Children and dogs - how do you explain to little kids when dogs die?

I’m going to start with a disclaimer - the choices we’ve made as parents that are discussed here are heavily influenced by my Catholic background. This is not intended to disrespect other viewpoints of various religious and atheist communities, just to tell the story of our own family.

Also, I’m not an expert in child psychology or parenting - I’m just bumbling along as best I can. 

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Sleddog households tend to be multi dog households. Some people have large kennels, others have enough dogs to cover the lounge room floor. It’s become normal for J and I to answer the “how many dogs do you have?” with the phrase “only three.” The response is either a nod or a gasp, depending on what’s “normal” for the other person. And sadly, if it’s normal for a family to have multiple dogs, then they will also have to deal with the grief of losing their dogs more frequently than an “average” family, because dogs just don’t live as long as we do.

Last year, we said goodbye to Ishka, very suddenly and unexpectedly. This year, Bolo’s passing was a long time coming. Currently Frankie is about to turn 13, and doing well, despite his bad back, poor eyesight and megaoesophagus. But we know that we will probably have to say goodbye to him too, sometime in the next few years.  And each year, our Wee Monster becomes a bit more aware of what’s going on. We have to adjust our approach each time.

When Ishka was put to sleep, Wee Monster was not yet 2. He had recently started naming the dogs - I don’t remember which one he said first, maybe Bolo, but he could name each of the three boys. He hadn’t said Ishka’s name before she was gone, and we didn’t discuss her death with him directly at the time. We didn’t discuss her much at all over the next few months. When we moved house and set up “only three” crates in the lounge, we put Ishka’s urn up on a high shelf. 

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(Our thanks to ID for her beautiful urn.) 

But small children are definitely sponges. Somewhere along the way, Wee Monster learnt to say “Ishka.”  He recognized her face in photos. He asked where she was, and we stumbled through a statement that she was “in heaven.”

For a little while, he accepted that. But, in his mind, “heaven” was a place, like “London” or “Hobart.” People go to and come back from London and Hobart, so why not heaven. So he asked when Ishka would come back. We had to explain that her body had stopped working and she’d left it behind to go to heaven. Oh. Ok.

When we knew Bolo’s pain was breaking through his medication, I agonised over whether Wee Monster should say goodbye, whether we should bring him to the vet, what to say. A few wise people pointed out some common problems when speaking to children about death: firstly, that phrases like “put to sleep”, “the big sleep” or “dying in their sleep” are potentially terrifying for kids who are in a very literal phase. No one wants to make a child scared to go to sleep in case they don’t wake up. 

Secondly, what would happen if the Wee Monster learnt to fear the vet or the dogs going to the vet?

In the end, I said goodbye to Bolo at home. He leaned into my hug and then wandered off. I took the kids out, trying not to cry until we were all belted into the car and they couldn’t see me. J took Bolo out for a walk, just the two of them, and then they went to the vet. We didn’t tell Wee Monster anything. J came home and disappeared down the other end of the house.

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Wee Monster asked why daddy was upset.

”He’s sad” I said.

We watched Lightning McQueen’s quest for the Piston Cup for the umpteenth time. My vision blurred a few times, but I managed to hold back the tears.

It was a strange day.

Eventually, Wee Monster noticed that Bolo was missing. Trying to keep my voice matter of fact, I told him Bolo had gone to heaven.

”Oh! He’s with Ishka? They’re together?”

Yes, sweet boy, that’s it. And, at nearly 3yo, that’s enough.

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