Does My Little Dog Feel Grief?


The habit to entertain is a hard one to break.

I’d been in the middle of writing about my visit to the local cineplex for its special Christmas showing of Die Hard, which I’d never seen in full, certainly not on a big screen, and how the ‘merry’ in ‘Merry Christmas’ doesn’t actually mean happy, or at least that’s not its original, far richer meaning—

And thus I beseech Jesu send your lordship long life and a merry Christmas, and once your heart’s desire.

Written at London, 16 December 1538, John Husee to his boss Arthur Plantagenet, Vicount Lisle, governor of Calais. 


… I delivered him [John Basset, their son, who was at London] your ladyship’s letter, who was thereof right glad, and in especial to hear that your ladyship is merry…

… and Mr. Basset (who lauded be good, is merry and in good health…)

… Mr. Basset is merry and learnt fast…

From The Lisle Letters, a one volume condensation of the original multi-volume collection made by Muriel Saint Claire Byrne of letters concerning the doings of the Lisle family, headed by Lord Lisle, uncle to Henry VIII and last of the Plantagenets, collected and saved as evidence to be used against him when he was accused of treason during Henry’s reign of terror and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he died before he could be brought to trial.

‘Merry’ is a word that crops up often in the archive, particularly in letters from John Husee; an enterprising young man from a modest background who was rapidly promoted in Lisle’s service to become agent, business facilitator, factotum, and right-hand man; a hero in his own way and in a jam definitely the man you’d want in your corner. Given our own recent history, his accounts of getting the Lisles’ son out of London to safety in the country when frequent outbreaks of plague or smallpox grip the city, are especially interesting. Whenever anything needed to be done, Lisle and his wife Honor called on Hussee, and his letters and theirs—plus those of family, friends, and enemies—give a wonderfully intimate look at a large household in the Early Modern period, how it was run and what people thought of themselves and each other.

Merry, when he uses it, can seem to mean anything from ‘okay’ to ‘excellent’ to ‘outstanding’, ‘solid’, or even ‘groovy’. It denotes a condition of being grounded, of getting on with business, feeling good, and living your best life. When Shakespeare uses the word in the title of The Merry Wives of Windsor, he’s signaling not a pair of giggly women of a certain age who really should know better, but a couple of capable women living large and getting shit done despite all the obstacles and foolishness thrown up by the menfolk. And of course there’s Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men: I don’t think they spent as much time sniggering at the Sherif as they did striding about Sherwood feeling like they owned the place. That roast beef eating Merrie England of fable is what Dickens evokes with the Fezziwigs of A Christmas Carol, a vision of generous plenty where everyone has a warm corner and enough to eat, not the current chilly post-Brexit, Londongrad.

Then my little dog, my pug, got sick and I had no heart for facetiousness—probably just as well. There’s too much of it about these days. The internet is awash with twitter-snark masquerading as irony, as futile as it’s puerile. This wasn’t the first time she’d been sick, but it will probably be the last. Six or seven months ago her vet discovered a tumor around and invading her liver, a ‘monster’ he called it; something that, given its size and her age, was beyond surgery so far as I was concerned. I wouldn’t have agreed to such an operation for myself and I saw no reason to put her through it. Besides, though large, it wasn’t necessarily malignant; further tests would tell; but I saw no reason to make her undergo those, either, since they’d require a general and an incision. This recent flare-up that began over Christmas and New Year hasn’t changed my mind. If I was panicked, she showed all the stoicism that sick dogs display and, when she wasn’t in pain and began again to drink water, I was able to calm down and think more clearly about her prospects. As a friend pointed out when I described the situation, I could just as easily die before her, given the rude rules of chance.

Why should she feel grief? Because she’s always been the second of two pugs, younger by a year than the first, who recently disappeared. Why would I panic? Because they represented more than themselves, they were the last living link with my old life.

