age, size, sex, and/or temperament differences will often make one dog the obvious candidate to assume this responsibility, more closely matched canine residents may go through a period of unrest during which they routinely snipe at and spar with each other to determine the new pack order. Because such displays evolved to preserve the peace and conserve energy, most dogs left to their own devices resolve the issue relatively quickly.

If the dogs live in a dog- rather than human-led human-canine pack, however, this may complicate matters enormously. As surviving dogs struggle to resolve leadership in the canine pack, those who view family members as subordinate may resist another dog’s attempts to establish itself as leader because they don’t want to relinquish their claim to such valuable human “real estate.” Instead they keep fighting even though, barring such a human-canine relationship, they would have easily ceded leadership to another.

When confident Fred used to welcome visitors with wagging tail and happy grins, more timid Lucy and Ethel followed his lead and greeted visitors the same way. However, Lucy and Ethel now live in an unstable dog pack and feel responsible for the welfare of their human subordinates following the loss of their canine leader. When trying to fulfill their duties under those trying conditions, timid animals may see those same visitors as threats who now rate growls rather than happy wags.

Sadly, when more subordinate animals react negatively to the upheavals of canine pack restructuring and/or suddenly finding themselves into the leadership position in the human-canine pack, the desire to comfort and baby them seems like the most caring thing to do. However, the higher, sing-songy tones of voice we often use when expressing such sentiments sound much closer to the whimpers of submissive pups than the calm reassurances of mature adults. Consequently, instead of decreasing the pressure on the animal, such human responses actually reward the negative behavior and thus increase the likelihood of it occurring.

Because of this, owners should focus on establishing or reaffirming the existence of a human-centered human-canine pack via exercises that gently, but consistently communicate human leadership. Doing so not only will make it much easier for the dogs in the household to establish a stable canine pack, it will relieve any less confident animals who emerge as the new canine pack leaders of all the physiological and behavioral burdens associated with concurrent leadership of a human-canine one. Although sometimes difficult as we work through our own feelings of grief, foregoing coddling and spoiling of surviving canine family members in favor of confidence-building responses geared to reduce stress surely ranks as the most considerate tribute to the loss of a beloved pet in a multiple dog household.