Goodbye to the Family Dog

We are dog people and have owned a series of four chocolate Labrador retrievers since we married. Of all of the pups, Argus was the biggest and rowdiest. He was the largest of the puppies in his litter and grew to be 100 pounds of muscle topped off by an enormous head. Though we named him after Odysseus’ fabled warrior dog, he was truly a gentle giant and the perfect companion for our, at the time, six-year old son. Best buddies from the day we brought him home as a puppy, they grew up together with Argus acting as playmate and confidante, alarm clock and friend. The years of puppyhood, with chewed possessions and indoor “accidents,” are distressing. But witnessing your grown child saying goodbye to a beloved, yet now-aged dog as he leaves home for college is infinitely harder.

Family Dog: Why it is so painful to say goodbye.

Getting a dog to accompany a child from youth to young adulthood is a true American tradition. And since the estimated life expectancy of a dog is 12.8 years,  part of that tradition is often the inevitable and painful phone call parents must make to their college child telling him that the end has come for his pup.

Family Dog: Why it is so painful to say goodbye.

Author Willie Morris (1934-1999) wrote about the magic of a family dog in his wonderful book, My Dog Skip.  We learn how Morris blossomed from an awkward and lonely (only) child to a confident college student and recipient of a Rhodes scholarship, all with the help of his loyal dog. As the story ends, an ominous call arrives for him in Oxford telling Morris of Skip’s death.  He writes:

The dog of your boyhood teaches you a great deal about friendship, and love, and death: Old Skip was my brother…. They had buried him under our elm tree, they said-yet this was not totally true.  For he really lay buried in my heart.

As we packed our son off to college for his freshman year, my husband, daughter and I watched as he hugged Argus and told him he would see him soon. At age 13, the enormous chocolate Lab who joined our household so many years before, had accomplished his mission in seeing his boy off to college. He, too, had taught our son about friendship and love. Like Skip, he passed away during our son’s freshman year.

No doubt our son will own other dogs but may never have a relationship quite like the one he had with Argus. When I think of him as a really young boy, in my mind’s eye, he is smiling broadly, running with his giant retriever. It is an indelible image.

Family Dog: Why it is so painful to say goodbye.



  1. says

    Oh, this one really tugs at my heart strings. We have and have had chocolate labs: Mocha, her daughter Java, and now Annabella and her son Jack. Annabella is 8 and Jack is 6. My son is 19 and my daughter is 14. What you’re describing is exactly what is going to happen in my family and though I am SO happy my kids can know what it’s like to have a family pup who is furry and loves them to death, I am dreading the day when Annie and Jackie pass on. They are here with us for WAY too short a time.

    • says

      Really so true but how wonderful for your family that you have shared so many happy times with your dogs – I love labs, as you can tell. Same with you, I see. Enjoy the chaos of the kids and dogs!

  2. says

    Mary Dell,

    This was sad, but poignant. Our dog Cloe is 14 – she endured being dressed up and carted around in a baby stroller, had hair things constantly applied to her ears and endured a myriad of horrible things that the girls subjected her through while they were growing up. I dread the day that I have to make that phone call to them…



    • says

      Angela, we would love to see the pictures of Cloe dressed up with your girls as little ones….happy memories for life!

  3. says

    What is sweeter than a boy and his dog? Loved seeing the pics through the years – from when both “the boy” and Argus were pups.

  4. says

    Oh truly also loved seeing the progression of pictures from over the years with your son and Argus. My girls and husband want a yellow lab. I know we will hopefully be getting one in the not so distant future (trying to own our own house for this one to happen), but I know I too someday will probably have these types of memories between them and our dog. thanks for sharing though and really did leave me wiping tears from my eyes.

    • says

      Janie, I whole-heartedly encourage dog ownership and I am a big lab lover, as you can see. Thanks and good luck to you and your family…hope the house and the dog are in your not too distant future.

  5. Happyoutlook says

    Mary Dell, great piece that really capture the emotional bond that our dogs play in our children’s lives.

    • says

      Thanks – cannot imagine our children’s childhood without the dogs and I know you feel the same way!

  6. says

    What a lovely post.

    I felt it was important for our kids to have a dog, but the one we got from the pound is a quirky little thing with odd issues. The kids love him, though, and there are times when I feel as if our learning to accept him for what he is, faults and all, is another lesson about family well worth learning.

    • says

      Korinthia, interesting point about learning to live with your dog’s quirkiness. As long as he is gentle I am sure he is a wonderful companion for your kids.

