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As a pet parent, there are times when I have noticed that my Golden Retriever seems to look sad. Fortunately, these bouts of sadness don’t seem to last long, but it got me wondering if Golden Retrievers can get sad and depressed?
Golden Retrievers do not experience clinical depression as humans do. However, they can feel a form of depression that includes intense sadness, the blues, and even grief. They may also experience seasonal depression during the winter months when exercise and outdoor time are reduced.
So, Golden Retrievers can indeed experience a form of depression that includes sadness, grief, the blues, and even a form of seasonal affective disorder in the winter months.
This article will look at sadness and depression in Golden Retrievers, including causes, signs to look for, and what you can do if your dog is sad or depressed.
Golden Retriever Sadness and Depression
In order to determine if dogs can feel sadness and grief, they first need to be able to feel emotions, as humans do. Logically, if they can feel grief and sadness then it stands to reason they can also experience a form of depression.
New research shows that dogs feel emotions and experience loss, grief, and sadness.
Dr. Gregory Burns, a professor of Neuroeconomics and Director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University, has done extensive research on dog emotions.
While many scientists find it hard to believe that dogs (or animals) can experience emotions much the same way we do, Dr. Berns’s research seems to suggest otherwise.
Dr. Berns utilized non-invasive magnetic imaging resonance (MRIs) in conjunction with a dog trainer to track the areas of the human and canine brains that are active during certain emotions [source].
Dr. Berns concluded that dogs have vibrant interior lives and experience-rich emotions similar to ours.
But, do these emotions include sadness and even depression? Yes, it appears so.
Consider a 2016 study conducted in New Zealand and Australia that attempted to assess signs of depression in dogs and cats after losing a companion animal [source].
The study utilized a questionnaire distributed to dog and cat owners, which returned 279 surveys, including 159 for dogs.
While researchers in that study acknowledged certain limitations, they concluded that behaviors changed due to the loss of a companion animal.
Changes include seeking more affectionate behavior from owners, changes in food consumption, sleeping more, vocalizations, and increasingly seeking out the deceased animal’s favorite spot. Sounds a lot like sadness and grief to me.
I saw these symptoms in our cat when our Sheltie passed.
Our cat as a kitten had grown up with the Sheltie as a puppy, and they spent years closely bonded. Upon our Shelite passing, the cat would sleep in the dog’s bed, run around the house crazily at times, spend more time around us, and would wail loudly. Fortunately, it passed with time.
How Do I Know if My Golden Retriever Is Depressed?
Suppose you suspect your Golden Retriever is sad or experiencing depression or the blues. In that case, there is a good chance you have already identified some of the symptoms.
In fact, the biggest thing to be on the lookout for is a change in demeanor. Your dog will often become lethargic and withdrawn and lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, such as walking.
However, symptoms of sadness or depression can cover a wide range, including
- Becoming withdrawn or hiding
- Lethargic and a loss of interest in once enjoyed activities
- Sleeping more
- Eating less or a loss of interest in food
- Seeking more affection from owners or becoming more clingy
- An increase in destructive behaviors such as chewing and digging
Suppose your Golden Retriever has lost a companion. In that case, it may experience the following symptoms of grief in addition to those listed above:
- Visiting favorite areas of the deceased pet
- Changes in vocalizations such as barking or whining
- Inappropriate elimination (peeing or pooping in the house)
It is imperative to caution readers that many medical conditions cause symptoms similar to those listed. As a result, it is essential to have your dog checked out by a veterinarian to rule out any medical causes.
For example, chronic pain can be mistaken as depression in older pets, as can a form of dementia in older dogs called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.
In addition, if a dog is depressed, the stress from that sadness may cause medical issues to emerge or aggravate existing ones.
Suppose your veterinarian rules out any medical issues and depression is expected. In that case, the vet will most likely ask for a thorough pet history.
Your vet will attempt to determine a cause, such as changes in the dog’s environment and home, and any patterns, such as the time of year that it occurs or a specific trigger.
Golden Retrievers are typically not lazy, so an abrupt change in activity level might signal depression or something else.
To learn about possible causes of laziness in a Golden Retriever, check out this post: A Lazy Golden Retriever? (Do They Exist and Possible Causes)
Why Is My Golden Retriever Sad or Depressed?
Obviously, as pet parents, if our Golden Retrievers are depressed or sad, we want to help them in any way we can. But, to do so, we first must know why or what causes a Golden Retriever to become depressed?
