How to Explain a Dog's Death

Updated on July 12, 2008
R.P. asks from Lincoln, CA
17 answers

My in-laws just put their dog down this week. He was old and very sick. Since they are my part time day care providers, my three year old knows the dog pretty well. When he shows up and wonders where the dog is, how do I explain it? I don't want to say the dog was old because he thinks his grandparents are old and I don't want him to think they are leaving. Any suggestions? Thanks!

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answers from Fresno on

Tell him that the dog had to go to heaven so the angels could thave a pet and they will take care of him. Tell him he was sick and told be afraid to say he was old to because he needs to know that not just old people die but people of all ages.

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answers from San Francisco on

The TRUTH! The other moms are probably right that your son won't think that much of it, esp. if it's not your pet. I don't think he's going to make the grandparent connection -- unless you're always pointing out how "old" granny and gramps are. I don't think kids necessarily need to know about euthanasia at this age -- so the fact that the dog was very old and sick and died is probably enough. Also, truth is, grandma and grandpa are going to die someday, and experiencing pet death is one way for kids to learn how to deal with the inevitable reality of death.

Story on lying about pet death:

When I was about 5, I had a cat that I used to play with a lot and one of the things I would do was put it on the swing and swing it. So one day the cat disappeared, and my mother had me believe that the cat ran away. I cannot tell you how terrible and guilty I felt over this, for YEARS -- I thought I had been too rough on the cat while swinging him, and so he ran away. Well just LAST YEAR (I'm now 50), my mother finally informs me in passing that the cat got hit by a car!!! It would have been so much better to have told me the TRUTH, and then I could have been spared all the guilt and misery I put myself through thinking it was my fault. She did the same thing when my brother got sick and died -- kept me in the dark, didn't let me be involved, see him in the hospital or attend the funeral -- and the result of that also was that I blamed myself for his death.


"Oh what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive..."

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answers from Bakersfield on

HI R.,

I would tell your son, that the dog finished living, and that he is dead. If your son wonders about "dead" you can tell him that dead is where everybody who is finished living go at the right time. I would avoid elaborations unless your religious beliefs dictate otherwise.
The key is to be calm and reasonable yourself, children that age usually accept what they are told without too much fuzz.
Take care, S.

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answers from San Francisco on

We just had this happen to us. We had to put our 12 year old Lab down because he was super sick , and our daughter who is two and half years old literally grew up with him. I was honest with her and told her that he was sick and had boo-boos that couldn't be fixed and so he went to doggie heaven but he is her angel and still protects her and that I miss him very much.
We happened to be on vacation when my husband had to put him down, so that made it a little easier. And that was a week ago today. She has only asked about him twice. And each time I just remind her where he is now.
I think it's harder for ME then for her!

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answers from Bakersfield on

Hi R.-
I read a little blurb called the story of the dragonfly. It is a good way to relate death and beyond to younger audiences. It allows them to see that death is not finite, but the beginning of a new life, and no matter what people say, pets are special and I believe that animals are in heaven. It will be the same with his grandparents when they pass on. Just because their current body is no more doesn't mean their spirit is gone. The spirit remains though the body is temporary. I hope this helps!

Here is the story:
The Dragonfly

Once, in a little pond, in the muddy water under the lily pads,there lived a little water beetle in a community of water
beetles. They lived a simple and comfortable life in the pond
with few disturbances and interruptions.

Once in a while, sadness would come to the community when one of their fellow beetles would climb the stem of a lily pad and
would never be seen again. They knew when this happened; their friend was dead, gone forever.

Then, one day, one little water beetle felt an irresistible urge to climb up that stem. However, he was determined that he would not leave forever. He would come back and tell his friends what he had found at the top.

When he reached the top and climbed out of the water onto the
surface of the lily pad, he was so tired, and the sun felt so
warm, that he decided he must take a nap. As he slept, his body changed and when he woke up, he had turned into a beautiful blue-tailed dragonfly with broad wings and a slender body designed for flying.

So, fly he did! And, as he soared he saw the beauty of a whole new world and a far superior way of life to what he had never known existed.

Then he remembered his beetle friends and how they were thinking by now he was dead. He wanted to go back to tell them, and explain to them that he was now more alive than he had ever been before. His life had been fulfilled rather than ended.