  7. says

    Dogs were such an important part of my childhood. I “grew up” with one German Shepard in particular, and I still remember vividly the day he died. A good dog makes such a bond with a child: a play mate, protector, companion, best friend.

    • says

      My husband and I both grew up with dogs, too, so it has been natural for us to have them for our kids. Jessica, I agree wholeheartedly about the wonderful bond a child has with a dog in every way you describe.

  8. says

    I read this right after putting my little ones to bed, with the help of our little 10-pound shelter-rescue, whom I like to call “love wrapped in a fur coat.”

    I can’t even THINK of our family without him! <3 <3

    By the way I was all choked up reading this until I got to the picture; then I full-on ugly-cried. GEEZ.

  9. says

    I thought I’d have to make that dreaded phone call to my kids when they were away at college but our 15 year-old Terrier just keeps on keeping on.

  10. says

    Just the anticipation of this day…as I look at my 3 year old Charlie…makes me misty…It is such a blessing to be loved by a dog….

    • says

      Lesli, agreed, a wonderful feeling to be loved by a dog. We have Moose who is 7 and Gus (whose likeness you captured perfectly in your fantastic painting of him, btw) who is 3. Hope for many years with them and you with Charlie.

  11. says

    Aw…its so fun to grow up with dogs. I grew up with two Westies who passed away when I got married. My husband and I got 2 Westies before we had kids and they had fun growing up with Pebbles and Snowball. They were the sweetest girls and it was incredibly hard on us when they passed away in 2010 and 2012. We have been thinking of them lately and miss them still terribly. They showed us more love than no other. Sadly, I’m badly allergic to their hair so we can’t get any more pets and the house isn’t quite the same without them. Hugs and my thoughts are with you and your family.

    • says

      Tanya, so sorry you cannot have a dog but what memories you must have with your Westies and your children!

  12. says

    My sweet Gilligan, a labradoodle, just had surgery yesterday to remove some possibly cancerous lumps and bumps. I’m hoping he recovers quickly, so he can get back to playing with my 16 month old son who adores him.

    • says

      Sarah, what a sweet name for a labradoodle, “Gillian.” Hope she is on the mend soon and returns as your little one’s best buddy.

  13. says

    I grew up with a cocker spaniel named Loony (don’t ask!) and received the inevitable phone call when I was in my grad studies. It’s such a wonderful relationship and I really hope to give the same to my two boys!

    • says

      Must have been difficult to both answer that call and make it. So glad you have happy memories and hope it works out for you and your boys to get a dog.

  14. says

    Wow…I wasn’t expecting tears to come to my eyes! We’ve had two very special family pets and remember all too well the death of our first one. It’s been interesting to watch how each of the kids (and our dog) deal with their reunions. Great post!

    • says

      Phoebe, Thanks for the kind words. Family pets are part of our histories with our kids, totally intertwined.

  15. says

    Thank you for sharing your story. This brought back such fond memories of my first childhood dog. There is nothing better than having the love and comfort from a pet. It can be hard growing up but having the unconditional love of an animal always brings comfort…..even as an adult this is important.

  16. Helene Cohen Bludman says

    What a sweet post! I am definitely a little teary after reading it. My sweet Duncan is so dear to my family, I can’t even let myself think of how quickly these years go by. We rescued him when he was about a year old and I always say he thanks us every day.

  17. says

    We recently had the same heart wrenching experience. The dog of my children’s growing up years had to recently be put to sleep.

    While they are all “grown and flown,” our children had a different, faraway experience in working through their loss. It has been my husband’s and my sad fortune to deal with the day to day emotions of not seeing our dear Roxy around the house. Losing a pet of 12 years 9 months was so much harder than I imagined.

  18. Emily says

    I’ll never forget receiving that phone call at college that our family dog had passed. My parents were so worried about me and asked my college roommates to look after me. I didn’t leave my college apartment for days, or so it seemed. I remember needing to talk and cry to all my childhood friends, the ones who knew my sweet dog well. My college friends were sympathetic, but didn’t understand my pain like my friends from home. A very relatable post…

    • says

      I remember getting “the call” about my childhood dog, too. So sad to say goodbye to them….


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    […] Mary Dell writes: Long ago, our house became a favorite destination for our son’s playdates and we have a big, brown, furry family dog to thank. During our 20+ years of marriage, we have actually owned four (!  […]

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