Is It Time to Let Go Of Your Dog?


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You have an old dog or a sick dog. You loved him, raised him from a puppy, played with him, took him places, slept with him, and told him all your secrets. You still have that battered old Frisbee that he loved to chase, now lying in a corner of the mudroom, untouched for so long. His leash hasn’t been taken into service in quite a while.  He is past it, and you are not. And now you have had to face the hard truth that you are going to outlive this friend that you love so much.

You look for signs that he is still having fun. You want to believe that he is. Is that wag of a tail a sign that things are going well, or is it just a reflex? Or an attempt to please you? After all, that’s what he always did – he tried to please you. And he did.

Is It Time?

Now you are wondering, should I let him go? This sweet, gentle soul that I love so much, who loved me with all his heart, who saw me through good times and bad and never, ever, even once, stopped loving me with all his heart.

Realistically, finding the right time can be difficult. Hardly anyone ever says, when it comes to euthanizing a beloved dog, “I got the timing exactly right.”

A Story

Let me tell you about a friend of mine. Jackie had a Rottweiler, nine years old, and full of beans. Emil, the Rott, was given to her by someone who “didn’t have time” for him anymore. Emil knew that Jackie most definitely did have time for him, because he bonded to her like Crazy Glue. Jackie used to joke, and say she wasn’t Jackie anymore – she was half of the unit known as “EmilandJackie.” They were constantly together.

Then one day, Emil looked a bit off. Jackie thought he was losing weight. She took him to the vet, and he got a clean bill of health. Still, she thought something wasn’t right. Two weeks later, she took him back to the vet, and x-rays revealed what might, or might not, have been a mass on his liver. The vet told her that they could do a liver biopsy, but on a dog of his age (he was 9, which is pretty much the “best before” date for a Rottie), most likely it was cancer.

Jackie had one question. “Will he have to stay overnight?” The vet told her that he would. With tears raining down her cheeks, Jackie said, “I will hold him, and you will put him to sleep now.” I asked her why she made that decision. She told me, “He was old. He was sick. And I always told him that I would never leave him. If they’d done the biopsy, I would have had to leave him.”

Right Choice?

It’s so hard knowing when you’ve gotten it right. I think Jackie did. But who knows? I think the main thing you need to consider is whether the fun has gone out of it for the dog and whether there is any hope for a better life. An old, sick dog has likely come to the end of its “best before” date, and sometimes the kindest thing you can do is let go.

Knowing When

If your dog is in pain, let go. If he is incontinent, you should probably let go – he doesn’t want to mess in the house; he can’t help it. By the same token, if that is the only problem, suck it up. Get some soap and water and deal with it. You would do that for a beloved human, wouldn’t you? If your dog seems depressed and disinterested in the things that he or she once enjoyed, maybe it is time to let go.

Also, as harsh as this may sound, think about the cost of keeping your pet alive. Are you going to spend thousands of dollars to buy a little bit of time? Would you want your loved ones to do that for you? You could practically bankrupt yourself, with all the modern veterinary treatments that are now available, buying nothing more than a week or two for a dog that is well past it. It makes no sense financially, and it probably also makes no sense in terms of the time that you can buy your pet. You need to ask yourself if you are keeping your dog alive for the sake of the dog, or for your own sake.

Back to the Question

So, is it time? Honestly, you might not know for sure. The best you can do is, simply stated, the best you can do. You know your dog, and you know when he’s looking “off.” I’ve often found that the best thing you can do is ask your vet, “What would you do if this was your dog?” Most vets will offer an honest answer.

For many children, the loss of a beloved dog is the first experience they have of grief. Very young children may not have much of a concept of death and may keep asking when their dog will be able to come home.

Please don’t lie to your child. Don’t answer this with “I don’t know.” That’s a cop-out and not fair to your child. A child who has lost a dog needs to know that the dog is never coming back. If you have a belief system that includes an afterlife, and you feel that your child is old enough to grasp the concept, I would encourage you to share the story of The Rainbow Bridge.

Your child may have a very rough time of it, and it might be tempting for you to say “We can’t have another dog because the kids took the loss of this one too hard.” Please reconsider. You can’t insulate your children from human feeling, and human feeling includes grief. Listen to them carefully. If they want another dog right away, my take on it is that you should get them another dog. On the other hand, if they need time to process the grief, let them tell you when they’re ready for another dog. Don’t rush things, but don’t stop them dead in the tracks either.

For more on the topic of helping kids get past the loss of a beloved dog, see my post Explaining a Dog’s Death to Your Child.

