Need Advice: What to Tell Young Children That Their Dog Is Dying.

Updated on August 08, 2009
J.O. asks from Shrewsbury, MA
11 answers

Hi there - Well I have a 22 month old and a 3.4 year old boys who ADORE our family dog. He is a wonderful black Lab who has cancer and the vet thought that he would only have 4 -6 months to live. I am wondering what to tell the boys is wrong with their dog when it is time to put him to sleep. We are very sad about this news, although I feel that at this point it is about the boys and the dog. I want to some how make this experience of losing their dog one they can maybe understand? Can anyone help us with this one?

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answers from San Francisco on

We lost our family dog to seizures when my son was just over 3 and deep in the "why" phase. It was not something we'd prepared him for before the occurrence, as it was a gradual decline and reasonably unpredictable death, so my experience is in explaining death after the fact. We ran through all of the thoughts that came to mind as we tried to deal with it and the logistics ourselves - from spiritual to clinical explanations. The one thing he latched onto was a rather abstract last-ditch effort - that our dog had died which meant she no longer lived in her body but from that point forward lived in our hearts. He liked that idea and spent days thinking about it. A few days later I heard him ask his father, "Dad, does Shawnee live in my stomach?" My son is now 5 and has a healthy respect for, but peaceful and not scary understanding of death.

Sorry about your dog - they make good family. Best of luck with your boys.

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answers from Boston on

Im so sorry about your dog! I went through the same thing a few years ago. My daughter was 2 and half and also adored our dog and my son was not a year yet so he didnt understand. I would be as honest as possible except for when it comes to putting the dog to sleep. I was given advice not to tell them that you are putting the dog to sleep because that may frighten them that if they go to sleep they wont wake up. Try just telling them that the dog is sick and if you believe in heaven that he will be going to doggy heaven. I would also make sure they know it is okay to be sad. I guess death is a part of life and they have to learn about it as some point so I believe being honest is the best thing. Best wishes!!

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answers from Bangor on

J., We lost our cat about 6 months ago and it was very difficult figuring out what to say to our 4 year old son who adored him. We told Cole that Ollie wasn't going to live with us any more that he was very sick and he needed to go to a place where he would feel better. We told him he was living in Heaven now and he could have all the treats, and play as much as he wanted to. We gave Cole a picture of him to have in his room and we made sure he got to say a nice goodbye to Oliver. Even 6 months later he still brings him up, says he misses him and asks when he'll be back, but we just keep reiterating the same things and he's done well. I hope this helps a little bit. M.

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answers from Boston on

So sorry you all have to go through this.
Here is a link to a previous inquiry: There was lots of sensitive advice there.
There are lots of books that deal with death and dying, some specifically about dogs. (Some are listed in the link above.) Your children seem to be at an age where they would want some sort of explanation.

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answers from Boston on

We had to put our dog down two years ago, right after christmas, after he had a stroke. My daughters were two and six at the tim, a little older, but not too much. The decision was made without much warning, but he had been declining for several months before hand. during that time we talked with the girls about treating him gently because he had owies and they couldn't rough house with him any more. The day we brought him to the vets we took pictures of him with each girl and they are framed and in their rooms now. We explained the vet was going to give him medicine that would make him sleep and he would not wake up. We ended up telling them he was going to be an angel doggie and god would throw balls for him. We didn't intend to tell them that, but that's how they understood dying, so it helped them. They will be sad, but it really is a good lesson for them, everything dies, better a pet before a relative! I'm sorry for your loss! I agree about being up front, but be careful about allowing them in the room. Some animals fight the medicine, (ours did) and it can be very scarey. We opted for them to say their good byes at home where they loved him the most!!!

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answers from Boston on

So sorry to hear about your dog. There are two "resources" I find comforting when dealing with a pet's death, both for children and adults. One is the book, "Dog Heaven". The other is a story posted on the web. I'm not sure where it originated. It explains why dogs live shorter lives than humans.

Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog's owners, Ron,his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane, were all very attached to Belker and they were hoping for a miracle. I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family there were no miracles left for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.

As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for the four-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.

The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker's family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on.

Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away. The little boy seemed to accept Belker's transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker's death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives.

Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, "I know why."

Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I'd never heard a more comforting explanation. He said, "People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life -- like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?" The four-year-old continued, "Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don't have to stay as long."

Hope this helps. Take care.

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answers from Boston on

Dear J.,

I have a 3.5 year old son and 5.5 year old daughter and although the family has yet to have a pet of our own, my Mother, the kids Grammie had a 17 year old Dachshund that had to lay down and Grammie told my children about the Rainbow Bridge:

~ Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.