But, his new body would not go down into the water. He could
not get back to tell his friends the good news. Then he
understood that their time would come, when they, too, would
know what he now knew. So, he raised his wings and flew off
into his joyous new life!

~Author Unknown~

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answers from Modesto on

You're kids are too young, yet :o)

Keep it simple....God needed them in Heaven :o)

I'm sorry for your parents. It's very emotional to go through this.

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answers from Fresno on

My parents had a cat that died - very similar situation since my parents do watch the kids often. I just told the kids that Bucky died, and wasn't going to be at Nona and Grandpa's anymore. My 5 year old asked what happened so I told her Bucky ran in the street and was hit by a car. My 3 year old didn't seem phased by it at all. I really expected more of a reaction from both of them.

Earlier this year we had a baby bird that fell out of the tree onto our driveway. It died and the kids were due home any minute. I panicked and buried it really quickly and told my kids that Fancy Nancy went back to her nest to live with her mommy and daddy. My 5 year old lost it and cried for days. She still talks about that bird and how she wishes she knew which one of the scrub jays grew up to be Fancy Nancy. She stands out there talking to them all the time. I feel AWFUL and wish I could just tell her the truth about it, but I think at this point it would be worse. Ugh.

So... having made up the elaborate story to cover up the animal's death, and having just told them the unvarnished truth, I would say the unvarnished truth with as few details as possible is the best route. Just my personal experience.

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answers from San Francisco on

I am a veterinary technician and have put many animals down myself. I'm a mother of a 2 yr old and aunt to a 3yr old and 6yr old. When I had my own dog put down because she was old and sick with a host of problems, I was very straightforward with my niece and nephew about it. I left it very simple and they eventually stopped asking. They asked me what happened to Dolly and I told them that "for a dog" of her size, she had reached old age and unfortunately her body couldn't keep up with her anymore and God decided to call her home to be with him. In my family, we are believers in God and heaven so it makes it easier to explain it that way. If you're not a believer, maybe try tellling your child that dogs don't live as long as people and as much as we love them, there is a time for us to say goodbye because their bodies can't go on forever. Never tell your child that the dog was put to "sleep" or "went to sleep" and never woke up because they say children then think if they go to sleep,they may never wake up again either. I hope my advice helps. Just make it as general and simple as possible because I think your child will then go "okay" and let it go.

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answers from Salinas on

Dog's live shorter lives than us, 7 doggie years equal 1 human year. I also just learned dogs do not show pain the way we do. If they do, it hurts really bad. It is unkind to make a dog suffer and the kindest choice can be doggie heaven. One little girl said we are here to learn to love before we are ready for heaven, and dogs just learn a lot faster. Not sure this will help a small child, but it helped me lately. Losing a pet, a family member, is hard. It takes time to heal.



answers from Sacramento on

I went through this a couple years ago when our son was three. Our family dog died a couple weeks after his sister was born, so a lot of change at one time. I read online and practiced what to say, thinking he would be devastated and confused. Instead, I finished my speech and he said, "OK, mom, can I go play now?" At three, it just didn't register with him. It wasn't until many months later that he started saying he missed Daniel (our dog).

What I read online from a child psychiatrist was to be honest, explaining that the dog died and isn't here anymore, but that the dog is in heaven (or whatever your beliefs are). Skip the finer details about why the dog died. Talk about how you'll miss the dog and that it's okay to talk about him whenever he wants to.

Good luck!



answers from San Francisco on

The best thing to do is to be honest. Life and death are natural and happens. My husbands ex and him sheltered their kids from death so when a family member did pass away they were not able to process it and still to this day have difficulty with death. In fact when their brother, my son, passed away they had no coping skills. My daughter on the other hand because we talk about life and death for as long as she can remember from having pets and such pass on when a loved on did die she was able to proccess and she deals with death in a very acceptable way.

I think that taking a pets death and using to teach children about life and death is important. If the dog was sick it is important to point out those facts, not just say that he was old and passed away. When my daughters bunny died we talked about how he lived a very happy life hopping around and that when he got sick we gave him medicine and took him to the Dr.s and sometimes the medicine doesnt always work so bunny wouldnt hurt any more when hopped in heaven with other bunnys and to play with. She was three at the time. She was very good with that.