We ask a lot of our animals, projecting onto them our best, or sometimes worst, attributes; using them as mirrors or therapists. I’m not the first to suggest that perhaps what we most love about our cats and dogs is what we most wish for ourselves. We always had dogs, by ‘we’ I mean Vivian and I; almost as soon as we got together we had a dog, bought as an ill-judged present for someone who didn’t want him. And so, naturally, after spending the night with us we weren’t about to return him to the breeder; we kept him and he became the first of our joint responsibilities. In time I bought a companion for him and they both came with us when we emigrated to the US, red miniature wire-haired dachshunds. We’d go on to have more dachshunds, standards, wild-boar colored, bold, noisy, and ardent—those are dogs you might well call merry. Plus there were rescues and one lovely, gentle boxer, bringing our total pack up to five for a time. After Vivian’s death, I was left with the boxer and two pugs. I briefly took in another dog left behind by an acquaintance, but he died after he’d been with me only a few months. Then the boxer succumbed to a genetic condition that was only discovered in the last few weeks of her life. Not a good time for mortalities, but at least I had the pugs.

Over the past couple of years they seemed to take it in turns to have expensive near-death experiences, but the day would come when they’d give themselves a shake, twist their  tail up over their back, and be ready for whatever came next. If you don’t know them, pugs, Dutch Mastiffs, whatever you want to call them, are sociable, charming, surprisingly hardy, vaguely period animals given to ‘bustling’ or ‘romping’, as warming to hold as a baby with a tendency to snort and gurgle; the collective noun is a grumbling. Penny became deaf and a little unsteady, would get confused, and reluctant to go too far unless there was some specific goal ahead. So when I took them to a nearby park—not that there isn’t enough grass and open space here at home but dogs like a change as much as we do—she’d walk a little then dig in her paws, refusing to go further. Fortunately, I could carry them both, one tucked under each arm.

Then one evening at the end of October, Penny, disappeared after their dinner. Just… vanished from the garden. They’d both gone out after they’d eaten, or after Penny had eaten, the other was refusing her food, an aspect of the state of her liver. As I saw Penny nearby nosing around, I took the other inside briefly to see if I could tempt her to eat. She wouldn’t, so we went back outside, and Penny was gone. Of course I looked for her but she was nowhere that I might expect her to be, nowhere that was possible. I did the things you do, put up signs, contacted shelters, posted on Facebook and NextDoor, and spent hours searching. But from almost the moment I first couldn’t find her I had a pretty good idea what had happened: that she’d been taken by a coyote. Not something I wanted to consider. I’d seen no sign of them, not in years, hadn’t heard them in winter rejoicing over a kill. But the morning after she’d gone I found coyote droppings at the end of the drive—spoor, I think it’s called—and then a couple of days later I found more, plus scat left behind by a bear, who showed up in person a day later.

We were alone, Tuppy and I. At first, friends would ask me how was she doing, she who had never been alone her whole life; if Vivian and I were out, she’d had the other dogs—her best buddy had been the boxer; even without her she’d had Penny. What would she do now she was alone? Was she missing Penny? people would ask—and I didn’t know how to answer. Perhaps? I guess we would like to think of her experiencing a kind of bereavement, a grief, we’d expect her to be sad because we’d expect that of ourselves. But then, ‘grief is like love, everyone does it different,’ as a character says in Songbook.

The day after Vivian died I went to the gym, and then I drove a half hour for my weekly appointment with my psychologist. Then I spent eighteen months remaking the house. ‘Weren’t you sad?’ I was asked recently, when I described my reaction and actions. It’s a reasonable question: I think that the answer might be no. Not sad. A lot of other things, some of them acute, and large, and ongoing, but not that. And I’m still not sad, still many other things but not that. All through his long decline into his period of dying Tuppy would often lie beside him. ‘Comforting him’? people would ask. Well, yes and no, yes it was a comfort to him, but no I don’t think that was her intention. Can we say that it’s possible for a dog to have an intention? Having lived with nine of them, I honestly don’t know.

