Dogs are amazing. Our wonderful companions bring us endless joy and happiness. We play together, hike together, run together, sleep together, eat together and so much more. Our dogs are valued family members that love us unconditionally. We take care of them as best as we can and they return the favor. Having a dog in your life is enriching beyond imagination. Unfortunately, we all have to say goodbye to our dog at some point.
Sadly our dogs don’t live as long as we do. One dog year roughly equals seven human years. The correct calculation is a bit more elaborate, but seven years is close enough for reference purposes. With proper nutrition and care, 15 human years are achievable for most dogs, even with large breeds. After all, the oldest dog that ever lived was over 30 years old. His predominant barn-hunting-diet probably had a lot to do with that. But, as a result of shorter lifespans, we always have to say goodbye to our dogs far too early. We hope this horrible day only arrives after a long and happy life and their final moment is peaceful and in the presence of their beloved family. Unfortunately, not every dog is as fortunate in this regard.
As a long-time dog owner of multiple dogs—I only briefly had just one—I had to say goodbye to six personal dogs in my life so far and have been present at the euthanasia of six other dogs of friends, rescues, and clients. It is always hard. It never gets easier but I know that being there helps them in their final moments and so I have always been there with the dogs I cared about. As much as it hurts, I could not imagine not being present. My dogs need me at that moment.
This is not an uplifting piece of writing, but I believe it to be an important one. This is an article about death and how to handle saying goodbye to your dog best. The expressed viewpoints are my opinions and shaped by 18 years of dog ownership and being a professional dog trainer for 16 of those years.
I have contemplated this article for many years as I have seen a variety of endings and have formed definite opinions as to how to handle saying goodbye to your dog best. You may tear up reading this at times. I shed tears writing it but what I learned over the years has helped me understand how to best go about this final act and I hope that sharing my experiences will help others when this difficult moment arrives.
Dying painlessly while peacefully sleeping in our bed is probably most people’s ideal way of finishing our own lives. That is no different with our dogs. Sadly, that is the exception. Most dogs die by euthanasia at veterinary offices. On a side note, this is one of the main reasons for depression and suicide among veterinarians. When you have to euthanize a lot of dogs, it gets to you. No matter how much it is the right call to say goodbye to your dog.
Contrary to what has become the norm in our society, what happens in the wild with dogs—just like with wolves—is quite different. When the animal knows it is time to die, they will wander far away from the pack to not be a burden, lie down at a secluded spot and wait for their death. This is their final contribution to the well-being and survival of their family pack. This may sound eerie to us with our elaborate death rituals. But, also experiencing the unexpected death of my father and its aftermath when I was ten years old, I can’t say I find the human approach better, it’s just different.
This natural way of moving on is usually not available to our dogs but they would actually do this if it was their choice. It is hard-wired in their genes. Coincidentally, this rarest of endings is what I got to witness—up to a point—with one of my first dogs. It was a warm summer night and our three dogs at the time slept in their outside dog house, as they often preferred. They enjoyed rodent hunting at night. They are predators after all.
The next morning, two of them were ready to come inside for breakfast but Alex was nowhere to be seen. I called him over and over. He was 16 years old at the time and the yard was fully fenced. There was no way he could not be in our yard somewhere. I went looking everywhere. When I found him, I realized that Alex had wandered to the farthest spot at one corner of the property to lay down and die. He could no longer walk or even stand up when I found him. He knew his time had come and he did what his instincts guided him to do. As sad, as saying goodbye to our dog was, I later also realized what a beautiful, natural process I got to witness. Alex got to do it on his terms.
This was years before I would become a professional dog trainer and I frankly didn’t know what I was witnessing at the time. We took Alex to the vet, who took one look and knew that his time simply had come. He was probably less than a day away from passing. We did euthanize him at the vet that day. It was the first time I witnessed this process. Today, I would handle this differently at home.
As some readers may know my special dog was my German Shepherd Sylvester. I rescued him from a local shelter when he was three years old and you can read more about his life and his story on my blog on this website. I always knew it would be incredibly hard to lose him. He sadly passed away in May of 2021; he was 17 years old. Sylvester had a great life and we had a bond I have not experienced with any other dog to date. I hope I will again. It was special.
