HOUSTON - On Tuesday, among those who paid their respects to President George H. W. Bush as he lay in state at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. was his service dog, Sully.
The yellow Labrador first touched the hearts of dog lovers everywhere when the family’s spokesperson released a photo that showed Sully resting next to 41’s coffin.
But is Sully, or any dog that loses an owner, capable of grief?
Cameron Buckner, an animal cognition researcher and philosophy professor at the University of Houston, offers some fascinating insights on canine-human relationships.
“There is a very, very deep bond with dogs in a way that there is probably not with any other species,” Buckner said.
According to Buckner, dogs have been companions to humans for 16,000 years, and over that time, we’ve evolved together.
“We share a lot of the same brain areas that are responsible for emotional processing," Buckner said. “Dogs are very highly attuned to human social cues, so they follow our gaze much more effectively than most other animals, and they are sensitive to our emotional states. One of the other reasons they make such effective service animals.”
Buckner believes dogs are capable of grieving, although it likely is different from a human’s grief.
“They know something’s wrong in sort of a deep way that they don’t fully understand, and I think that’s partly what engages us as a viewer, when we see these pictures, is that we get the sense that the dog knows something’s not right but can’t conceptualize it in the way that we could," Buckner said.
He says dogs are equally capable of love, in a sense.
“I would certainly say they have a very deep bond that shares a lot of the same emotional valance as human love," Buckner said. "Certainly, not as complicated as human love, and that’s part of the attraction.”
Sully spent six months as Bush 41’s dog, which is enough time for him to forge a strong bond with Bush, according to Buckner.
Buckner says there are ways to comfort a grieving dog by sticking to his normal routine as much as possible, giving them lots of affection and being patient if they start to display signs of bad behavior, like going to the bathroom inside the house.
Sully will soon join Walter Reed National Military Medical Center's Facility Dog Program, working alongside other service dogs to help wounded soldiers and active duty personnel at the Bethesda, Md. location.
It will be a very different mission from his time with President Bush. Those worried about Sully’s emotional state should take comfort in the fact that people will be keeping tabs on him.
“The people that manage service dogs are savvy to this kind of concern,” Buckner explained. “So you hope they’re going to assign dogs to situations that suits the individual dogs and they are trained to detect when the fit is not right.”