They say that kids and dogs are a match made in Heaven. I was lucky enough to grow up on a farm where there were always dogs and other animals. That upbringing taught me much about relationships and responsibility, although like all kids, I didn’t realize it until much later. Like many kids, I had that one “special dog,” and to this day, each time I think of those memories, a smile and a warm feeling comes over me. Those days of playing fetch, sharing ice cream cones (“Don’t tell Mom”), and curling up side-by-side after a long day of playing outside with my best friend are memories I will always keep.
Today I am still blessed with dogs in my life, and managing a pediatric program for kids with special needs continues to remind me of the value dogs have for kids. Those of us who grew up with dogs understand that relationship. We remember our dogs never teased or belittled us, how we learned to trust our dogs and have confidence in them, how our dogs were always on “our side” when we got in trouble with our parents or our friends turned their backs on us, and most of all how they accepted us no matter what. These relationships were based on unconditional love and were always nonjudgmental. Those who study child development and behavior point out kids benefit in many ways from experiencing these kinds of relationships. They learn to accept responsibility and improve their interaction and communication with others.
It is easy to understand, then, the traumatic experience many children will go through when they lose a beloved pet to death. They may have come to believe this relationship will endure and be never-ending, as death and dying can be difficult facts to explain to children. For many kids, the death of a beloved best friend can be their first experience with such a loss. In an instant, companionship, loyalty and unconditional love are replaced with loss, confusion, fear and grief.
How do the adults in a child’s life explain what has happened? It may be difficult, as many “grown-ups” don’t have the answers even for themselves. It is important to handle the loss of a beloved dog in a way that explains honestly to the child what has happened. The effect of grief and loss can be unpredictable and generally will depend on the individual child’s age and emotional and cognitive development. Kids under the age of two will normally base their reaction to such loss on the reaction of those around them. Extra hugs and attention and following a regular routine usually work and the bad experience quickly passes. Helping kids from ages three to six may be more problematic, as many times they think the loss is not permanent, and their friend will soon come back. My grandson, at four, is a good example. When his Golden Retriever Blue died, it was very hard for him to accept. After all, he had spent his entire young life with Blue; crawling to follow him, pulling up on his back as he learned to walk, and taking those afternoon naps with him. They were constant companions, and in an instant, Blue was gone. Even months after, I will sometimes find him in his room, quietly crying and saying, “I miss my Blue!”
In helping kids understand and accept the death of their dog, we must first reassure them it is not their fault. Choose your words carefully. If you say the dog was put to sleep, you may create sleep issues for the child. Even saying that “God has taken him because He needed him” or “the dog was special” can cause the child to resent God and wonder who will be taken next. Open and honest communication is best. Don’t be afraid to use the words death and dying. If possible, prepare the child in advance if their dog is sick or old. Let them express what they think, and let them know it is okay to be angry or upset. Make sure the child understands what death and dying mean. It is important the child understands his dog is not coming back.
Parents should always allow kids to discuss what they are feeling. Holding a memorial service for the dog may be a good idea. The child will learn the finality of the situation, have an opportunity to remember and tell what they are feeling, and also see the parents feel that way, too. It is always okay to grieve, as failure to show emotion may cause the child to think you don’t care, and even cause the child to suppress his feelings.
Children are very resilient, will usually learn to accept the death of their dog and will move on with our help. Don’t be in a huge rush to get a new dog until the child is ready. Just as living with a beloved dog can enrich kids’ lives in so many ways, losing that same dog to death will teach them some of life’s most important, yet hard to learn, lessons.