Despite the sadness of Sylvester’s loss, he got to end his life the way I always hoped he could. He peacefully fell asleep in his own bed and passed away. He had a spinal injury and needed help walking for a while but otherwise was happy and healthy until the end.
I had a feeling he was getting close and had actually spent a good amount of time with him the previous evening. I told him it was okay for him to let go. Who knows if he understood. But he passed as peacefully as one could hope. It also allowed my other dogs to say goodbye the next morning and will get back to that later on. I took his body to my vet later that day and things proceeded from there as they would in any other case. This was the most peaceful and ideal ending to a long and happy life I can imagine. We all should be so lucky.
When to Consider Euthanasia
A natural death from old age is unfortunately not the way most dogs die. In the United States, most pets are euthanized at some stage in their life. Many due to illness, many close to the end to ease their pain and suffering, and far too many due to behavioral problems dog trainers failed to fix or could not be fixed nor safely managed. Let’s look at health and behavioral reasons and when to consider euthanasia separately.
Saying Goodbye to Your Dog for Health Reasons
Some states now have doctor-assisted suicide available for terminally ill patients so thinking about desperate situations for humans has become more commonplace. In contrast, easing pain and suffering from incurable illnesses and diseases has always been available to our pets. We can give our dogs this mercy when their lives are no longer joyful and mostly consist of pain or discomfort.
However, when should you opt for euthanasia and when should you wait? These are deeply personal questions. I am going to share my thoughts on this matter in the hope it will help others think about and find their own answers for their pets.
To keep the discussion focused I will assume that the care decision is not driven by not being able to afford treatment for a curable health condition. While medical pet expenses can become pretty steep in a matter of minutes, we can offset those with sufficient personal savings or a good pet health insurance plan (I use Embrace) and emergency credit cards to bridge the gap between when the vet wants money and the pet insurance reimbursement arrives. Additionally, most veterinarians now offer CareCredit to help with unforeseen veterinary expenses. My point is, there are many options, so money shouldn't be the reason for having to say goodbye to your dog.
If a dog has a health condition that may be incurable or treatment unfeasible due to advanced age, but the dog is not in pain, still enjoys life and the condition can be managed effectively, I personally would manage it for as long as possible. I lost my 19-year-old German Shepherd Max in October 2021 due to old age. However, he had a perianal fistula, which was diagnosed when he was 17 years old. My vet told me the treatment for this condition is rough, takes about four months, and only has a 40%-50% success rate; he advised against it. He suggested keeping him comfortable as long as possible and considering euthanasia when the time comes.
I was able to keep Max pain-free and comfortable for two years after this diagnosis by using THC and CBD drops. I worked with a veterinarian from VeterinaryCannabis.org to get to the right dosage with the best products. It was quite remarkable how well it worked and for how long. This was not about curing the condition. It was about managing the symptoms and maintaining Max’s quality of life.
Due to his health condition, Max’s last days would not have been as comfortable as Sylvester’s so we decided to spare him the last few days. We had a vet come to the home. The decision point for Max and every other one of my dogs has always been this: When the bad days outweigh the good ones, it is time to consider euthanasia and the situation should be monitored closely in the meantime. I see no point in letting a family member needlessly suffer when the end is inevitable. As much as it hurt, it was the best way to say goodbye to my dog, Max.
Further, on the health side, we may find ourselves in situations and make decisions that we previously never thought possible. I had a client who said, she would never put a dog with cancer through chemotherapy. However, when one of her dogs developed cancer, she changed her mind. I believe it bought them another 18 months together and as far as I know, most days were good. It was worth it to her and I am sure for her dog too. She also knew when the time was right to say goodbye instead of further chemotherapy treatments.
Saying Goodbye to Your Dog for Behavioral Reasons
A completely different question is when a dog should be euthanized for behavioral reasons. In one sense that can be a tougher question to answer than a health matter, as the dog is probably completely physically healthy. In another sense, it can be an easier question as the dog may be a danger to others. I don’t want to get into a larger dog training conversation here as I could probably easily fill a 2-hour podcast on this topic but I want to share some thoughts. If your dog is displaying dangerous (i. e. aggressive or destructive) or injurious (i. e. self-mutilation) behaviors, please consider the following before euthanasia:
- If a behavioral change occurs suddenly, without any build-up or warning, and has no apparent triggers, you may be dealing with a medical issue. Thyroid malfunctions can lead to aggressive behaviors. A simple blood test can tell and thyroid medication would eliminate the problem.
