13 August

What My Dogs Think: Am I The Only One Who Has No Idea?

by Jon Katz

Red has been dead for four days, and I wrote a piece earlier today saying I had noticed no change of any kind in the behavior of Fate and Bud. I can’t say this surprised me. I have been upsetting dog lovers for years by expressing the nagging feeling that dog grieving is something people need to believe, not something dogs need or often do.

Every time a person pets one of my dogs they tell me that when they get home, their Hannah will be jealous. I have long ago stopped telling people that envy is a human emotion (competitiveness is a dog instinct), not a dog emotion.

Dogs absolutely love to sniff the odor of other dogs, it’s like news to a cable junkie. They’d rather sniff your pants or coat than get a treat. Just watch them as they methodically investigate an animal, and paint a picture of him or her in their head.

It’s not envy. It’s just curiosity. Everyone has stories of envy, everyone has stories of dog grief.

The interesting question is why do we need to feel that they are jealous of our showing affection to other dogs?

Fate grew up with Red, Bud seemed to almost worship him. Still, there were no over signs of grieving or anything I might call depression. And I like to think I know my dogs well, although I was soon to learn many people feel they know them better.

I said in the piece that I really have no idea what, if anything, Fate and are feeling about Red’s absence. I was just reporting on my careful observations of them days, observations that were almost totally ignored or dismissed.

I won’t get a big head.

I was fascinated,  if surprised,  that so many other people knew exactly what Fate and Bud were thinking, and most had no doubts about it. The verdict was unanimous. I was wrong. The dogs had figured it all out, long before I did.

The other dogs had sensed Red’s decline, wrote Connie.  “Animals very aware of and understand the circle of life much better than humans.”

I am sorry Elizabeth Kubler-Ross or Plato or Einstein didn’t hear this idea that our Labs and Boston Terriers understood the circle of life better than they did. Why go to college at all?

Rachel wrote that “I know with 100 percent certainty that animals are intuitive and their spirit never leaves, it just changes form.”

I want to learn that 100 percent thing, I think I know almost nothing.

“Dogs also understand life and death more than we give them credit for,” wrote Emily. “They could clearly see Red was failing and now he’s gone. It likely makes perfect sense to them.”

Okay, why doesn’t it make perfect sense to me? Am I the only idiot in the room? Is Bud that much more perceptive than I am?

Jo wrote: “I‘m sure they sensed his failing health. They are probably happy for him he is no longer in any pain. They are honoring him by carrying on with life on the farm.”

Watching Bud scarf up a large donkey dropping this morning right next to Red’s grave, I didn’t get the impression he was honoring his late pal. I did yell at him to stop, and to my surprise, he did.

Liz wrote: “I want to say and I think that Red ruled the roost very quietly. Now that he is gone, Fate can pick up her pace and maybe take up the slack with the sheep. Bud, however, may think that he no longer needs to defend Red and the chipmunk, squirrels are much more fun.”

“My experience is that dogs start to miss other dogs probably after about a week,” said Becky, “They probably don’t quite get it yet.”

Well, in two days it will be a week. I’ll make a note to look carefully.

Marie wrote:” I think dogs make peace with death before the dog actually died.”

Okay, but how do they do that if they don’t know what death is?

“They have been adapting for a while, as Red has faded,” wrote Sue.”They have you and Maria, and the animals as their constant.”

This is an interesting observation, Marie, one I will need to think about. Dogs sense a lot of things we don’t see, but the thing is, according to every single credible canine scholar,  they do not think in any way we can describe or even comprehend.

I appreciate these comments, they are interesting and sincere. Thanks for them. There were many more like these and what was so interesting about them to me – they were fascinating to read – was that I disagreed with almost every one of them.

I know there are many things wrong with me, so it could just be me.

I have no idea if the spirit never leaves them, and I am not 100 percent convinced of anything  I have ever heard.

I have no reason to believe that either dog sensed that Red was sick intuitively, I’ve seen no evidence that dogs even know what sickness is, beyond what they smell and intuit. Dog people often claim feelings when they are really talking about instincts. That is key to understanding how a dog’s mind really works. It is the dialogue we need to have.

A dialogue, I have learned, is not the same as a pronouncement or a declaration. It involves listening.

Humans are the only species on the earth believed to know that they will die, dogs do not know what death is since they have no language with which to label it or understand it. I don’t think my dogs grieved for Red even before he died, I can’t imagine how this might be possible.

I saw no evidence of it.

Conversations like this are healthy and important and central to making me humble. I’ve written a score of books about dogs, studied and researched them for many years, and lived with an awful lot of then at close range.

In the egalitarian world of social media that counts about a drop of water dripping into a leaky toilet.

