Goodbye to the Family Dog

Thursday, October 31, 2013 - 11:15am
Woman sits next to chocolate lab

Guest blog by Mary Dell Harrington, co-founder of the parenting blog Grown and Flown

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 had four chocolate Labrador retrievers, beginning with a puppy when we got engaged and ending with the dog who joined our almost-empty nest three years ago.

Of all the dogs, though, Argus, a Christmas addition for our then six-year old son, was the rowdiest, matching up in temperament perfectly with the pack of energized little boys who came over to play. As he trained (somewhat successfully) his unruly pal, our son gained a playmate and confidante, alarm clock and buddy; in fact, he gained a brother. The years of puppyhood, with chewed possessions and indoor accidents, are distressing. But witnessing your grown child say goodbye to a now-aged dog as he leaves home for college is infinitely harder.

Author Willie Morris (1934-1999) wrote about the magic of a family dog in his wonderful book, My Dog Skip. We learn of 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 his dog and told him he would see him soon. For 13 years, the enormous chocolate Lab who joined our household so many years before, taught our son about friendship and love. Like Morris’ dog Skip, Argus passed away during our son’s collegiate years.

No doubt our son will have other dogs, but he 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.

Mary Dell Harrington, a graduate of the University of Texas and Harvard Business School, began her career in the media where she worked for NBC, Discovery and Lifetime. Most recently, she and Lisa Heffernan co-founded Grown and Flown, a parenting blog that looks at the entire arc of family life from the point of view of moms with kids 15-25. Their writing has appeared in Huffington Post,, PBS Next Avenue and Lifetime Moms. Along with her chocolate Labrador partner, Moose, Mary Dell is a certified Pet Partners animal therapist and volunteers for New York-Presbyterian Hospital in that capacity.

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after your story, it reminded me of recent calls to my 3 beautiful cats who joined my life when i was in tourmoil and changes and gave me the courage and love i needed then. they grew old and each passed with a huge pain in my heart... still! sorry for your loss. i feel your pain. They are all Angels to our soul!

Mary Dell Harrington

Marlene, so sweet to refer to our pets as "Angels to our soul." Very true.


Only a pet owner can truly understand the emotional bond one has with their creatures. I always had dogs while growing up. As married adult, our initial residences had restricted pet ownership, but when we moved to our first home our then 8 y.o. son and I worked on my wife to get a dog. She had never had a dog, though she did like them from afar.
Our son had terrible allergies and we finally found a breed that didn't cause his eyes to swell, a Bichon Frise. Flappy as he was called, named by our son after my very first dog Flaps was an incredible first dog for both my wife and our son. Gentle, smart, loving and quiet, he went everywhere with us, even to places he wasn't allowed. We snuck him into the stacks of the library while I was doing research on my doctorate. He never barked or made a sound, so no one knew he was there. He'd sit in a big canvas bag in a shopping cart in whatever store we were in, almost hidden from anyone around. He even attended my son's college orientation, legally, and sat for hours in his own seat while various professors and other staff members spoke about the school and the upcoming year. People around us asked where we bought such a realistic looking stuffed animal!
Flappy received the best veterinary care, both for sickness and injuries, as well as ongoing well care. He had to be euthanized at age 17 due to heart and kidney failure. It was one of the saddest days of my life. He was a devoted companion to his family and friends. He loved everyone, was the mayor of the community, and just couldn't have been a better friend.
Since then we have rescued 4 different dogs, and at one time had 3 Bichons. Now we have two Havanese (rescued through Halo) and a Coton. Each dog has their own unique personality as we all know, and each gets into your heart in their own way. We lost the two other Bichons at ages 15 and 13, too young and very tragic. The 3 little ones we have now are 6, 2 and 1, and are great companions. Our granddaughters aged 3 and one are now learning to love them, as they still have some fears because unlike the Bichons, these guys bark a lot when they are happy.
Although losing these companions is painful, those who never experience the years of joy they provide have really missed out on one of life's treasures. My wife would own a dozen rescues if she could and live on a farm somewhere where they could all be safe and comfortable. But, I still work, we live in the burbs, and she's happy to cuddle up with the 3 of them whenever she can.

Mary Dell Harrington

Barry, what a great story you have told here about Flaps - he sounds like a fantastic companion. So great that you have had other good dogs, too, in your life.

Leta Scott

There is no doubt in my mind that they will see each other again. The love in my heart from all of my previous pets are near me forever. This is a touching story which reminds me of the richness that a family pet can bring in our lives which brought tears to my eyes. I have rescued and put to sleep many dogs, and each and every one of them have impacted my life in a profound way. I am truly blessed by the overwhelming love the dogs can provide during times of desperation and despair. DOG=GOD

Mary Dell Harrington

Leta, I can tell you are a real animal lover, too!

Maisie Statham

Hi. I have never written Petunia's story before. Too painful. But it needs to be told. My daughter was diagnosed with Leukaemia at aged 13. Twenty five years ago. Her sisters brought home from the school playground a little Chihuahua who had been wandering around for days. I told the school handyman where we lived if someone came for her. Someone did, and my daughter (on chemo) very reluctantly gave the dog back as I had told her it might happen. The owner said if he had known he would never have come for it and he would get her another one. I refused, having enough to do being a single parent. However, he duly brought around another little Chihuahua. My daughter rejected her and the little pup knew it. Using reverse psychology I said she wasn't to hurt the pup's feelings and to leave it alone. Of course, within an hour it was in bed with her. She instantly became so aware of my daughter's needs and even used to come and get me when a vomit bowl was needed. For the next sixteen years Petunia was a constant companion, gentle, quiet and lovely. My daughter whispered to her all her emotions whilst going through treatment. They shared a bed together (which had never been allowed prior to this) and when my daughter got her first car, Petunia was never left behind.
Work finally took my daughter to a job 8 hours away from home and Petunia stayed with me. Every second weekend they were together again. That final weekend I phoned my daughter and said you had better come home this weekend as Petunia's time was getting close. She died in my arms, 1/2 hr before my daughter arrived. We lay with Petunia all that night until we both felt her spirit had left and buried her with my daughters polar fleece jacket on and the arms tied around, hugging her forever. She has never left our heart. Please don't cry. I still do enough of that for everyone. My daughter is well, married, has two miracle children and a husband who has worked with Camp Quality and understands everything. Along with the doctors and nurses, I thank Petunia from the bottom of my heart.

Mary Dell Harrington

Maisie, your story of your daughter and Petunia is amazing and I so touched that you would share it here. Clearly, she "has never left your heart." She was a wonderful dog and helped your daughter so much at a difficult time in her life. Thank you, again.

Carla (Wis)

For as much a part of our lives pets are, it just isn't fair that they live such a short time!

Mary Dell Harrington

very true!