- More rare, but also possible are brain tumors or other neurological, or genetic issues. If a medical problem leads to aggression and there is no cure, the decision is made for us as euthanasia is the only viable option in such a scenario. It is heartbreaking nonetheless.
- Yet, most dogs that die due to behavioral issues probably don’t have to. The dog training industry is failing dog owners when it comes to working with behavioral challenges. Far too many dog trainers neither understand nor are able to effectively stop problematic behaviors quickly and reliably. There is a severe lack of knowledge in my industry. Personally, I only refer dog owners to three other dog trainers in my area. The majority of trainers I know locally I can’t in good conscience recommend. I consider this a problem. As a consequence of this widespread incompetence, it is extremely difficult for a dog owner (and basically sheer luck) to find a dog trainer that can actually help in serious behavioral cases. Once one or two training approaches have failed, many people choose euthanasia, thinking they tried what they could, which may be accurate. Here is a directory of trainers in the United States I am very comfortable with recommending. I am included in this directory.
- Another path to euthanasia often leads through veterinary behaviorists. These are basically the psychiatry arm of the veterinarians and predominantly prescribe psycho-pharmaceuticals. However, as recent studies have shown, those drugs don’t help much, but it’s nice recurring prescription revenue for the veterinarian. Once the drugs failed, many people also choose euthanasia. But keep in mind that veterinary behaviorists don’t interact much with dogs. They literally have no concept of what is or isn’t a normal interaction. Be wary of veterinarians recommending euthanasia for behavioral reasons. They have no dog training expertise and understand most dog behaviors only superficially.
Yet, euthanasia may be the best option for a given dog in a given situation. Sometimes there is no safe alternative. My points of concern are ruling out simple medical causes and exploring advanced training options, not ignoring reality.
I have recommended euthanasia for dogs that had no hesitation attacking people when they got scared or wanted something. Can these issues be addressed with the right owner? Probably. But how do we find that new owner? Is it worth the risk of injury or death to other people or dogs? When a skilled dog trainer handles a dog—even a human-aggressive dog—they can get pretty far, pretty quickly. But will the dog owner be careful, or diligent, or reliable, or responsible, or, ... and so on? Can that dog ever be fully trusted when living with a non-dog trainer? Will family members use good judgment with that dog 100% of the time? What about any risk to minor children?
The question of if a dog should be euthanized for behavioral reasons goes far beyond what is theoretically possible through training. We have to consider the full picture and what risks are we exposing ourselves and others to by keeping an animal around that may harm or kill someone we care about. Accidents happen. People get tired and make mistakes. Could we live with the consequence of such events?
The question is rarely if a particular dog could find a perfect home with the right person and have a great life. In theory, that can happen. In reality, it usually doesn’t. As a result, heartbreaking decisions have to be made frequently for safety reasons.
How to Make it Easiest on Your Dog and the Rest of Your Human Family
Sometimes we don’t have real options. If your dog has a serious accident or another emergency that requires a rush trip to the emergency hospital you may have to make a hard decision on the spot. If your dog is in pain and can’t be saved, euthanasia may be the only humane option. That is not ideal but just how life sometimes deals its cards. Yet, while tragic circumstances may dictate time and place, you still have several important decisions to make.
Please don’t leave your dog alone in their final moments. Your dog most likely doesn’t understand what is happening and is scared. Your presence will provide comfort. Holding them, caressing them, and helping them stay as calm as possible will make everything easier on your furry family member.
Of course, you know what is about to happen and you are probably crying. That is perfectly normal, still, be there with your dog. It will be overwhelming and you may experience anger at what happened, still, be strong for your dog. Your friend needs you to be there, please don’t abandon your family member in this moment of need. It will be difficult to watch your dog pass away but you will hate yourself for the rest of your life if you leave. I had clients who couldn’t stop blaming themselves for leaving 15+ years later. As hard as it will be in that moment, you will have ultimately helped your dog and it will also help you with healing and moving forward.
I don’t want to spend too much time on this but knowing how something generally goes can be helpful for our own comfort.
Veterinarians see your pain. They know how hard this is for you and do whatever they can to make it as easy as possible. You will have as much time as you want before and after euthanasia is performed. Before the process starts, the office staff usually offers to handle the payment so you can just leave after it is over and don’t have to stand in the office and wait. That is a good thing to get out of the way. You will not want to be with strangers afterward.