I’ve been studying the minds of dogs for half of my life, written books about it and followed the writings of some amazing dog lovers and thinkers: Patricia McConnel, Stanley Coren, James Serpell, and most recently, the brilliant primatologist Frans De Waal, who has been studying the emotions and feelings of dogs for years.

The thing is, every single one of them says pretty much the same thing: We don’t know what dogs are thinking.

We can read some animal and dog’s emotions by what their physical selves reveal. But we can’t know what they are feeling since they can’t tell us and we can’t see inside of them.

And absolutely one of these animal scholars know what a dog is thinking because they don’t think in human terms, or use our words, or our narratives and constructs. It is not possible to know what an alien being is thinking about while using our own language and syntax and phrases.

They aren’t thinking our way, they can’t. We don’t know.

I wish that everyone who believes with certainty that they know what their dogs are thinking could read DeWall’s riveting book “Mama’s Last Hug.” It begins with a chimpanzee hugging the researcher who studied her for years as she lay dying.

At the moment, De Wall writes, people who say they know what dogs and other animals are thinking are speculating.

Their speculations are as good or better as mine, but I do wish people in the animal world would sometimes use words like “I think,” or “this could be true,” or even, God Forbid, “I don’t know.”

“Feelings are clearly less accessible to science than emotions,” writes DeWall in “Mama’s Last Hug. One day we may be able to measure the private experiences of other species, but for the moment we have to content ourselves with what is visible on the outside.”

And what is visible on the outside of Fate and Bud this week is nothing really, at least nothing is out of the ordinary. What is visible days after Red’s death is normal.  Just normal. Eating, playing, sleeping. If there is anything going on below the surface, we just don’t know what it is.

I do not have the certainty that so many animal lovers seem to process, my mind doesn’t really like “I know” or ” for certain,” I do not believe those are words I  have ever used. I’m a maybe,” or I’m not sure,” or  “it could be” kind of person.

I never think I know for sure because I never do know for sure.

We dog lovers can be arrogant people, we are so certain we know what is in the minds of our dogs that we end up knowing very little about them, and struggle to communicate with them about the most basic of things.

We are constantly in touch with our feelings, says DeWall, but the tricky part is that our emotions and feelings are not the same. Feelings are internal subjective states that are known only to those who have them.

Emotions, on the other hand, are bodily and mental states – from anger and fear to sexual desire, competition and affection. They are visible to others.

I’m a Beavis and Butthead fan. Because I am stupid, I am free. Because I don’t know what I am supposed to think, I can think. Thank God I didn’t make it through college.

Bud and Fate may well have sensed Red’s impending death, they have the instincts to know that, even if they had no conscious idea about what death is.

That’s why they are so accepting, perhaps. They live Buddha’s dream, they exist in the moment.

They float above our neurotic human worries, fantasies, and anger. They don’t need them.

They don’t need to think like us, either, and why on earth would we want them to? Just look at the news.

An interesting topic, I hope we can keep talking about it with one another.

My name is Jon Katz. And I Just Don’t Know.



  1. Jon, I think that you are mostly correct about dogs and death. However, in our Collie Club, I have seen the younger dogs acting differently around an older, weaker dog than they do with a younger, more active dog. They really don’t look to play with the older ones. This happened with my Tess as she became older. Of course, Tess gave off clear signals, including a show of teeth that she was not interested in rowdy play.

    As far as death, when my first dog,Nikki died we took her body home so our other dog, Dakota could see her. Dr. Patricia McConnell, had suggested that in one of books. Dakota walked right to Nikki lying lifeless in a box. He immediately sniffed Nikki, especially her back leg where her Cancer was located. He sniffed that very carefully and then walked away. He did not go near her again.

    When it was Dakota’s time to go, we did not bring his body home. When we came home without Dakota, our other dog, a Collie named Tess immediately went into every room looking for Dakota. She had never done that before. She did this a few times a day for about 3 days. Then the behavior stopped as if she decided he wasn’t coming back or she just got tired looking. Our next dogs did not have partners. It leaves some questions. Did Dakota know that Nikki had Cancer? Did Tess Know that Dakota wasn’t coming back? I really don’t know.

    1. Thanks Ellen, great post and this is great dialogue, thank you all. The challenge here Ellen is to separate instincts from calculations, and feelings from emotions. In the wild, dogs clearly sense other dogs in the pack fading. Sometimes the kill the older dogs, often they drive them away, as they are a danger to the pack. Fate and Red left Red alone, he didn’t want to play or be bothered, and in the pecking order, that is accepted. Does it mean it’s a conscious decision or an instinct to preserve? I don’t know? Neither does any respected biologist or animal psychologist that I have read.

