Do Dogs Miss Their Friends?

Golden Cali rests her chin on black Lab Koala's back
I miss my sister (sometimes)

Koala and Deni left Montana a few weeks ago, and recently a friend asked me whether Cali misses Koala. He then jumped to the next level and asked whether dogs understand that someone has left temporarily versus having “crossed the rainbow bridge.”

Those are pretty big existential questions for dogs to consider, but I think they are up to the challenge.

First, does Cali miss Koala? I think that she misses Deni more and that there are lots of aspects of being an only dog that Cali thoroughly enjoys. Cali has regular play dates with her pal Maisy — and the two of them play better together than the pack of three did. Cali always gets to choose where we walk, as well as where we stop so she can sniff. She gets all of the dog eggs at breakfast and can have her snuffle mat whenever she wants (within reason).

But yes, I think she does miss Koala. Life is quieter and more boring when Koala is not here, and Cali rarely has a playmate. Not that Koala is always the nicest playmate, but the girls do often have a lot of fun together. When Koala is not pulling on Cali’s tail, that is, or scheming to steal her treat ball.

I also think that Cali understands that Koala and Deni have gone somewhere else — and will come back. Cali goes to the airport to see them off; they are healthy; and, I am guessing, Koala lords it over Cali for days before a trip: I get to go on an airplane and I get eggs in the Delta lounge and I get to meet the security team … that kind of thing. Cali knows that Koala isn’t simply ghosting her.

When Jana died after a period with many health problems, Cali’s reaction was completely different. She knew that Jana was gone. She cried and moped and grieved for days.

So, yes, I think dogs do understand different types of separations and have appropriate reactions to temporary versus permanent ones. Though if she did think that Koala was ghosting her, I do not know what an appropriate reaction would look like …

Grieving for Jana

I am not at all surprised to know that dogs grieve. Cali certainly went through her own grief process, in addition to being very helpful and comforting to me.

The first day I went to work after Jana died was the Monday after Thanksgiving. Deni and Koala left very early that morning. Cali and I went through our morning routine of breakfast, walk to the park, etc. Then I got dressed for work, and it was time to leave. Cali looked so lost and forlorn.

Her wonderful dog walker came in a few hours later. When I got home, I found the saddest note ever. Cali had greeted Stephanie at the door, then walked between the nice bed (the one in the living room, where Jana spent much of her time) and the door, crying. For several minutes. They both ended up sitting on the floor, crying. Then they went for a walk.

Despite her grief, Cali still wanted to play ball and go for walks. But she was quieter than usual and less silly. She put herself to bed really early. She sighed a lot and looked sad. I had to wake her up in the mornings, and she was clingy. She wanted to cuddle, even more than usual. That was fine with me.

By about a week after Jana’s death, though, I saw improvement. She woke up one morning on her own, went to find a toy, and came to get me up, wriggling and wagging. Cali was back.

Since that morning, she’s been more peppy and silly, though still very attentive and cuddly. She’s also got some big shoes to fill. She is responsible for delivering both boots to me in preparation for our morning walk, for example. (She also happily devours both cookies as payment.) She is the sole newspaper girl now, a job she argued for, tried to seize by force … and now really, really wishes she could share with her sister.

She’s been promoted to eating from the big food bowl on the raised stand, but it’s well beyond her ability to remove the bowl from the stand and bring it to me, as Jana did. She made it look so easy, Cali says, but it’s so hard! We’re working on that.

She’s seeing some benefits to only doghood, too. For instance, when we have eggs for breakfast, she no longer has to share the dog portion with anyone else. We can do longer walks and hikes than Jana was able to do. But mostly, we just miss Jana.

Missing You?

Does Jana still miss her best friend, Oriel?
Does Jana still miss her best friend, Oriel?

Do dogs miss us when we’re away? Do they miss places they’ve been or items they’ve loved?

It’s clear that dogs remember people and places — and often, the landmarks or scents on the way to places that they either love or hate. Dogs can recognize a person whom they haven’t seen in years. Or a place that they haven’t visited in years: Oriel, our late and much-missed golden retriever once ran joyfully to the site of a small pond that had been dry for about a decade. The former pond was a short walk from her former home in Montana, and she hadn’t been there for at least 3 years. She became very excited as we approached the road to the house, too. And of course all of our dogs know the way to fun places and begin to show excitement ridiculously early in any journey in the general direction of the dog beach, Cali’s sister Dora’s house, the park where we play ball …

It’s also clear that dogs use these memories to anticipate, with pleasure or dread, future experiences. Dogs generalize and can become fearful of people or situations that remind them of unpleasant experiences in the past. A dog who fears going to the vet, for example, can recognize a vet’s office, any vet’s office, from several blocks away. Happy experiences have the same effect. Thus a dog who loves to run and play will decide that any open green space you happen to drive past would be a really fun place to stop and play ball. He might helpfully point out all the nice play opportunities say, between Northern California and Missoula, Montana, as you are driving. Believe me, there are hundreds of open green spaces in the American Northwest.

But do they miss us? Do they miss places?

This question becomes more relevant each day, as our departure from Montana gets closer and closer. Does Cali miss her play park and friends in Petaluma? More to the point: Will she miss her private play yard in Montana? Will she ever forgive me for taking her away from this idyllic place where she is so happy?

It’s also a question that many dog owners ponder if / when they leave their dogs with a dog sitter or boarding kennel when they travel. Does the dog pine for them? Wonder where they are? Or, as dogs do so well, does the dog simply live in the present moment, enjoying the attention of the dog sitter?

I’ve heard enough stories about how dogs behave after the death of a loved human or canine playmate or family member to believe that dogs grieve. Isn’t that an indication that dogs miss people or dogs who aren’t present?

I don’t have a definitive answer to any of these questions. I suspect that some individual dogs form closer ties to people, dogs, places, and other beings or objects and do, indeed, miss them. Other dogs appear to be — and may truly be — happy in the present moment, loving the ones they’re with.

So the answer might be similar to my answer to so many questions about dogs: It depends. Dogs are individuals. Your individual dog might miss you very much when you are gone. Or she might happily hang out with whomever is nearby. Cali might miss Montana. But Cali’s such a sunny optimist that I am betting she’ll be happy to be back in Petaluma and enjoy picking up our old routine and reconnecting with her playmates there.

At least, I hope that’s the case!