As she has gotten older I expanded the knowledge with her. She is now 11 years old and deals amazigily well with life and death.

If you teach youe children when babys come from shouldnt we teach them what happens later in life, just like teaching them potty training, which utensils to use and how to cross the road, these are all useful tools for kids to grow with.



answers from San Francisco on

I'm so sorry for your in-laws loss. I know there are some books out there for kids regarding the loss of a pet.
Also, someone in MI posted a similar problem a month or so ago (it read: Our dog Gracie passed away after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 11 years old. I'd like advice on how to transition through this with young children as I operate a home daycare and there are six children who were attached to her. Along with the six children come six individual families with differing values and beliefs. The children saw her daily and commented on how "tired" she looked on the day she died. She also left behind her companion and friend, our four year old chocolate lab, who is wandering around aimlessly looking for her) if you would like me to email you the link to that one let me know.



answers from San Francisco on

R., You can explain it through a simple story; children understand "word pictures" better than "concept words." There is an excellent book by Susan Varley, "Badger's Parting Gifts" which I highly recommend. Just read the reviews at it should be available in any public library.
I agree that avoiding the word "old" is a good idea; it could be very confusing for him. Some cultures explain death as "shedding the body" which is a true image children can understand: "he took off his body like a jacket, but he is still here."
A little ceremony can be helpful: picking flowers to put by the dogs photo, singing a song; it all seems to help us because don't we always want to "do" something when a loved one dies? "Doing something" helps ease the sense of helplessness we feel when we've lost someone.
I would prepare him before he goes to your parents' home, and plan to stay with him a little while while he absorbs this change. Let him see how sad you are as well. Doing something together in honor of this beloved dog will give him something to hold on to whenever he feels sad.
Sincerely, G.



answers from San Francisco on

This is a good opportunity to explain to your child about life and death. We've had a few pets leave us over the years fish, cats and a couple of dogs. It's always hard for everyone when there is a death. When my son was 3, his fish died and he was very sad. We talked about how when someone dies, they are with God. It's always sad for the people that are living because we will miss them. It's okay to be sad but we should remember the fun times we've had.

There are also kid-friendly books that talk about death. For a 3 year old, be sensitive but don't elaborate too much. They just want the basic information and then go about their day.

Good luck!



answers from San Francisco on

7/11/2008 U can say "old parts a not working well", Stoped eating, there are books for kids. My big thing is when u tell very young kids"sick" they will ask there self next time u say u say to them, "stay home u r "sick", they will think Iam I going to die like the dog !!!??? Take this death and ask them what does that word mean to them ??? My son lost his frist pet rabbit at age of 5 1/2 ish, he asked will put Spunky in the ground Do they go the heaven??.I thank god for that death.
Good Luck From a Pre-school
Teacher19yrs, Marla



answers from Yuba City on

I advise you to be as honest as possible. Your inlaws may be very sad about this, and your kid may be too if he had a relationship with the dog (maybe not-old dogs are very still sometimes). What may be the hardest is his grandparents' sadness.
Face it, people grow old and die; pets do too, just MUCH faster. Part of pet ownership is knowing we will lose (and mourn)them. Most of us quickly decide the companionship is worth the inevitable loss.
You should see how your INLAWS want to handle it and follow suit. My granddaughter and my dog have a huge LOVE affair.She was born after we had to put our last dog down, they grew up together. If you are not a pet person yourself, be aware that some people grieve a pet more than people. My vet sent a sympathy card, maybe your son can get them a card. If he did not have a relationship with the dog, just tell his gammy & pappy may be sad about it and that that's ok. Remeber your kid will probably help them through this time. Dont lie, but dont give details unless he asks. If you dont know the RAINBOW BRIDGE story, it is that the pets cross the rainbow bridge to heaven and wait for us. You can find the poem at but it applies to all pets that went on before us. I would just say he died, not put down, your son is too little to understand that part.



answers from San Francisco on

If or when he askes just be honest that the dog was very ill and died. Answer any questions he has honestly but without a ton of detail he doesn't need and probably won't understand anyway.

There's always the possibility he won't even ask. Kids are way more perceptive than we think they are most of the time and he was probably aware that the dog was ill. And may have even been aware that the dog would have to be put to sleep.

Just go with the flow, but be honest in very simple terms.

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