Do Dogs Grieve for Us?


The Old Sheperd's Chief Mourner, painted by Edwin Landseer, 1837.

This past Sunday, I had the honor to attend the memorial service for my nephew Green Beret Staff Sargent Matthew Q. McClintock. It was only a few weeks ago when word came that he had been killed fighting in Afghanistan when his Special Forces team came under heavy attack by the enemy. Tragically, he left behind both a young wife and an infant son.

My memories of Matt generally came from family gatherings, particularly one that I still remember at Christmas several seasons past. It was there that I had the unique experience of hearing about his first combat tour into Iraq as an Army soldier. He talked about it in a way that made it sound almost matter-of-factly. I remember asking him specifically how he dealt with his own safety, where upon he responded saying something similar to the words " just didn't think about it, have a job to do." He then went on to add, in a joking manner, " know the Humvees we drive, well many of them don't have enough armour to protect against buried mines." That was Matt, an analytic wit, smart, and always with a big smile to make you feel at ease.

US Army Green Beret, Staff Sargent Matthew McClintock
With my eyes filled with tears as I hugged his brother and mother after the service, I couldn't help but think about the human emotions that we go through during our grieving process. It struck me as interesting about how dogs especially those that are part of a loving family, must also go through grieving at the loss of their master. For Matt, his Blue Heeler named Archer, which he had raised from a puppy, would undoubtedly go through some form of knowing loss, especially when his master didn't come home, but how much a dog understands, or feels a sense of emotion is probably still up for debate. 

Some research has indicated that a mature dog has the mind set of a three to four-year-old toddler, and if you attempt to extrapolate the situation, the child seems to understand that when a family member has died, that person has only disappeared. The child cannot comprehend the reality in the finality of death. Of course you've probably heard many stories of dogs that will sit motionless at the side of their master's coffin, or vigilante at their owner's graveside for weeks and even years on end in what maybe a sign of grieving. No doubt dogs form very strong bonds with their human companions, and it's why we love them so much, but will our dogs actually grieve for us?  In some ways they do, becoming more attentive to our feelings. Dogs have even been labeled as having a sixth sense, mourning along side us in their own quiet way. Obviously we are not wired the same as our dogs as we go through a human grieving period with our outward sign of emotions, but that's what makes life worth living.

After the memorial service, I thanked each of the Green Berets who had delivered the eulogy, and where I learned that Matt's selfless actions in Afghanistan on that day had help save the life of his wounded teammate as a rescue helicopter was attempting to land. I'm more than proud to say that Matthew was my nephew, we will miss you dearly, gave the ultimate sacrifice of your life to save another.

Matthew arrives home at Dover Air Force Base, January 2016.
(Images Courtesy of the US Army)

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