Do Dogs Get Sad When A Family Member Moves Away?

Do Dogs Grieve When Loved Ones Leave?

The bond between dogs and their human families can be incredibly strong. In a recent survey by Certapet, 47% of dog owners reported feeling separation anxiety when away from their pets (Certapet). But do dogs experience similar emotions when their loved ones leave home for long periods or permanently? This article aims to explore whether dogs feel sadness or grief when members of their human pack move away.

Losing a cherished companion can be difficult for anyone, including our four-legged friends. While we can’t read their minds, understanding dog psychology and behavior can provide insight into how our canine companions are affected by these changes. We’ll examine signs of depression in dogs, separation anxiety, and ways to ease their transition. The goal is to better understand the dog’s perspective and how to provide comfort during this time of adjustment.

Do Dogs Form Attachments to People?

Research has shown that dogs do indeed form attachments and bond with their owners and family members. A 2015 study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science found that the dog-human relationship involves attachment bonds similar to those between human infants and caregivers (Payne, 2015). These attachments activate the same brain regions in dogs as human-infant bonds do, such as the oxytocin-opioid and dopamine reward systems.

According to a 2022 study in BMC Psychiatry, dogs can develop secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment styles with their owners, just like human attachments (Lass-Hennemann et al., 2022). Securely attached dogs see their owner as a secure base they can depend on. Anxiously attached dogs constantly seek reassurance from owners. Avoidant dogs show little reliance on owners. Disorganized dogs display odd behaviors due to a lack of clear attachment.

Overall, research confirms dogs form meaningful social bonds with their human caregivers similar to human-infant attachment styles. This bonding involves the same biological systems and psychological patterns.

Signs of Depression and Sadness in Dogs

When dogs are separated from their owners or family members for an extended period of time, they may exhibit signs of depression or sadness. Some common symptoms include:

– Lethargy and loss of interest in normal activities. Depressed dogs may seem less energetic and not want to play, go for walks, or engage in other things they typically enjoy.

– Loss of appetite or changes in eating habits. Some dogs lose interest in food when depressed and may lose weight as a result. Others may overeat.

– Excessive vocalizations like whining, howling or barking, especially when left alone.

– Destructiveness, chewing, or digging behaviors. Dogs may act out their sadness through undesirable behaviors.

– Withdrawing from human interaction. Depressed dogs may isolate themselves and not seek out attention or playtime like they used to.

– Sleeping more than normal or difficulty sleeping. Significant changes in sleep patterns can signal depression in dogs.

– Appearing anxious, restless or agitated.

– Loss of housetraining. Previously housetrained adult dogs may have accidents if depressed.

According to the American Kennel Club (, these changes in behavior when a family member leaves can be a dog’s way of grieving the loss of an important human companion.

The Science Behind Separation Anxiety

Studies show that separation from a family member can cause noticeable changes in a dog’s cortisol levels and behavior, indicating stress. Cortisol is a hormone released in response to stress. In one study, dogs had significantly higher salivary cortisol levels during the first hour after their owner left compared to when the owner was present (

Another study allowed dogs to roam freely in a room after being separated from their owner. The dogs exhibited anxious behaviors like vocalizing, destructive chewing, and repetitive locomotion. However, their cortisol levels remained low. The researchers concluded that behavioral signs of separation distress don’t always align with biological signs. Still, the behavioral changes show the separation impacted the dogs (

Overall, studies demonstrate that separation from a family member triggers anxiety in dogs, evidenced by elevated cortisol and anxious behaviors. The degree of distress varies based on factors like breed, age, past trauma, and amount of isolation.

Preventing Separation Anxiety

There are several strategies you can use to gradually get your dog accustomed to being alone, which can help prevent separation anxiety from developing:

Train your dog using positive reinforcement methods to get comfortable with being in a different room away from you, even when you’re home. Start slow with very short durations of time and reward calm behavior (source:

Create a consistent daily routine with scheduled feeding times, walks, playtime and training sessions. This can help reduce a dog’s stress and anxiety when left alone (source:

Desensitize your dog to cues like putting on your coat or jingling your keys that signal you are leaving. Pair these cues with rewards to create positive associations (source:

Use enrichment toys like food puzzles when you leave to keep your dog distracted and engaged. Rotate different puzzles to prevent boredom.

Never make a big fuss over arrivals and departures. Keep greetings and goodbyes low-key.

Consider doggy daycare a few days a week to get your dog used to being without you.

Does Sadness Differ By Breed?

Research suggests that certain dog breeds may be more prone to separation anxiety and depression when left alone. This is likely due to both genetic factors as well as early life experiences. Breeds that tend to form very strong attachments with their owners seem most susceptible.