Next, you will be in a private room with your dog and the veterinarian will explain each step in detail. Generally, the veterinary technicians shave a bit of hair off one leg over a vein and insert a catheter.
During the first step, the veterinary technicians usually want to set the catheter by themselves. Some people pass out when they see blood and the dog may struggle during this process. They want to spare you having to see any of that. They may have good intentions, but you are there to help your dog. Leaving for this part is not in your dog’s best interest. If you know you can handle it, be there for your dog and have them do it in the room with you providing comfort to your dog.
However, if you fear you may pass out, leave the room for a brief moment. Avoid having your dog being moved around in the veterinary clinic, it is stressful enough. Unfortunately, I had to get quite firm with a veterinary technician once who kept insisting to take my dog to the next room at first. I wasn’t much in the mood for this interaction. Luckily for her, she stopped arguing and placed the catheter.
Then the veterinarian will come in again and inject a sedative to get your dog to relax. They may leave the room until you’re ready for the final step or they may stay with you; in any case, you will have as much time as you need. Once you are ready and give the go-ahead the euthanasia drug is injected and the dog will usually pass within seconds. But if a dog tries to ‘fight’ the drug it can take a bit longer. First, the veterinarian will check for a heartbeat through feel on a vein and then with a stethoscope on the chest. They will tell you once your dog has passed.
The whole process is supposed to be peaceful and most of the time it is. However, I was present during one euthanasia of a rescue dog that had to be euthanized due to safety concerns. He was too dangerous, had a serious bite history, and had no owner. He had to be muzzled for the first part and held down. It was rough. That dog also didn’t pass until five minutes after the euthanasia drug. This is atypical, but not impossible. Just know, it could happen.
To make the entire process easier on your dog and the entire family, consider at-home euthanasia. We used Lab of Love (lapoflove.com) with the last dog we had to say goodbye to. My German Shepherd Max was 19 years old and had declined fast towards the end. This is how it often goes with dogs. It goes quickly when the time has come.
Unfortunately, Max was struggling towards the end, so we decided that waiting was not an option. When Sylvester passed 6 months earlier, it was peaceful. He was pain-free and happy two days prior, slept most of his last day, and just fell asleep at the end. There was no need to euthanize. However, with Max, it would have been very different, probably due to his perianal fistula. For this reason, we felt it was better to spare him the discomfort his last days would have been.
The mobile euthanasia veterinarian from Lab of Love made this horrible day a lot less stressful for Max. We didn’t have to haul him off to a vet office, deal with people he didn’t know and the rest of it. Lab of Love was recommended to me by one of my long-time clients and they made a difficult day a lot easier. I recommend this option if it’s possible for you. You have the same options of private cremation, getting the ashes, getting paw prints, and so on. It obviously costs more than going to the veterinarian’s office but it is not prohibitively expensive either. I am glad we chose this option for Max and we will continue recommending and using them again in the future. Hopefully, that won’t be anytime soon.
This brings us directly to the next point.
How to Help Your Other Dogs Through the Loss
All mammals have the same emotional systems as humans do and grieve loss in much the same way. If a family dog passes, all other family members, human or animal, will feel that loss and grieve in some way. With the last two dogs passing in my home, Sylvester on his own and Max with vet assistance, I got to experience and validate what I always suspected would be the best way for the other dogs in the family to achieve closure.
With both dogs that passed in the home, the other dogs were able to experience them progressing in that direction and afterward also inspect (i. e. sniff) the body. It shortened the grieving period. There was no wondering, where they went and what had happened. There was closure. The dogs who had a close relationship with them spent more time with the bodies and were affected more, just like us. The ones who were not close acknowledged the death and moved on, just like we would.
Overall, it made the loss easier for all my other dogs to process and move forward. We grieved together and recovered each at our individual rates.
If you only have one dog, the loss only affects you. It is however worth considering adding a second dog—ideally, a younger one your dog gets along with—to the family a year or so before you suspect your older dog may pass. Your older dog may get some additional joy out of teaching a younger one as long as you handle the initial phase properly and don’t let the new guy bully your senior; that would obviously be bad.