Golden Retrievers often experience depression due to changes in physical or social well-being or home life changes. For example, emotional or physical abuse, trauma, loss of a companion, chronic pain, changes in seasons and routines, and the addition of a pet or person to the household may all be factors.
Each of these, alone or in combination, has the potential to cause sadness or depression in your Golden Retriever.
Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail. Each of these can be classified into four areas of depressive triggers:
- Emotional and Physical Abuse and Trauma
- Chronic Pain
- Life-Changing Events
- Seasonal Changes
Emotional and Physical Abuse and Trauma
Golden Retrievers are very sensitive dogs. The breed is not known to be aggressive and is instead friendly, affectionate, and eager to please and learn.
It is one of the reasons the Golden Retriever breed makes such good therapy and service dogs. However, that sensitivity means they do not do well with physical punishments, yelling, and aversives.
In addition, many old-fashioned training methods, harsh corrections, or aversives such as shock collars can cause a Golden Retriever to have behavioral problems, including depression.
Moreover, extreme forms of physical and emotional abuse such as neglect, beatings, and harsh verbal reprimands are almost guaranteed to cause learned helplessness. The phrase “learned helplessness” resulted from the infamous experiment of the 60s and ’70s by Martin Segiliman.
Segiliman administered unavoidable electric shocks to dogs. The results of the disturbing experiment demonstrated that learned helplessness is,
a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.Source
In fact, the Learned helplessness theory believes that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from an actual or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.
If the abuse is harsh enough, it is traumatic to your dog. Trauma could also be a vicious attack from another dog, an accident, abuse, or even a loss.
Therefore, any distressing event that causes a long-lasting emotional response can be defined as traumatic.
Chronic pain in your Golden Retriever can be a vicious cycle. It affects your dog physically, and it can impact it mentally as well.
Chronic pain is a long-standing pain or a pain that you cannot escape. It can affect your ability to participate in normal daily activities or make them very uncomfortable. It can also affect sleep, appetite, and overall quality of life.
So, prolonged pain in a dog can trigger depression. In fact, by definition, prolonged and inescapable pain can trigger learned helplessness in a dog. Or us!
Often the biggest trigger for sadness in a Golden Retriever is some form of a life-changing event. Life-changing events include the loss of a companion, a new pet or person in the house, being rehomed, and a change to normal routines.
The good news is that for most of these, the form of depression is temporary. However, your dog may experience intense sadness, grief, and even a form of depression in the interim.
Some changes are mild and temporary, such as seasonal changes impacting a dog’s routine (discussed in the next section). For example, the dog does not get outside or walked for as long in the winter. Likewise, introducing a new pet or newborn to the family dynamic is temporary and often subsides quickly.
However, other changes, such as losing an owner or pet companion, can be traumatic and take longer to subside.
Losing a pet can be extremely hard on pet owners as well. To learn some coping strategies check out this post: Coping Steps: Healing the Loss of Your Golden Retriever.
It is well documented that humans can suffer from depression related to the change in seasons and lack of sunlight. Depression in this form is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
But can Golden Retrievers suffer from SAD as well? According to certified animal behavior consultant Steve Dale, the answer is maybe [source].
According to Dale, both humans and dogs have similar brain chemistry, including sharing hormones like melatonin and serotine, which are impacted by daylight.
In the winter months, when daylight decreases, the brain produces less of these hormones, both of which can adversely affect mood. So, according to Dale, it is conceivable that pets can get SAD; however, he notes that there is no way to measure SAD in animals objectively.
Another factor could be activity levels. Golden Retrievers are very active dogs and require a lot of physical exercise, which can be difficult in cold winter months.
As a result, the decreased activity may contribute to mood changes in the winter months.
What Can I Do To Help a Depressed Golden Retriever?
Any discussion on sadness or depression in your Golden Retriever would not be complete without suggestions on what can be done.
Below are some actionable items you can take to help your pet if it is depressed or sad and it has not resolved quickly.
A Veterinarian Examination
If your dog is suffering from prolonged sadness or depressive symptoms, you should first get it examined by a veterinarian. Chronic pain often mimics the symptoms of depression, so it’s imperative to have a vet examine the dog.
So, in other words, you may think your dog is depressed when it is suffering from a painful medical condition that your vet might be able to help with. Keep in mind, that dogs are very well adapted to hiding their pain, so you might not even know they are hurting. Hence, the need for a vet exam.
