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When It’s Time To Say Goodbye

Dogs give us so much. The occasional dog is a real trial, through no fault of the dog’s, because of choices humans have made in breeding, placement in a home, upbringing, management and training. The problems surrounding such dogs cause us to have especially mixed feelings at the end of their lives.

We also have terrible emotional stress to sort through when life comes to the end for a dog whose life has been a rousing success. The responsibility for ending a dog’s life is a heavy one. It is the price we pay for all the love they give us and all the other ways they bless our lives. The love is worth the price, but that may not be much comfort when the emotional bill comes due.

Another expression for euthanasing a dog is “putting a dog to sleep.” While this way of saying it is fine with other adults who know what you mean, be careful not to let young children hear it. They can become confused and think that routine sleep means someone is going to die—or that the dog is not really dead but only asleep.

Children

People worry as much about the effect of a dog’s death on their children as about their own feelings, with good reason. It is important to handle these situations appropriately. If you do so, your child can develop better emotional ability to cope with future life losses. This is one of the profound gifts dogs give us.

Don’t lie to children. If you lie to a child about something as important as this, the child may lose trust in your word. You would also be modeling dishonesty as a behavior for the child.

Discuss with your child’s pediatrician, a licensed counselor or a qualified counseling minister how to explain the dog’s death to your child. The child’s age has everything to do with this, because the human brain goes through developmental stages, and the way you talk about death with your child needs to be suited to the child’s age. If the child has developmental disabilities, that, too, must be considered.

Consider what your child is learning from this situation about sick, old, and dying animals and humans. This relates to everything you do in the final handling of your dog’s death. Others—animals and humans, including you—will be affected in the future by how your child experiences and feels about this event now.

Children have a tendency to blame themselves, and a child may indeed have been involved with the dog’s cause of death in some way. It’s a parent’s difficult task to help the child put that into perspective.

Children also experience magical thinking, and may feel you didn’t give the dog a chance, that you ended a life which could have miraculously been saved. And children need adult help to understand that our responsibility in the death of an animal is a different one than we hold in the death of another human.

Euthanasia of a human carries all sorts of moral and legal concerns. Euthanasia of a dog is never easy—it’s not easy for the veterinary staff or anyone else, no matter how many times they have to do it. But euthanasia of a dog is often a moral responsibility that is our duty. A parent has the difficult job of helping children understand this difference, as the children are old enough and mentally developed enough.

Reasons for Euthanasia and Losses

It might seem that knowing in advance your dog is ill and having the responsibility for this hard decision is the worst way to lose a dog. But for the sake of many people’s emotional health, it may be the best way. It gives you the chance to do loving things for the dog that you will remember for the rest of your life, long after the dog is gone. It also allows you to go through much of your grief while the dog is still there to love. Then the actual loss may be much less traumatic for you.

When a dog’s illness or injury comes on suddenly and calls for euthanasia with no warning, you’re going to need time to process that. You may be able to help yourself somewhat in advance of such a loss, if, for example, your dog is getting old. Cherish the time you have left with the dog and face the fact that the dog will die. We have a tendency to say “If something happens…” but when it comes to death, it’s “WHEN it happens.” Death will happen. Accepting that in advance will help you when the time comes.

Similarly, if your dog is involved in dangerous work, such as police, military, bomb detection, border patrol or search and rescue, don’t hide it from yourself that the dog’s life could be sacrificed in the line of duty. Even if that doesn’t happen, the dog will eventually die, and the loss of such a close partner is a hard one. Don’t let that sneak up on you emotionally.

A dog hit by a car can lead to great guilt for the owner or family. In their grief, people tend to blame the driver. But let’s be realistic. The dog shouldn’t have been in the path of a car. It’s a human responsibility to keep the dog safe from this. Dogs hit by cars do not usually learn to stay out of the way of cars, either.

If this happens to your dog, or if in some other way you are responsible for your dog’s death, you can remind yourself that we can forgive ourselves. You can also honor this dog’s memory by making sure it never happens to another dog in your care.

Another type of loss is hard, that of having to euthanase a dog dangerous to humans, because most of the time the dog may be nice. It is irresponsible to pass a dangerous dog on to another home, so this sad duty may fall to you if you find yourself with a dog you are unable to manage to eliminate the risk of dog bites.

