How to tell your children about your pet dogs death and decide when to do it


This time last week we said good-bye to our adorable, but daft 14 year old springer spaniel ‘Merlin’ (on the right).  It had taken me weeks to get to the point where I rang the vet.  Friends and family had been gently suggesting it was time for a couple of months.  But I couldn’t do it until last monday.

I’d known it would be time in September literally since the beginning of the year.  Partially, because we had two other dogs die this year who no longer lived with us, and partially because I can be a little witchy when so inclined!  My gorgeous shaggy Jim died first (left).  We had rehomed him in Potters Barr (nearby) when Curly Headed Boy started to toddle, because although he wouldn’t have bitten my son, we would have bitten Merlin who was clumsy and his eyesight was poor.  You could tell he was worried about it, let alone us.  We got to see him before he died and he got to meet Little Dimples briefly, so there was some comfort in that.  His new owner had allowed him to live on until he literally couldn’t walk at all and there was very little of him left in personality.  Maybe it was a little too long for such a characterful dog, but she was a lovely soft lady and he would have been very difficult to part with.  A couple of months later Danny died (middle), at a ripe old age of 18 in a working kennels surrounded by his girlfriends.  It’s a long story how come he ended up there, but we were basically paying for him to work for the last 8yrs of his life (suckers!!).  He never got to meet Little Dimples, but it was a comfort to know he died in his sleep.

Merlin went down hill quickly after Jim’s death, gradually losing the ability to use his back legs, and then beginning to mess in the house because he couldn’t get through the dog flap quickly enough.  But he was still eating and still so loyal that he would still wag his tail.  But when he stopped whining to come upstairs in an evening, I knew he was giving up.  We had that lovely weather at the beginning of half-term and took him out onto the green with the kids, and he got totally pampered.  You can see from the picture how much he adored Little Dimples; letting her take him for a walk, when he could hardly drag his back legs along at all.  But as the half-term week progressed he got quieter, and I knew that it was no longer fair for the Big hairy northern one to be cleaning up the kitchen every morning and that it would be near on impossible when I was on my own in the house with Little Dimples.


I think I felt guilty, because our cat Harry had lived 2.5yrs after being given 2weeks to live, and it was obvious when we had to give up because he was covering the house in blood.  Little Katy died within a couple of months of him, and didn’t make me make the decision for her, bless her.  But with Merlin I was feeling guilty because of the practicality of having an incontinent dog and a toddler in the house.  But spending that week with the family helped me to get my priorities straight.

So how did I go about explaining it to Curly Headed Boy and Little Dimples?

Well 2yrs ago when Harry and Katy died I used the Mog cat series and the book ‘Goodbye Mog’ by Judith Kerr.  It happens to fit perfectly with my philosophy on life and death, and it really helped Curly Headed Boy who would have been around 4yrs old.  (If you have favourite books, please do share them below to help out other readers).

This time I was going to have to be explicit and explain that we were putting Merlin to sleep, and not that he was dieing at his own timing.  So I’d been mentioning it for a few weeks, and Curly Headed Boy had been aware for a few months that Merlin was going to die.  Eventually I went into an explanation of the fact that the dog gets a bit of anaesthetic to make sure that the injection doesn’t hurt, and then an injection to help them go to sleep and not wake up.  I’d toyed with the idea of doing it during half-term, but I just didn’t want to taint our memories with his death, so I decided to go for the next monday when my son was back at school.

Ironically, Curly Headed Boy was sick on the day, and when the vet arrived he made the last minute decision to stay in the room.  This was a BIG gamble, because as the muscles relax in a dog being put to sleep, they can sound like they are breathing hard.  But gorgeous old Merlin was never going to scare my son; so as I Reiki-ed (a type of healing) him, Max played with a toy in a chair, and quickly he went to sleep without a sound.

For this I have a huge debt of gratitude to Merlin as Curly Headed Boy has always been aware of death, with both of my parents having passed on (my Dad died when I was 20 and my Mum when I was pregnant with him).  But he has now seen a very gentle version of death, and it appears to have really set his mind at rest.  He didn’t cry, instead he pragmatically sat with me pointing out (as I cried) all the lovely things about Merlin, how old he was, and how much easier it will be to have just the one dog.  This is of course the great thing about animals as they do introduce children to death so that it doesn’t come as such a shock.

Meanwhile what to do about Little Dimples who is 21 months?  She might be just 21 months (warning, parent proudness to follow), but she pretty much understands everything, and with a mixture of words and baby sign language, can say anything.  She’d been sleeping, but woke just as the vet was putting the blanket over the head of Merlin.  (Oh by the way, I strongly recommend paying the extra for a Vet to come to your house).  So I picked her up and showed her Merlin sleeping, put the blanket back over, and took her to the door to say ‘good bye’.  A few days later she was asking about our other dog, and I asked her if she remembered Merlin.  Yes she said, and signed ‘sleeping’.  So it is even possible to explain about death to a toddler.

So my advice is:

  1. Take your time
  2. Use books that match your philosophy
  3. Get the vet to visit you
  4. Decide whether your child is mature enough and not too sensitive to stay in the room
  5. Don’t shy away from telling them the truth, it’s useful for kids to understand, and we are all mortal however much we like to pretend we aren’t sometimes.
Will we get another dog?  I must admit I’d love to get something smaller, white and fluffy for little dimples, as Dudley our remaining dog is a huge big black scruffy labradoodle.  But the hairy northern one has put his foot down and I think he’s probably right.  By the way labradoodles do moult; MORE THAN ANY DOG I’ve ever had!!  But they are fabulous dogs, and despite being a spaniel lover, I would recommend a labradoodle’s nature for a family dog any time as they are much less hard work once you’ve done the initial training.
As someone once said to me ‘Out of great destruction, comes great creation’, so I’m going to leave a space in our lives to see what turns up.

5 comments

  1. Hi.
    My mum had to have our cat put down when my little one was 23 months. He went to nursery in the morning and when he came home ‘cuddle cat’ wasn’t there (a fixture in his life since birth), so I explained that she had been very sick and she had to go to Jesus because he would make her better, but she would have to stay there with Jesus. He seemed to accept this – we have a picture of ‘cuddle cat’ so he can see her whenever he likes.
    Have got ‘Goodbye Mog’ unfortunately I can’t read it without welling up!
    I do know there is a great book which explains everything and it’s about dragonflies – it’s used to help siblings get over the death of other siblings – hospices use it, just can’t remember the name – the basic story is about a dragonfly who says he will come back and tell everyone what it is like above the water, but of course when he goes above the water he cannot go back – simple yet effectve.
    Sorry, to hear about Merlin.
    xx

  2. Ah I’m actually crying now! Brings back memories of having to put my beloved furbaby Mister to sleep when my Wee Man was 6 weeks old – obviously he was far too young to need it explaining but it’s great to know about the Mog book for the future.
    Sorry to hear about Merlin, he looks like a lovely dog.

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