Tell the 3 Yr Old Before or After I Put the Dog Down?

Updated on August 23, 2011
J.I. asks from Spring Branch, TX
17 answers

So, do I tell my 3 yr old that Cash (the dog) is going to go to heaven tomorrow (before it happens)? Or do I wait till after it's all done and tell the 3 yr old that Cash died? I went to the library and got some 'pet death' books which I plan to read with/to him. (In one, the dog just dies of old age and in another, the dog gets hit by a car). But I don't know the right time to tell him. Cash lives at my parents, and we plan to go see him tomorrow, play with him, take some pictures with him, stamp his paw print, etc. Then I will take the dog to the vet while my mom takes my 3 yr old to my house. So what has worked for you? To tell your young one before or after? Thanks.

ADDED: My son knows that Cash is old and that his legs hurt (he's almost lost all coordination with them). Cash has been at my parents for just 3 months now. My son always talks about Cash, esp when people ask him if he has a dog. My son got a whole 3 years with Cash, so he knows that Cash is his dog. The paw print thing WAS actually more for me, but something that my son and I could share. We both love our dog so much.

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So What Happened?

Well after reading you ladies' responses, plus talking with my mom and MIL, I told my son that morning "You know how Cash is old and his legs hurt real bad? Well he might die soon. He'll go to doggy heaven." His reply: "They have a road there?" Me: "No, there's no road to doggy heaven. We can't drive there. It's up in the sky with God." Him: "Oh so just a spaceship?" I laughed and told him "No. If Cash dies we won't be able to visit him anymore. So we're going to go to Nana & Papa's house to give him lots of hugs and kisses today." We went to mom and dads, took some pictures, gave him hugs, took a paw-print, etc. When I was about to leave their house, I told my son goodbye and told him that I was taking Cash to the vet. Do you want to tell him goodbye? The vet may say he's too sick to come home. Son: "Maybe he'll fix him." So sweet. I told him "Maybe, but the vet may say that Cash is just too old and too weak and too sick." He was okay with that. He did not cry. I did not force him to go say a final goodbye. I don't think he quite understood. Next time (tomorrow) when we go to Nana & Papa's house, he may ask where Cash is. I don't think he'll get upset. I didn't read him the books I found (one was just awful, one had the little boy buying a new puppy by the ending of the book, and one had the dad replace the dead goldfish with a new one = ie lying to his daughter. So they are not great!)
Thanks again for all y'all's insight and advice. I appreciate each and every one of you ladies.

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answers from Houston on

I would do it before. My 3 year old understands the concept of death. They can have that special saying goodbye bonding moment together. My mom lied to me about having a beloved pet put down. I was angry at her for years. I would have rather been told the truth that she was being released form her pain than lied too. (not saying you are going to lie about it, just telling my personal experience.) I know it's rough though it sounds like you are going to have a special day with Cash. He is going to be so happy.

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answers from San Antonio on

I was six when we had to put my dog down. My mom sent me to Astroworld with family and told me when I got to town what had happened. I knew he was sick and was now resting in a better place but to this day still have pics of him and think of him. She said it was hard for her and wanted to spare me his "last mile".

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answers from New York on

Let him know in advance and let him say goodbye. It's never too early to learn about death. It's the things you do now that will shape how he handles death as an adult. Death will always have to be a part of life - so better to acknowledge it, deal with it and learn about it. There is no point in hiding it.

So sorry about your doggie! Hope you're ok.

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answers from Omaha on

We went through this when our daughter was about 3 mos shy of being 3. We told her that Iggy (dog) was dying. We didn't tell her that we were taking him to the vet to have him put down but we did explain to her when Dad returned home that Iggy had died. Be honest and upfront but choose your words very carefully--for example, don't say "he went to sleep" because that can plant an irrational fear in your child about sleeping and not waking up. We explained that Iggy was very old and that his body was so sick that it stopped working, that he died, and went to heaven. We also discussed how Mommy and Daddy were very sad that Iggy died and that we would cry when he was gone because we loved him and miss him--that it was okay for her to cry too. She still talks about him now and we look at pictures of him and talk about he was apart of our family and now he is heaven running around, free of pain. It really helped that we were honest with her, so when her great-grandma died last month, she had the concept of missing, remembering, crying, and death.

