Support & Grieving Strategies
For support, parents can read books to their preschool and primary school-age children about what happens when dogs pass on. Prose and illustrations work wonders to open a dialogue about the beloved family dog that has passed away.
Older children may or may not want to know about euthanasia.
If they are curious about what happens at the time of death, Dr. Eldredge believes in telling the truth. She reveals the dog may take a big breath as the spirit leaves the body and may pee or poop.
“It’s important that children know that their dog doesn’t suffer when this happens,” says Dr. Eldredge. “Hopefully, this fact will comfort them.”
When Jody and Scott Berger learned that Tucker, their black Labrador Retriever, would not survive copper storage disease, they shared the information with their teenage sons. The couple relayed how much Tucker’s condition had deteriorated and wouldn’t improve.
“It helps to explain that euthanasia is compassion for the dog, not for the owner,” says Dr. Eldredge. “It’s a kind way to end a dog’s life and avoid more suffering.”
When the time came to euthanize Tucker, the couple hired a veterinarian to go to their Foothill Ranch, California home. When the doctor arrived, Tucker wobbled over to greet her with a sniff and a wagging tail. Minutes later, he meandered to his favorite spot in the yard and settled on his pillow.
“We relayed the details of the procedure—the sedative and the final injection that would stop the heart from beating,” says Jody Berger. “We gave the boys the choice to watch or not.”
Sixteen-year-old Jordan and 12-year-old Ethan gave Tucker the last belly rub and chose to watch from the window. Jordan cried while Ethan said he was sad but couldn’t cry.
“Let children know it’s OK to express grief in whatever way that feels right to them—crying, apathy, or numbness,” says Regan. “There’s no set time limit, and it’s normal if a child brings up a dog’s death weeks or months later.”
A memorial ritual can be helpful to recap the dog’s membership in the family. Young children can draw pictures of the dog, decorate a marker for the dog’s internment, or choose a favorite toy or collar to frame.
Giving children a task to express their grief will help them cope.