Your older dog must be part of the selection process and also must have veto power over any dog you are considering. You want harmony and not ruin your senior’s golden years. An older dog can also teach a newcomer how to behave in the home. Further, when the time comes to say goodbye, you already have another dog in the home and you can help each other. That can help with the grieving process.
However, it is not advisable to get a new dog right after another dog passes. You must give yourself and your family time to grieve and move forward before adding a new family member. Too many people get a new dog too early and project too much of the dog they lost onto the new animal. Your next dog will be different. It may have some similarities but dogs are individuals; just like us. Your new dog will have to be trained and will have to learn everything your older dog already knew. That will take time and is best not started while still grieving. Training a new dog comes with frustrations, remember? Don’t try that while you are still grieving.
Obviously, everyone grieves differently but I suggest waiting at least three to six months after saying goodbye to your dog before considering adding a new one to the family.
Lastly, if adding a second dog early is right for your family depends on your circumstances and your senior dog. It may very well be best to spend all available time with your buddy. Grieve after it passes, let time pass, and get a new dog half a year or a year later. It all depends on your individual circumstances.
Cremation and Other Considerations When Saying Goodbye to Your Dog
Veterinary euthanasia services—regardless of if they are performed in an office or your home—all offer additional options. The most common are:
- Communal cremation without return of the ashes. This is usually included in the base price.
- Private cremation and return of the ashes in a wooden box with the name of your dog engraved on top.
- Pawprints of your pet.
- Hair from your pet.
What makes sense for you, is a personal choice. I only requested the ashes of Sylvester for the explicit purpose of spreading them either on the top of his most impressive mountain hike or on a future property in a nice field. Personally, I don’t want to look at a wooden box with ashes every day. That is not him. You may feel differently. Do whatever you feel will be best for you.
I do like having paw prints as a memory. Together with pictures, tags, collars, or leashes, I can see making myself a nice memory display I may enjoy looking at. As you can tell, I haven’t done that yet. It is too recent.
Decide what will help you heal and what you may want to use with a future memorial display. Maybe you want all of the above, maybe nothing besides your memories. There are no right or wrong answers. We are all different.
But, whatever you do, take time to grieve. You lost an important part of your life. Someone you loved died. Your friend wasn’t “just a dog”. Sylvester was with me for 14 years; Max for 11 years. It hurts. It should. I would be concerned if it didn’t. But it is true what they say. Time heals all wounds, as long as you let them heal. If you keep tearing those wounds back open on a regular basis, you will never get over it. That would be bad for you and everyone else in your life and your dog would not want that.
Dogs love life. They live every moment to its fullest. Dogs find wonder in things we have grown accustomed to. They are eternal children; full of wonder. Your dog would not want you to grieve for the rest of your life. It would want you to be happy again. You honor your dog most by doing exactly that. For that, you have to grieve first but also move forward after saying goodbye to your dog.
Stay off social media. You don’t have to share your loss with a bunch of strangers, you call “friends” on Facebook. This is a private matter. There is no need to make a public spectacle out of our most personal moments. If you need people, you never talk to in real life to issue condolences, you need help. See a professional. That is not healthy. And I am not sorry to be blunt about it. Someone you loved died. Share it with people who actually care about you and only when the time is right.
Recovering After Saying Goodbye to Your Dog
The mobile veterinarian from Lap of Love who helped us with Max shared the following resources for dealing with the loss of a pet with us. While I have my own process, I found these to be valuable resources that can help people. Maybe you can use them.
This was a difficult article to write. I teared up several times as I wrote this over a period of about six weeks. I have experienced a lot of loss this year and writing this article in some way feels like was part of my recovery.
Naturally, I love all my dogs dearly, but losing Sylvester was especially hard. He was my special dog. He was with me the longest. We did more together than I have yet had a chance to do with any of my other dogs. It took several months for me to feel somewhat normal again. Now, my memories of him finally start making me smile more often than cry. I also miss Max. He was a stinker; a grumpy old man from day one. He was already eight years old when I rescued him. He was such a cute senior. The way he trotted to the door when I called him was adorable.
My other dogs have been a huge comfort through this time despite their own grief. Neither of them has ever known a home without Sylvester or Max before. They all dealt with our loss differently after saying goodbye to our two dogs.
I hope this article can help you in some way. Know, that as much as it hurts right now, it will eventually get better. You just have to allow for that to happen.