I'm very sorry for your loss. Iggy was apart of our lives for 11 years before we had our first child... they really are a part of your family.

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answers from Dallas on

I really would suggest saying something to him before so he may say good bye. I don't think I would say that you are having him put down. That's too much for a three year old to understand but certainly tell him that he is sick and may die at while at the doctors office. I have a 4 and 7 year old and our 3 year old Pug got very sick suddenly and I knew before I left that I would probably have him put down. But I did let my boys say good bye before I left and told them that he might not live. We also had to have our 15 year old cat put down a month later when his Lymphoma got so bad he was just suffering. I again told them the same and let them say good bye. I was very honest about death and allowed my boys to see them after they had passed and let them help with burying them both. I was very concerned since we lost two very close pets in such a short time but they have done well. I think being honest in a child friendly way was the way to go. It was hard telling them about death but I knew I just couldn't lie to them and give them the "Rainbow Bridge" story to make myself feel better. Teaching them how to process loss is normal and healthy. Sorry to hear about your sick dog :( Hugs to you all.

Wanted to add that your child may not understand or seem to care about it and that's normal as well for his age. My 4 year old slowly understood after a while but really wasn't that upset but my oldest at 7 was sad but seem to except it well.

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answers from New York on

I would let him know in advance, explain in age appropriate terms, and let him say goodbye. Kids as young as 2-3 can understand on a basic level (though not the way an adult does).

My son was 4 when our cat was sick and died. I explained she was old and sick in advance. She died on her own so the time was not predictable. But when we knew it was close to the end we made sure to let him pet her and say goodbye. We had questions come up for a few months but it worked out fine.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

Hmmm...tough call.
I went through this about a week and a half ago with my 8 yo.
My dog must have had a stroke late evening 9-10 pm.
My husband & I decided that based on his behavior, we would call the vet in the morning to have him put down. He was up & fairly alert at 4 am when my husband left for work (I was up too) but when I got up at 7, I found him dead. I carried him upstairs out of the sight of my son (he was going to a buddy's house that morning to play and I didn't want his last memory of our dog to be like that). My husband came home from work after our son left at 9 and we buried him. We told our son when he returned home. He said his goodbye at the graveside and it was OK.
If you wait, tell him that Cash was sick, the vet tried to help but Cash was too sick and he died. Go through the books with him and answer all questions honestly. At 3, I would not go into the concept of euthanasia though. He's too little. Sorry you're losing your doggy. :( It's tough.

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answers from Kansas City on

I'm so very sorry for your loss. We lost our 8+ year old dalmatian last december, the same month my son turned 3. He still talks about Tino, missing Tino, etc. We did tell him that day that Tino would not be in the house anymore and to hug him goodbye. Then my son went to a friend's house while the vet came to ours to put our furbaby to rest.

My son did not (and still does not) understand death. But he did know that Tino was very sick (had cancer, been through surgeries and was in the middle of chemo treatments). What we told him was that Tino had to go away that night so he wouldn't be sick anymore. For some reason afterwards, we said he was in the sky and that if he came back to the ground, he would get sick again. My son understands Tino is never coming home b/c then he would be sick, in pain and unhappy. So he can mourn the loss without having to understand the actual reality of death. And in a way, knowing our loved one can never be with us again is what death is all about.

My son still kinda thinks he has a dog, just that the dog is in the sky. It makes it interesting when we go on plane trips.

Puppy hugs to you.

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answers from St. Louis on's easier on you & on your son.

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answers from Sacramento on

I would tell him before and let him say goodbye. Maybe he's too young to really get it, but maybe not...

We had a cat die a couple of years ago and we brought out kids in, 5 and 6 at the time, to say good bye. They completely got it and I think it was really important that they have a chance to say their good-byes to her.

