The Family Project: Discuss dog’s illness
Q. My wife and I adopted a lovable mutt before we started our family. Our children have not known life without Sheba. However, the dog has developed multiple health issues in her old age, and we are holding off making decisions about putting her to rest because we don’t know how the children, ages 5 and 3, will handle it. We don’t want the dog to suffer, but we don’t want our children to be sad, either. What is the best way to handle this?
“Dying, whether people or animals, is a way of life,” panelist Pam Wallace said.
“If handled appropriately, this can be a good teaching opportunity for the children on how to handle other bad things that may come along. As much as the parents don’t want their children to be sad,” Wallace continued, “the children need to understand that putting Sheba to rest is in her best interest because she is suffering.”
How much to tell the children, and how much to involve them in the decision depends on how mature they are, said panelist Denise Continenza, adding that even small children grieve, but the three-year-old may not understand the permanency of what will happen.
The parents may have to touch base with the children over some period of time to see how they are coping with the reality of the loss of their dog, said Continenza.
The panelists cautioned the parents not to give the children more information than they need. “They [the veterinarian] will tell the parents what they want to know,” Wallace said. “If they [the children] ask, tell them. Be as truthful as the kids can handle.”
Panelist Erin Stalsitz suggested talking with the youngsters together and then separately because the older child may have more questions.
As for what to tell the children, Stalsitz said, “Be sure that they understand that the dog won’t be coming home again, so avoid terms like ‘putting the dog to sleep.’”
Wallace said veterinarians have lots of resources and could recommend age-appropriate books on the subject.
Another idea from Continenza would be to talk together about what everyone remembers about Sheba: “What are the children’s best memories of her?” Continenza recommended involving the children in deciding what to do with the dog’s ashes.
As for the parents not wanting their children to be sad, Wallace said, “It is OK for them to be sad. Tell them [the childen], it is OK to miss their puppy.”
The panel discouraged the idea of getting another dog right away because it would send a message to the children that relationships are easily replaceable.
This week’s team of parenting experts are: Pam Wallace, Program Coordinator, Project Child, a program of Valley Youth House; Erin Stalsitz, Lehigh County Children and Youth Casework Supervisor, and Denise Continenza, extension educator.
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The Family Project is a collaboration of the Lehigh Valley Press Focus section and Valley Youth House’s Project Child.
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