I do think that dogs have a language, though it’s not our language and much about it is mysterious. But then, we find it hard enough to understand each other, why should our comprehension extend beyond our species to another? I’m amused when in movies we communicate so easily with aliens; never mind trying to explain to them why they shouldn’t kill us, I want to say, try explaining to a dog why they shouldn’t be eating deer shit. Penny had a way of asking, or demanding; my words for her behavior that seemed to show intent. She’d get a particular toy, bring it to where I was, set it between her front paws, sit and stare up at me. She had a flawless inner clock when it came to meal or snack times, but it wasn’t always food she required. It was up to me to figure it out. Was this intention or was it more like Clever Hans, a horse who seemed able to count till it was discovered that he was in fact picking up on subconscious cues sent out by his trainer? Tuppy doesn’t bring me toys, but she does have other behaviors. When I set down her bowl, if the catering isn’t to her liking she backs off and stares—indignantly? pleadingly? I have to figure out why the menu isn’t up to snuff. The state of her liver is causing her to unpredictably limit what food she will or won’t eat at any particular time. Before, she’d pretty much eat anything in sight—gravel, wood—but her condition is causing problems with her diet that has her craving treats. Never mind the chicken I cook for her, or the raw beef I set out, Newman’s Own Beef Jerky is what she wants. I tell myself she can’t live on that, but really, under the circumstances, why not? My godson lived on bacon when he was a kid. Why shouldn’t she eat what she wants? She ate most of a couple of scrambled eggs the other day. I was pleased. The night before last she happily ate a jar of pureed baby food. I went out to buy more but she’s beginning to refuse them. It’s time now for her breakfast: will she eat? Let’s go see.

Pureed beef might not smell so good to me but she ate it. I’m relieved. Is she eating for me or for her? At the end of a life that’s often the question. The time can come when urging on ‘one bite more’ becomes a cruelty. I gave her a pain pill in case. She’s even worse at taking pills than my mother who could be very performative but could at least be threatened, cajoled, persuaded into swallowing them. Tuppy will lick the peanut butter off a pill and unrepentantly spit it out.

In the days after Penny’s disappearance, Tup would stop and look off down the drive toward where she might in the past have seen her checking things out. In those days she might have gone to join her, then they’d toddle back together. But I don’t know. How can I know if that’s what’s going on with her? At sixteen weeks, when Penny arrived she was adopted by Bruno, my then resident pit-bull boxer mix, who taught her manners and played Kill The Pug with her for hours at a time. I would say that she loved him and after his death she’d sit on a particular corner of the porch to look out, waiting for him to return before they would both come into the kitchen, as they used to do, together. Whether I’m right about that or not, I’m not so sure about Tup. I don’t see her looking around inside and I can’t say that she’s more affectionate than she was before, of the two of us I’m the one who’s more anxious for company. Yes, she sticks close, but she’s always done that, it’s a breed trait. 

Dogs and emotion; from How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

The theory of constructed emotion prompts us to ask whether animals have three necessary ingredients for making emotion. The first ingredient is interoception: do animals have the neural equipment to create interoceptive sensations [sensory input from light, touch, and air pressure] and experience them as affect? The second is emotion concepts: can animals learn purely mental concepts like ‘Fear’ and ‘Happiness’, and if so can they predict with these concepts to categorize their sensations and make emotions like ours? Finally, there’s social reality: can animals share emotion concepts with each other so they are passed down to the next generation?

And later…

Clearly dogs have something nontrivial going on upstairs, but even so, scientists have no indication yet that dogs have emotion concepts. In fact there’s pretty good evidence that they don’t, though many dog behaviors look emotional.


Dogs might not feel fear, anger, and other human emotions, but they do experience pleasure, distress, attachment, and other affective feelings. But for dogs to be successful as a species, living cooperatively with their human companions, affect may be enough.

Feldman Barrett’s book challenges many assumptions and offers evidence for new ways of how we think, feel, and experience the world. I recommend it highly as offering a way to understand how we create our experience of the world. How the interoceptive brain monitors the constant stream of light, sound, air pressure signals, out of which our brain assembles a ‘controlled hallucination’ based on stored past experience that’s always one tiny micro-millisecond behind the real thing out there in the unprocessed wild.

I’ve come to think of grief as an active way for us to keep the presence alive of those who are no longer there; of states that have passed; ways of living no longer possible like Blanche DuBois’ mourning for her lost plantation, her lost riches (In these days of cancelling is anyone ever going to stop and think of the likely history of Belle Reve in Streetcar?). Do grief support groups extend and intensify an experience of loss? Are we better off following the Roman Stoic Epictetus with his rip-off-the-bandaid approach: ‘So you lost your husband/wife/child, big deal! You’ll get another. Maybe not as good as the first, but you’re not what you used to be either’. I’m paraphrasing. Perhaps that’s more than a bandaid, more like having a spotlight shone in your face when you were trying to read.