Sorry to hear about your dog. It's always hard to have to euthanize a pet :(

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answers from Norfolk on

I haven't read the other responses because we just put a dog down a few months ago and reading the others will probably make my cry. Ours was sort of an emergency situation but we knew what would most likely happen when we got to the vet. We told our 3 YO that she needed to say a special goodbye in case he couldn't come home from the vet. Then we came home and told her he died. I didn't want to tell her we put him to sleep because I was afraid it would confuse her that we decided when he would die. We just say he died - and by the way, she cries about him almost every day. So be prepared for that also. I'm so sad for you - sending you good thoughts!

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answers from Dayton on

When I was about 5 or 6 my parents had to have our dog put down.
They didn't tell me.
I didn't notice right away (he had been living in the garage).
When I did notice-I was really upset w/ my parents.

I would tell my child.
I have had to tell my DD that her fish have died (not fish that we had for a week, fish we had for a year).

It wasn't easy-but not telling/lying seemed like the worse option.
She was upset, but she got through it.

I like Caroline and JulieBean's answers.

I'm very sorry for your loss.

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answers from Portland on

I think I'd tell him before so that he can say good bye.

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answers from St. Louis on

My kids were young when our first dog died. It may seem awful but it was a nonevent to them. Oh the dog died, so he won't be coming back. Okay. Can we have a puppy.

It is not that my kids didn't love the dog it is just they hadn't got to the age where they react to death the way adults do, especially with a pet. They just remember the fun things, not the death, that is just how kids are. All they remember about the death is we didn't know he was dead so we were trying to wake him up. Don't ask, but after ten years it is actually quite funny. :(

Oh sorry, what I am saying is you may be worrying about nothing. Take care of yourself, ya know?

Oh I will tell you one thing about the say goodbye, they don't always understand that either. Like they don't know what to say and they want to say what you want to hear. Granted my ex is a tool but he kept making them say goodbye and they weren't doing it right (like there is a right way) and after 30 minutes my oldest stepped in with we are all going to lunch, have the dog out of here by the time we get back. Ya know thinking about it we were a rather dysfunctional family. :( Still don't make him say goodbye unless he actually wants to.

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answers from Detroit on

In your given situation, and at your son's age, it might be easiest to tell him afterwards that Cash died. Kids at that age are not totally grasping the concept of death (usually), and they certainly cannot understand the concept of having a pet euthanized. You might want to prep him a bit by saying that Cash is getting very sick and may die soon. Let him know that you are taking Cash to the vet because you are worried about him. Then you can tell him that Cash was so sick that he died there. I don't know how angry your son will get at this age for "not being able to say good-bye" - it would be different if he were maybe 7 or 8 or older.

I am sorry you are going through this - my condolences. :(

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answers from Jacksonville on

My daughter is almost three, if I were in your shoes, I would tell her after. Right now all she knows is good-bye means we will see you later. We haven't had to deal with death so she really doesn't understand that concept.

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answers from Washington DC on

Considering the dog lives with your parents, is there a chance that perhaps it's YOU that's not looking forward to this?
I had to put my dog down when our son was 2.5 yrs old. I'd had her for 11 years. I was devastated! He hardly knew the difference. I did talk to him and tell him she was sick and was going to doggie heaven, and left it at that. I think doing the prints, pictures, etc. would bring more attention to it for him and will make him have more anxiety over it. You can do those things for you (I did), but ask grandma to keep him occupied while you do it.
The next time he goes to grandma's and if he has questions or seems concerned about it, then bring out the book that you have on-hand to read to him (the one on old age). If he's still concerned after a week, frame the pawn prints and hang them in his room. You could even cut some of Cash's hair off and attach it to double sided tape. That way he (and you) can always pet Cash when you are especially missing him.
BTW, I also had my Taylor cremated and her ashes put in an urn that looks like she did. Lots of folks don't know this can be done. It's relatively cheap too - about $125. But I don't know that i'd try to explain that Cash is in the urn. :-)
Pets . . . they ask for so little, but give so much . . .

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