In an article on dog depression by the AKC, Dr. Leslie Sinn, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) and certified professional dog trainer cautions owners to be aware of depressive symptoms in the absence of life-changing events [source].
“In general, if a dog is slowing down or is reluctant to engage, especially in the absence of some life-changing event, then I would bet huge amounts of money that it is medical or pain-related.”
One word of caution. If your dog is in pain, do not medicate with pain relievers containing Ibuprofen such as Advil. Ibuprofen is very dangerous to Golden Retrievers, even in small doses.
How dangerous is Ibuprofen to Golden Retrievers? Learn about the dangers in this post: Ibuprofen for Golden Retrievers: Is It Safe?
Positive Training Methods Only
When training your Golden Retriever, utilize positive training methods only. Positive methods are especially important if you are fostering or adopting a Golden Retriever that was abused, neglected, or traumatized.
Suppose you have a Golden Retriever as a puppy that needs training. In that case, you don’t want your dog to become fearful, sad, or depressed due to behavioral issues later in life from incorrect training methods, so make sure to keep it positive.
In my article, Dog Training Methods: Which One is Best for Golden Retrievers?, I discuss the benefits of reward-based training over aversive methods.
Researchers discovered that the reported use of positive reinforcement or bond-based training methods (reward-based) was linked with much more positive outcomes. In contrast, positive punishment (aversive-based) is associated with more negative consequences, including fear.
The other issue is if they’re acting out due to depression. In those instances, harsh methods may only exacerbate the depressive condition, i.e., make them more depressed, but you may inadvertently reinforce bad behaviors such as acting out.
Golden Retrievers Need Friends Too
Golden Retrievers are like human kids and adults in that for healthy socialization; they need friends.
Pet friends can especially be important if they lose a pet companion. Playing with other dogs helps ease the loneliness and loss.
If your dog has a fur buddy, arrange some time for them to hang out. Alternatively, you can book them a day or two each week at a reputable doggie daycare, where they can get some socialization, exercise, and play.
If your pet is missing a furry friend, engaging with another dog can help fill the void. Of course, adopting another dog can also help, but you should not make this decision solely to cheer your dog up.
Bringing a new pet home needs to be the right fit for you and your pet.
Increase the Time You Spend With Your Dog
Golden Retrievers bond closely with their owners, so spending extra time with your dog offers some support, which may benefit the dog from increased attention. In addition, going for walks helps get the body moving, and often the mind follows beneficially.
Plus, sunlight and fresh air help as well.
You could also increase time in short training sessions (keep them to five or ten minutes a couple of times per day) and games such as fetch or puzzles. Stimulating the mind and body in productive and fun ways can help a dog move through a bout of sadness more quickly.
Respect Their Need for Space
Golden Retrievers often need downtime too. If they are overstimulated, stressed, or anxious, they need a space to settle down and decompress.
So, while you do not want your dog to be in a state of prolonged withdrawal and hiding, there are times when it’s okay for it to be alone.
Ensure wherever their safe space is, they have chew toys to self-soothe and preoccupy their minds.
Two excellent options are Kongs and snuffle mats. In addition to helping the dog self-soothe and stimulate the mind, Kongs and snuffle mats can be an effective way to ensure they eat.
Diet Is Important
Diet is important to both a Golden Retriever’s healthy mind and body. If you find your Golden Retriever is not eating or not as much, then you want to make sure it gets its nutrition.
Snuffle mats can have kibble or freeze-dried liver snaps placed in them. You can put the mat in your dog’s sleeping area or anywhere it relaxes. In this way, it can stimulate itself while getting some nutrition.
Another great option is stuffing freeze-dried treats and kibble in the Kong with a bit of peanut butter, which can often get a dog eating. Kongs and snuffle mats engage the mind while offering food more slowly.
Make sure that whatever you use as a treat is a favorite of your dogs. You want it to be as appealing as possible to get them to eat.
Adding a topper (like the one below) to their food may also encourage your pet to eat.
Golden Retrievers can become depressed and sad at times. So be on the lookout for changes in their lives. Sometimes it will be apparent, while at other times, you may have to do a bit of investigating.
If there are no apparent changes or situations that have caused your dog’s sad mood, then have it checked out by a vet. A medical issue or pain may be at the root of the problem.
The good news is that most of these forms of depression, be it from sadness, grief, or the blues, are mild and temporary. With some positive interventions and attention, it will pass.
For more prolonged or severe bouts, it is best to work with your veterinarian to find the cause and solution.