The video of a dog burying a dead puppy in an apparent act of mourning was shared around the world and touched the hearts of thousands. Alas, the touching burial might have been more an act of the gut than an act of the heart.
The viral video, uploaded Sunday and captioned in Arabic, opens on a dog approaching a dead puppy in a dusty ditch. It sniffs the deceased animal and proceeds to painstakingly bury it by pushing dirt with its snout. The description of the video describes it as "an act of mourning."
Peter Borchelt, a New York-based animal-behavior consultant who has worked at the city's Museum of Natural History and was the director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Animal Medical Center, begs to differ.
"I suspect it was more likely just caching dead meat, rather than a soulful response to the demise of a puppy that it wanted to bury," Borchelt told New York Magazine's Daily Intelligencer. He offered an example, saying if the dog sat by the dead body with its paws folded it would be "ridiculous" to assume it was praying. Behavior systems in humans and animals are entirely different, he noted.
"I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that the dog is saving the puppy to eat for later," he added, "because that might not be the issue -- it might not have the need. But it’s still a piece of this instinctive thing. Here’s meat, here’s a bone -- I’ll bury it."
If it is hungry enough, a dog can turn to cannibalism. In 2009, more than 300 stray dogs dumped on an island off Malaysia resorted to cannibalism to survive after weeks of starvation, The Associated Press reported.
But the dog who buried the dead puppy might have just have been acting on instinct.
Canine expert Cesar Millan, better known as "The Dog Whisperer," has explained that dogs sometimes bury their food today because of behavior rooted in their ancient, developmental history.
"In the early days of canines, food wasn’t always plentiful," he writes on his website, Cesar's Way. "After a successful hunt, a dog would bury whatever he didn’t consume to keep it from scavengers and even other members of her pack. When she became hungry again or prey was sparse, she would return to her 'stash' to consume the leftovers."
However, studies have shown that dogs can feel grief, Paw Nation notes. If a pet loses its owner, it may react by not eating, sleeping more and being lethargic. Some pups might even try to stay with the deceased person.