Feature

Chris Packham: Do dogs feel grief?

Me and My Dog presenter Chris Packham describes the pain he felt at losing his beloved dog Itchy - and how he knows that his other dog, Scratchy, shares his sense of loss.

All dogs  - every last breed, from the St Bernard to the Chihuahua  - are descended from Wolves.

There are various theories about where, when and how they were domesticated and archaeological evidence is incomplete, but we do know that this first happened in the middle east or south east Asia, between 17 and 35 thousand years ago. We either recruited Wolves to suit our objectives, or they recruited themselves as attendants to our camps.

What is not disputed is that over this time we have become genetically equipped to relate to each other; we have evolved together. So, whether we like dogs or not, we understand them, and vice versa.

New science continues to reveal the depth of this relationship. Dogs can read the moods expressed by our faces, even by observing our mouth and eyes separately. They respond more positively to the satisfaction of pleasing us than to the food we give them, and when reunited with their owners produce a surge of a chemical that we simplistically call the ‘love hormone’ . And we humans also reciprocate chemically when we return to that wagging tail, those bright eyes and eager faces.

In short, we love them. And they love us.

One Monday in March of 2004 I travelled with my two black miniature poodles, Itchy and Scratchy, to Dorset on a filming trip for the BBC. But the event was cancelled, the crew went home and, so as not to have wasted the journey, the dogs and I went for a walk on the hill fort at Maiden Castle.

It was a cold, dry but very windy day and the sun shone on the swathe of golden grass which surged over the tousled crest . I slipped their leads and they ran. They ran and gambolled and reeled and returned and vanished into the swirling wash, their barking lost to the air. They careened across the horizon where clouds teased the earth and tore at the roots and wove zigzags through the tunnelled paths.

And I was not only lifted from a maudlin despair, but was suddenly euphoric at the sight of their dizzying ecstasy. My chest heaved and my head spun, elated by the joy of their running; their running for the sheer joy of running.

When eventually their excitement tempered enough for them to remember me, I knelt down and they swarmed over me with brilliant pink tongues, licking and laughing, dancing, spinning and whooping, and in that moment I matched their happiness. Together, we sparkled and shone.

 

 It's hard, clumsy, to be broken but still together; to be lost across a divide of species but sharing the same pitiless, punishing pain

Such fusions of emotion are so deeply bonding that in time we became a unit of three. We became dependant on the sharing of our lives. We shared food, the sofa, the bed. We shared laughter and tears, highs and lows; we built an indestructible trust and commitment that we knew would never break so long as we shared air.

My boys never failed me, never lied or hurt me, always met my expectations. I reciprocated in kind, with kindness unsurpassed and care unrivalled. My dedication to them was honest and complete.

I write in the past tense. It’s a pity there isn’t a ‘half past’ tense, because now we are two. Itchy is dead and Scratchy and I are finding a way to exist in a strange new dynamic.

It's been hard, clumsy, to be broken but still together, to be lost across a divide of species but to be obviously sharing the same pitiless and punishing pain, to have to dwell in all his dead spaces and live with his vacuum walking with us, curled by the fire , sat on the mat. To move through the woods with the sound of four fewer feet and kneel over an empty bowl, to refill the water after twice as long, to leave his lead on the hook in the hall.

I’ve worked with those who study animal cognition  - a small and disagreeably cautious faction of behaviourists who exist in fear of rebuke from their peers, terrified to pronounce on other species' emotion, empathy and sympathy, let alone ever publish their observations.

I’ll concede that theirs is a difficult science;  unrepeatable observation and analysis does not lend itself to the scrutiny of tested proof and intuition finds no favour in journals.

Yet while I don’t work in a lab, or even practice ethnology in the field, I know this: as much as mine, Scratchy’s heart was broken.

I see intensely, infinitesimally minute details rapidly observed and recorded and remembered, and I know him and his behaviours better than any other organism on this earth.

So I don’t just think he grieves the loss of his twin – I know it, as I know his depression and his confusion, and he knows mine.

And they can keep their scientific rigour and ridicule, because I am confident that over the millennia that we have shared our food, our beds and our parasites with dogs, millions of other people will have seen and known the same and, like me, found some comfort and security in the sharing of grief between our species.

More about the author

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

Chris Packham

Every minute was magical, every single thing it did was fascinating and everything it didn't do was equally wondrous, and to be sat there, with a Kestrel, a real live Kestrel, my own real live Kestrel on my wrist! I felt like I'd climbed through a hole in heaven's fence.

An introverted, unusual young boy, isolated by his obsessions and a loner at school, Chris Packham only felt at ease in the fields and woods around his suburban home. But when he stole a young Kestrel from its nest, he was about to embark on a friendship that would teach him what it meant to love, and that would change him forever. In his rich, lyrical and emotionally exposing memoir, Chris brings to life his childhood in the 70s, from his bedroom bursting with fox skulls, birds' eggs and sweaty jam jars, to his feral adventures. But pervading his story is the search for freedom, meaning and acceptance in a world that didn’t understand him.

Beautifully wrought, this coming-of-age memoir will be unlike any you've ever read.

Related features