Related Content:

15 Ways to Get Your Parents to Let You Have a Dog Just for Kids (Video)
Do Dogs Really Prefer to Die Alone?
Mommy, Don’t Leave Me! Dealing With Separation Anxiety in Dogs(Video)

How to Help Adults Grieve the Loss of a Dog

Helping adults grieve the loss of a dog is usually a lot easier than it is with children. Do the same thing you would do if your friend had lost a human – hold their hand, hug them, tell them how sorry you are for their loss, and ask if there’s anything you can do for them. Bring food, the same as you would if the loss had been human – you can bet that the last thing your friend wants to do right now is cook. Shovel their walk in the winter. Mow their lawn in the summer. Weed their garden. They don’t want to do anything other than grieve, so step up to the plate and look after the details.

Helping Seniors Cope With The Loss of a Dog

For many seniors, the loss of a dog ia devastating. This is not just because they’ve lost their beloved companion, but because they believe they can’t have another dog – after all, when a person is in their twilight years, there’s a very good chance that they’ll outlive any dog that they might adopt.

What you can offer here is hope, and the promise of another dog’s companionship. There are any number of “senior check-in” services. A bit of googling will show you one in your area. The way they work is the senior calls the check-in service at a designated time each day, just to say “I’m still alive and it’s all good here.” If the check-in service doesn’t hear from the senior, they send someone out to the senior’s home to make sure they’re okay. If the senior doesn’t check in, the service knows that something is wrong and will send someone out to check on the senior and his or her pets.

Other than the “check in” thing, proceed as you would for any other adult who has lost a dog. Offer your condolences, and volunteer your services.

And Finally…

So, now you are wondering what happened with Jackie and Emil. Jackie let Emil go. She grieved. Some people told her he was “just a dog,” and since I kind of try to keep this a “family-friendly” blog, I can’t tell you what she said to them. One of the kinder things she said in response to someone who said, “He was just a dog” was, “And you’re just a person. Not much of one.”

Jackie buried Emil in the back yard, where he loved to lie in the sun and chase squeakies. I wanted to memorialize Emil too, so I went down to a business that engraved headstones, thinking that they would have bits left over from human-size headstones.

They did. I asked them to engrave a small piece of granite with Emil’s name, and his date of birth and death. Then I presented it to Jackie along with a purple hydrangea to plant on Emil’s grave.

Dealing with the death of a dog can be every bit as hard as dealing with the death of a human. If you have lost a dog, you know what I’m talking about. If you have a friend who has lost a dog, treat them gently and do what you can.

People also ask:

What do you say for the loss of a dog?

You say the same as you would if it was a human loss – “I am so sorry for what you’re going through. What can I do to help?”

Why is losing a dog so painful?

It’s because it’s the most unconditional love you’ve ever had in your life.

Will we see pets in heaven?

Heaven is a Christian construct. If you are Christian, and you believe in the Bible, then you have every reason to believe that you will see your pets in heaven.

Do dogs suffer when being put to sleep?

No. When a dog is put to sleep, the first thing the veterinarian does is administer a sedative that relaxes the dog. This is done before the final “push” of the Euthasol, which is a high dosage of barbiturates that stops the dog’s heart. The dog does not suffer, and does not wake up. He passes peacefully.

Should I let my dog see my dead dog?

Sometimes dogs can grieve for their friends who have passed. I think it’s best, whenever possible, to let your surviving dog know that his friend isn’t going to be coming home. You don’t have to let him see the body. If you’re bringing home a deceased dog to be buried, and he’s wrapped in a blanket, it’s enough to let your other dog just get the scent. He’ll know that his friend has passed.

How long does it take to get over losing a dog?

Grief is grief, whether it’s over the loss of a human or a dog. Some people can move on in a matter of weeks. For others, it can take up to five years.

What to Do After Your Dog Dies?

Be kind to yourself. You have sustained a horrible loss. If it takes a long time for you to feel normal again, allow yourself that time. There is no timetable on grief. If friends and family are offering support, take it. There’s nothing wrong with looking after yourself right now. Remember your dog, and how much he loved you. Think about the time you had with him, not about the time you’ve lost. Remember that love never dies.

If you have loved and lost a dog, I would never presume to tell you that I know how you feel. We all grieve in different ways. But please know that I have been down that road, and my heart aches for you. Stay strong, my friend. And in the words of Garth Brooks, “I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”

Related Content:

15 Ways to Get Your Parents to Let You Have a Dog Just for Kids (Video)
Do Dogs Really Prefer to Die Alone?
Mommy, Don’t Leave Me! Dealing With Separation Anxiety in Dogs(Video)