A study conducted by Furbo found that the top 10 breeds with the worst separation anxiety are: Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Vizslas, Collies, French Bulldogs and Chihuahuas. Other research also indicates that high-energy working dog breeds like Border Collies and Australian Cattle Dogs are very prone to separation distress.

Small breeds like Chihuahuas and Yorkshire Terriers also frequently struggle with being alone. Their small size makes them feel more vulnerable when a caretaker leaves. Anxious behaviors like barking, chewing, urinating and defecating are common in these small dogs.

While genetics play a role, early positive experiences being alone can help any pup become more independent and resilient when separated from family members. Ongoing training is key, especially for breeds genetically prone to attachment issues.

The Dog’s Perspective

Recent studies on animal cognition suggest that dogs may experience complex emotions like sadness. Dogs have been found to recognize and respond appropriately to human emotions, indicating they have mental concepts of emotions (Animal Cognition, 2016). Research shows dogs can differentiate between happy and angry expressions, and their behaviors change according to people’s moods (NCBI, 2023).

Studies utilizing MRI scans have found that dogs have a similar brain structure to humans when it comes to processing emotions. The limbic system, responsible for emotions, is well-developed in dogs. This implies dogs subjectively feel emotions much like people do (NCBI, 2021).

Analyzing dogs’ facial expressions also provides insight into their emotional states. Research categorizing dog facial expressions concluded they exhibit distinct looks for various emotions. Drooped ears and lips, lowered head and gaze aversion were associated with negative emotions like sadness (NCBI, 2021).

Overall, dogs appear equipped to experience the distressing emotion of sadness. Their close bonds with humans likely extend to missing a cherished person who has left. However, more research is still needed on the precise nature and complexity of dogs’ emotions.

Helping Dogs Cope

There are several ways to help dogs cope when left alone, reducing separation anxiety and sadness.

Special toys with your scent can provide comfort. Rub the toy on your skin before you leave so it smells like you. Kongs filled with treats or chews like beef marrow bones can also keep them occupied (Source:

Pheromone plug-ins like Adaptil release soothing pheromones that provide a sense of comfort and security. These can help relax dogs when alone (Source:

Training like desensitization can gradually get dogs used to being alone. Start with short departures and absences, praising calm behavior upon return. Slowly increase the duration so they learn to tolerate it (Source:

Providing plenty of exercise before departures can also help dogs feel more relaxed. A long walk or play session can tire them out (Source:

When to Seek Help

Severe separation anxiety that negatively impacts a dog’s quality of life or health may require professional intervention. Though some cases may resolve on their own over time, consulting your veterinarian or an animal behaviorist is recommended if the anxiety is extreme or persistent. Signs that expert help may be needed include:

Excessive drooling when left alone. This can be a sign of distress and also presents a health risk if the dog ingests too much of its own saliva.

Injuries sustained while trying to escape. Dogs may hurt themselves chewing, clawing, or ramming into doors and windows.

Inappetence or weight loss from not eating when alone. This is a serious health concern.

Consistently soiling the house when left. This suggests the dog is experiencing extreme anxiety.

Self-harming behaviors like excessive licking or tail chewing.

Aggression when the owner tries to leave or distressed greetings upon return. The anxiety has crossed over into other behaviors.

Barking or whining that disturbs neighbors or earns noise complaints.

An inability to be left alone at all without expressing anxiety. Daily life is severely impacted.

Ongoing anxiety that does not improve with initial attempts at training or management. Professional guidance may be required.

If at-home strategies do not begin to ease the dog’s distress within 2-3 weeks, consult a veterinary behaviorist or certified trainer. They can assess the dog’s specific triggers and underlying cause and create a tailored treatment plan. In extreme cases, anti-anxiety medication may be recommended in conjunction with behavior modification. Though challenging, separation anxiety is treatable with patience, consistency, and care.


There is significant evidence that dogs form strong bonds and attachments to their human family members. They come to see their family as their social group or “pack.” When a family member leaves, this disrupts the pack structure, which can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety in dogs.

Signs like loss of appetite, lethargy, whimpering, pacing, and seeking out the missing person’s belongings indicate the dog is grieving the loss and missing that person. Research shows that the longer a dog lives with a person, the stronger the attachment they form. So dogs that have been in a stable home for years suffer more when a family member permanently leaves.

To help a dog adjust, spend extra quality time with them and stick to their normal routine as much as possible after the departure. Give them plenty of exercise, play and affection. And make sure they have appropriate outlets to relieve anxiety and sadness. With time and support, most dogs are able to adapt to a missing family member.

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