An Excerpt from “Final Gifts: Lessons Children Can Learn from Dogs About End-of-Life, Loss, and Grief” (Chapter Seven in Children, Dogs and Education. (2018). Jalongo, M.R. (Ed.). Springer International Publishing); the chapter is authored by Dr. Mary-Ann Sontag Bowman (i.e., one of the Kaibab humans).
Conversations about euthanasia and the family dog need to be thoughtfully considered within the context of developmental realities because these normal characteristics of children make parental explanations of euthanasia fraught with potential challenges. For example, the typical reason for euthanizing a dog is pain/suffering. Children will not, unfortunately, always enjoy an optimal and pain-free life. There will be times when they are distressed, when they cannot engage in activities they love, and there will likely be periods of suffering; these things reflect the human condition. Further, children will interact with others whose quality of life might seem impaired through physical or mental disability. These realities provide context for conversations about euthanasia. Do we really want our children to think life has to be perfect to be worth living? That suffering is a reason to end life?
Conversations with children about euthanasia and dogs need to move beyond, “the dog was suffering.” While the explanation may well be true, the adult has the capacity to understand the nuances involved; a child may not. The broad application of death to suffering is probably not the message we want to convey to children, who will soon be adolescents and may well experience what seems to them to be true suffering. If not for the dog’s sake but for the children, euthanasia of the family dog should be done with a great deal of care and thought. If possible, adults may want to model exploration of alternatives to euthanasia (i.e., hospice and palliative care), and/or be clear and direct with children about the reasons a dog’s physical suffering that cannot be relieved is very different from a human’s emotional, social, and/or physical suffering.
Quality of life is both subjective and contextual. Further, the universal existence of hardships and suffering makes decisions about what constitutes acceptable quality of life difficult. These challenges offer opportunity for adults to model compassionate care and decision-making skills when a family is confronting end-of-life choices for a well-loved dog. Leaving children out of the conversation about end-of-life choices for a beloved dog is a missed opportunity. However, the extent to which a child is involved in end-of-life conversations and decision-making on behalf of the family dog needs to reflect developmental realities. A five-year-old, for example, should have different input than a fifteen-year-old. And yet no child or adolescent should make the final decision on behalf of a dog; that must be an adult responsibility because of the potential for guilt and second-guessing (American Animal Hospital Association, 2016; Packman et al. 2014; Sharkin, Knox, & Kenkel, 2003). Adults need to be clear with children that while they are invited to share input, final decisions are made by the adult(s) in consultation with the dog’s veterinarian. This structure models appropriate boundaries, reduces the potential burden on children, and demonstrates important collaborative skills.