Before you euthanase a biting dog, have a veterinary behavior specialist evaluate the situation. Find out what went wrong. If it was something about your choice of dog for your family, or how the family handled the dog—or housing that allowed others to molest the dog—find out. Then you can make sure it doesn’t happen to you again with a future dog. It will also quite likely help you and your family reach agreement about what to do.

Making the Decision

You and your veterinarian will both be involved in this decision. Veterinarians do not like euthanasing dogs and will not make such a recommendation lightly. Some veterinarians won’t make the recommendation at all until you bring up the subject. They don’t want to rush you into something you’re not ready for emotionally, unless they find that they must do so in order to be humane to the dog.

Sometimes people hold back on taking a very sick, old dog to a veterinarian because they don’t want to euthanase the dog. Euthanasing a dog is the owner’s decision. The veterinarian is there to give you the best possible information about the dog’s suffering, whether it can be relieved, and the prognosis for the dog’s condition. Your dog deserves this care, and you need the information in order to make a good decision. The veterinarian is not going to force you into anything.

Waiting too long to euthanase a dog is not merciful to a suffering dog. We have a responsibility to relieve the suffering. We can’t ask the dog what to do, but it helps to think in terms of what the dog would want if he or she could know what you know. Also think about the fact that dogs have no last words to say or affairs to put in order.

Sometimes you’ll hear that “you’ll know when it’s time,” but this is certainly not always the case. When facing a difficult decision about euthanasia, try to make the best decision for the dog first, before considering costs. That is a decision you will feel better about for the rest of your life. Also try thinking as if this were someone else with their dog. What would you think they should do? Sometimes a little emotional distance helps sort out such decisions.

People often want to avoid this difficult decision by having the dog die quietly at home. Ask yourself, though, whether this would mean forcing your dog to suffer needlessly. Too often, this is the case.

Do You Want to Be There?

One reason people avoid being present at the euthanasia of a dog is embarrassment that they will cry. The staff very well may cry, too, so don’t worry about that. Certainly no one will think less of you for crying. It’s a sign that you care for your dog, and no veterinary professional would think less of an owner for that.

Should your children be there? Should your spouse? And, should you? One factor is whether the person has come to terms with the event and accepts the necessity of it. Someone getting hysterical and telling the veterinarian to stop is bad for everyone, including the dog. This is the kind of thing a child might do. Spare everyone that by not having anyone—and that includes you—be present at the euthanasia who cannot remain calm.

If for any reason you do not want to be at the euthanasia or cannot be there, you can rest comfortably that your veterinarian and staff will treat your dog with kindness and respect. Some owners feel this is a last supportive act they can perform for a dog with whom they shared a close bond, especially if it was a working relationship. Others simply are not up to it emotionally. There is no blame to place either way.

Sometimes the euthanasia may not seem completely smooth to the owner, who doesn’t know the effects of various drugs and the way a body responds even when not conscious of pain. Be assured that veterinarians do everything possible to end the dog’s life painlessly. Keep in mind, too, that sometimes in grief, people look for someone to “blame.” If witnessing the euthanasia would foster this emotion in you, that would certainly be a reason not to be there.

The Fullness of Life

It is a blessing when a dog lives a full and happy life. It is a blessing when you have good years with a dog. If you only have a dog for a short time, that dog’s life can be a good one and that time very worthwhile, too, especially if you know you have spent it well. People report great emotional fulfillment from adopting senior dogs and making their last days happy ones.

We are all dying. Dogs can help us learn to live our lives more fully and redeem every moment we are given by making good use of it.

Create all the happy memories with your dog that you can. Treat your dog lovingly. You will remember forever that you did these things for your dog, and it will comfort you.

Let the tears come. They are the work of grieving. If you feel extremely distressed by the loss or are not improving after a couple of months, be sure to seek skilled help. Each loss brings back to us the prior ones, and it’s possible you have an unresolved loss in your past that needs care now.

Going through grief in a healthy way allows you to heal and to fully love again. You can have even better future relationships by realizing that every moment with a loved one is a gift to use in the best possible way.

Copyright 2006 - 2009 by Kathy Diamond Davis. Used with permission. All rights reserved.