I know what my reaction has been, continues to be, toward the loss of Penny. It’s not something I like to think about too much, for obvious reasons. At first I became revolted about this place, about living in a place where such a thing was possible, about my own culpability in leaving her alone: but it was for such a brief time! And no more than any other time either of them had briefly been outside alone! Nothing about it was unusual: except for the terrible luck of a predator happening along at that time when she was vulnerable. No amount of reminding yourself of all the truly terrible mishaps people are forced to endure around the world, across the nation every day, lessens how we feel about our own misfortunes, though it might give us some insight into others'. I’m careful with Tup, but no more than I ever was. Like a traffic accident, like any accident, the temptation is to keep replaying the day with different timing to produce a different outcome. But we can’t re-write the past.

Which brings me back to asking, what does Tuppy think? Does she know there’s a past? Would Professor Feldman Barrett allow her to experience time? Without it how can you experience regret? I have a theory: you know how when you drive someplace, you’re paying attention—let’s say you’re on the Thruway heading for Brooklyn, which I do from time to time—and it’s a longish trip, say a couple of hours, or you’re driving further, for three hours or ten—a good long time that you’re concentrated on the road. But when you get to the end, when you turn off the car in a parking garage or outside a motel, you have no recollection of the trip as it unfolded but only, and even this is unusual, a few highlights, maybe a blip that caught your eye, a car doing something dangerous, the mudflap of a truck, some detail out of the ordinary. Those you might remember—for a time, five minutes or ten. But pretty soon the whole trip has gone, because there’s nothing in our brain to keep it in place unless we work at it. Perhaps that’s something like the consciousness of a dog, coupled with the affect roiling underneath, drawing them to what’s good as it repels them from what’s bad—just as it does with us. But when that roiling affect bubbles up into our consciousness we have words with which to frame it; more than that, we have grammar; the ability to structure the placing of an impulse into a string of demands/assertions, to name and order them, to make them memorable. Penny could place a toy but, having got my attention she couldn’t go on to indicate what she wanted; she knew a need she couldn’t name.

If people thought my own reaction to the loss of someone who’d been my constant companion for forty-eight years, someone I’d known since I was twenty, if people found my reaction odd, not what was expected, showed perhaps a lack of feeling, I’m not about to discount Tup’s reaction because she’s not behaving in a way that I could then frame as grief. She dreams: perhaps she sees Penny. I don’t know. I dream: sometimes I see Vivian. Sometimes in my dreams we have dogs.

When the pack was large I would often take four of them hiking. If you don’t know this region, the northern Catskills of New York State, about a hundred miles north of the city, we have beautiful trails, largely unspoiled, sometimes through old-growth forest, or up past mountain cataracts to the high peaks. I’d take the dogs and never see anyone. Most of them didn’t need to be on a leash, they’d stick pretty close, happy (can that be a word that is used?) to be where they were, to be with their pack, to be following me: the pit-bull boxer straining ahead, the one dog I kept leashed because his ardor was such I could never be sure how far it might carry him before he stopped to look around to say ‘Where’d they all go?’ (I’m doing that thing, putting words in his mouth) Anyhow, after we’d gone far enough there would come the moment of decision when we’d turn for home, to make the trek back down to where the car was parked. One of our dogs, a black-and-tan rescue, was always the least certain of his place in the household, seemed most given to worrying that he was doing something wrong. On the way up, he’d be in his middling place, not getting out in front or straggling behind. But once we’d turn—and I’d see him watching me to be certain that we’d gone as far as we would and were about to head back—once he saw that he’d go out ahead to lead the way, that was his job; his tail would come up and his ears would prick with a special buoyancy, a tangible pride as he went out in front for this one task, when he became the one to show us the way home.

I hold Tup when I can and wonder what she knows. I don’t know how long she’ll be with me. Probably not long. My vet recommended a ‘treasure each day’ approach. Right now all I know is that when she’s gone I’ll put away all the bowls and toys; leave nothing lying around; grief-proof the house as much as possible. I’ve done it before. By now I kind of know the drill. I’m already wondering how to stay on here and if I even want to. If I were to sell up and leave, where would I go? What would be the point? To be happy? I was happy here. And I’m getting ahead of myself. Anticipatory grief is a thing but there’s no sense going into mourning while she’s still here. While she still needs me to do what I can to help her get through.

I’ll try to keep an open mind, and deal with what the day brings.

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