  2. In my work as a hospice nurse I have run across many pets whose behavior changes as the owner’s death becomes imminent. There is a “fruity breath” in patients at that stage that is detectable by us, so I can only assume that pets, with their heightened sense of smell, probably detect that and others that we can’t. A few years ago at a nursing home, there was a resident cat that would invariably go lie on the bed of patients who died several hours later; sometimes there were no signs to us that patient was that imminent. So they do sense “something.” Whether or not they know it is death is problematic though, given they can’t tell us.

    1. Thanks Cathy, I have observed the same thing in my hospice work. As people begin to die, they withdraw into themselves, their body and spirit change, dogs with their enormous instincts sense this, and my dogs back away. Some say this means the dogs know when people are going to die, but what I see is that dogs respond to the gathering of people into themselves, their withdrawal in advance of death. My therapy dogs respond to attention and need, and as people gather themselves, both fade, the dogs smell, see and feel it. As to what they are thinking, I have no idea…

  3. Jon, I just finished reading your post, and it reminded me of the differences in our animals and their reaction to death,. A number of years ago, we had to put down my wonderful Morgan gelding, Sam. A local farmer composts large animals, but before he arrived, the beef cattle formed a semi-circle around Sam’s body, standing there with their heads partially lowered, for about 20 minutes, before slowly filing away to the pasture. It was amazing to witness this reaction. Conversely, when we had to put down a ancient paint horse, age 44!, Mark left his body in front of one of the shed for the other horses to see. He said he wasn’t prepared for their reaction: snorting, not wanting to come very close to Stormy’s body, then racing back to the pasture; completely different from the cattle. Neither of us would attempt to explain these reactions, but wished they could communicate to us what they were thinking.

  4. John, I so agree with you on dog’s grieving. The only thing I have ever noticed when one of my dogs was sick or dying, and like you , I have watched many, is that they sense when a dog is weakened. You stated that the sheep were no longer respecting Red as much as they had. We’ve noticed that when a once respected dog begins to be taken advantage of by the others it often means an illness or weakness. Several times we have noticed this and then later have found out the dog had cancer or some other illness and was actually slowly dying, but never have we noticed them searching or pining after the death of said animal.

  5. Jon….Here we go…I don’t agree with you a hundred percent regarding whether dogs grieve or get jealous. Of course we can’t know for sure but my observations (having had dogs all of my life) is that it is possible “some dogs do grieve and some can be jealous. Ten years ago my male Boston died. My female quit eating and moped around the house, etc. Took her to my vet and he also felt that she was grieving. Truth? who knows for sure? My current male Boston will not let my female Boston get close to me if he can help it. If she is near me he literally pushes her away. He takes her toys away from her, etc. By the way, she is much bigger than him but just lets him push her around. Like wolves she knows that he is the dominant one. So there you have it. He always responds this way…what do you think? Sorry about Red…he was a beautiful soul.

    1. Sally, thanks, I don’t know, really, but I believe there are many different ways to look at the world, and I always try to respect the opinions of others. There are all kinds of reasons why dogs behave in one way or another, most of them, we don’t really know, or so I believe.

  6. I brought a dog I had euthanized home to bury and laid her out for the 2 other dogs to smell. One was a fairly recent addition to us and the other was her lifelong companion. I’m guessing the knew she was dead! I think the puppy sang, “ding dong the witch is dead” to herself. ☺️😉

  7. Am I the only person who saw, and enjoyed, all the humor in your post? I just don’t know! I do know that I agree with you on the instinct vs emotions debate. But I’m a farm kid too. At the same time I very much relate to the posts made by Ellen, Elisabeth, Cathy and Sally. It remains fascinating because we’ll never know what they know.

  8. The blogs I like to follow are those that subscribe to a “radical kindness” vow. I don’t think the people voicing their views about how Fate and Bud reaction to Red’s death (or lack thereof) were malicious. Why such a prickly reaction from the host of the blog? Sometimes it’s better to be quiet for a while and let events run thru you. Social media promotes knee jerk reactions for everyone involved. Why not wait and be quiet for a few weeks after a good dog’s death?

    1. Here’s an idea, Loulou, why not start your own blog and write what you want, it seems that would be much more fun than telling other people what to write, yes? Just a thought…I’m not on fire to know what blogs you like, maybe you should read one…

  9. Out of all of the dogs I have had my Ebon was the only one visibly shaken by our dog Dotts death. Ebon came to us at 10weeks with burned paws and a 4 inch scar on his chest. Dott was our 11 year old cattle dog. Ebon took to her and followed her everywhere. He took all his cues from her, if she liked you(she loved most everyone) Ebon would warm up to you. When Ebon was 2 years old Dott was found to have a fast growing cancer. She died in less than 6 months. Ebon became quite withdrawn, quit eating and became aggressive to those he liked prior to Dotts death. After working with our vet and several other vets for almost a year we euthanized Ebon after he attacked our granddaughter whom he played with and slept with prior to Dotts death. When we lost our Dott little did we know we would lose our Ebon too.

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