How Dogs React When Their Humans Break Up

Photo: Chris Windsor/Getty Images

In honor of Valentine’s Day, Science of Us is spending this week talking about love — specifically, what happens when it goes wrong. If you ever wondered about the psychology of breakups, we’ve got you covered.

When a relationship ends, there are logistical things you have to take care of: making sure your ex gets their stuff back, canceling all the joint plans that need canceling, spreading the word of your split to anyone who might care. If you live together, there’s furniture to consider, and the question of who has to move. If it’s ugly, there’s the drafting of friends, and the drawing of turn lines around your city.

And then there’s the dog. If the two of you got your canine pal together, there’s the question of who becomes the single dog parent (unless you opt to keep sharing). And even if the dog was just yours, and the relationship was a pretty casual one, the fact remains that you’re not the only one losing someone from your life — in a way, it’s a breakup for the dog, too. It’s fair to assume that an animal so seemingly tuned in to our emotional needs, and so easily able to form loving bonds with people, would feel the sting of that loss; do a quick Google search, and you’ll find an abundance of articles advising pet owners on how their dogs may cope.

And in the aftermath of the split, your dog really may seem different — mopier, or angrier, or just a little confused. But here’s a key difference: They may be grieving along with you, but they’re grieving something else entirely.

For one thing, it’s likely that dogs don’t exactly grasp the concept of finality. You know your ex isn’t going to walk back in through the door any time soon, but your pup doesn’t. “They may over time start to realize that the person hasn’t been around as much, but I don’t know that they would ever have the sort of conscious realization of, ‘Oh, I guess Joe’s never coming back,’” says Angie Johnson, a graduate student researcher at Yale’s Canine Cognition Lab.

But they are sensitive to changes in their environment and routine. When a person who used to spend a ton of time in your home no longer does, the home changes: The smell becomes different. Stuff is gone, replaced by new stuff. Maybe the person who typically took them for their evening walk no longer does, and now it’s you, and you choose a different route — one with different dogs to encounter and different things to sniff. Any of those things can throw a dog for a loop, causing them to act a little bit off, explains canine researcher Julie Hecht, who studies animal behavior at the City University of New York. And with our very human biases, we interpret that as sadness for their disappeared human pal.

“We like to talk about the missing of that person, but it’s very possible it’s more complex than that and we’re just seeing it in a very narrow way. We know the person’s gone, but we’re also not remembering that, say, their sweater’s also gone. There’s other variables dogs could be picking up on,” she says. “People like to say it’s about them, and that could be part of it, but it’s not necessarily the whole story. And when we get hung up on ourselves, we could be missing what’s actually upsetting the dog.”

The same is true of any problem behaviors that emerge. If the atmosphere in the house is tense or outright hostile during the breakup, or miserable in the immediate aftermath, it can push dogs to act in new, upsetting ways, explains animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, author of the forthcoming book The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. “They could withdraw,” he says, “or it can make them nervous — pacing around, whining, becoming destructive where they hadn’t been before.” It’s easy to see it as sadness over the breakup itself, but really, he says, it’s a reaction to the change in ambiance. Once things at home start seeming sunny again — if there’s less yelling, less crying, and you start to cheer up a bit — the upturn will do more for the dog than your ex’s return would. (In case you were wondering, research suggests that cats, too, can tell when their owners are sad — but, in perfect cat fashion, they prefer to avoid a human that’s down in the dumps, rather than comfort them.)

Sharing joint custody of a pet, then, often does more for the humans’ peace of mind than the dog’s. In fact, it may end up doing them more harm than good. “It’s incumbent on the humans to take into account who the particular dog is,” Bekoff says. Are they chill, flexible, happy to be anywhere with someone that will give them attention? Go for it. Are they homebodies who thrive on routine? Then maybe it’s best for one of you to say a more permanent good-bye.

That’s not to say that the whole man’s-best-friend thing is entirely off base — your dog cares about your breakup, sure, just not in a way that mirrors your own misery. “They’re incredibly social animals” who can pick up on their owner’s sadness, Hecht says. It’s just that they react more to the emotions in front of them than the absence of the people they can’t see. Which, if you think about it, is kind of a plus: No matter the circumstances of the split, your dog is always firmly on your team.

How Dogs React When Their Humans Break Up