All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.
The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.

They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....

Author unknown... ~ My daughter cannot wait to see "Little Guy" again!!!

And there is a web site that might have something for preparing your children for the time when you lose your beloved pet.

Best of luck,
S. S.

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answers from Boston on

I would just add to the advice you've received that you consider using phrases like "The dog is dying and the vet helped him to die without pain." Most sources suggest that you NOT use phrases like "put him to sleep" or "put him down" with young children, as they can then become afraid when it's time for them to go to sleep, or when you are tired of carrying them and want to put them down! You also don't want them to associate all sickness (including cancer) with dying. You can use language like "it was his time to die" but it won't be our time for many many years. Then stress the good memories, talk about when he was younger and healthier, and so on. Pictures are a good idea. What you do about burial, cremation and talk of heaven should coincide with your own beliefs, so do what is comfortable for your family.

So sorry for what you are going through. We have a healthy 13 year old terrier, but I know that this moment will come for us, and we dread it.

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answers from Portland on

Be honest and forthright.
Tell them their dog is very sick that he cannot live much longer. Tell them that this illness hurts the dog a lot.
Explain that when the sickness and pain are too much for the dog to bear that you will take him to the vet and have him put to sleep. Let the children come and love the dog up on the way.
If the 3 and 5 year old want to be with their dog while the vet does his thing, I would let them.
Verbalize how sad this is, and how much of a loss it will be .
Is your home in an area where you can bury the dog on your land? They could help pick out a gravesite, even help dig the hole. Digging a grave is very theraputic and helps work through the grief.
I think children are too insulated from the ebbs and flows of the realities of life these days. All these things, knowing the pet is ill, gives them a chance to love him up, going with him to the vets gives them the opportunity to say goodbye, eliminates curiosity about "how much it hurts the dog to die" ( it doesnt, he simply goes to sleep) digging the grave affords them the chance to participate in taking care of the pet's body because it is the right thing to do.
These things do not traumatize a helps them to learn and deal with death and work through their grief.
Do you have photos of them with their dog? Not a bad idea, yes?
Scenario...a grandma is baking cookies with children. Next thing they know,they are told gram is in a hospital where they may or may not be able to visit her..then they are told she is dead, then they are told she is buried, then they look at a stone and told this is where gram is now. They have no idea what illness is, what death is, what happens to people or animals when the body dies.
Our job , as parents, is to prepare them for the realities of life as best we can. Death is a great unknown to children and has become so surealistic that it can also become a tremendous fear of the unknown.
A pet's death can be a teaching tool for them, if you use it as such.
After your dog is put to sleep, would you consider getting another dog for your boys? Perhaps you could go to ASPCA and they could help pick out one?
As in any life situation, the very best advice I could possibly give you is to communicate honestly with your children, to validate their curiosity, their fears, and their grief.
Best wishes and God bless
Grandmother Lowell

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answers from Boston on

Good morning J., I am so sorry about the situation with your dog.

We had to put our cat of 8 years down about a month ago. The poor guy had kidney failure and was not well. Before we did it we explained to our 4 year old that Ivan was sick. She understood and knew that daddy had taken Ivan to the doctor a few times already to try and make him better. We never tried to hide his illness from her, which I think made it easier on her when we did put him down.

My husband picked Ivan up from the vet after they put him down because we wanted to bury him. The 2 of us did it while our daughter was napping and when she woke up we explained it all to her and asked her if she wanted to go see where we buried him. She said yes, so we took a garden stake that was in the shape of a heart and said "love" on it and used that as his grave marker. We told her Ivan is in kitty heaven and that he is no longer in pain.

She did the cuttest thing and said that Ivan is chasing butterflies and eating tuna all day long, so she got it. We also found a stuffed animal that looks like Ivan, so she holds him when she is missing our poor kitty.

I hope this helped you a little bit. Once again, I am so sorry that your dog is going through this.

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answers from Lewiston on

I am sorry you are going through the impending loss of a dog. The advice you have gotten is wonderful and thoughtful. One thing which has helped our family in the past was to bury the dog/ or cat in our yard, and mark the site. (as a previous writer said). Our son wanted to put the dog dish, and toys in the grave with the dog, which we did. He wanted to be sure the dog was surrounded with "his things". As we buried the dog, we all shared fond memories, as the tears rolled down our cheeks, and the laughter from happy memories.
Good luck to you and your family. Our animals are sure a member of the family, and the loss is very real to all.

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