Care and Feeding

A Year After My Dog’s Death, I’m Still Consumed With Guilt

A woman holds her head in her hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Soon it will be a year since I euthanized my dog after he bit my niece, a toddler. At first I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and failure over my dog, and even now this still comes over me in waves. But most of the time these days I struggle with feeling responsible because it was my dog who bit my 2-year-old niece. She is all right, and I don’t think she remembers it now—but it was dreadful, terrifying, at the time, and I feel horrendously guilty for allowing this to happen. I am consumed with guilt too, because two of my own kids were traumatized (and still are)—not only because they witnessed the attack on their younger cousin but also because of the sudden loss of their much-loved dog. And my eldest, who is 11 now and wasn’t home and thus didn’t see the bite happen, doesn’t understand how bad it was and is still angry with us. “Lou” was his dog more than any of the rest of ours: he picked him out as a puppy when he was only 2 years old and they essentially grew up together. I don’t blame my son for being angry. I am angry too. I’m angry with myself for not listening to my gut feeling a year before the disaster, when the first snap happened. I’m angry with myself for not putting my foot down and insisting that Lou be neutered years ago, when I first learned that intact males are sometimes more prone to aggression. And I’m angry with Lou, although I loved him.

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I don’t blame my son for still being sad, either, or for missing his dog. Earlier this summer, I cut up the first watermelon of the season and when I threw the rind away I cried. Lou loved watermelon rind. He would wait patiently as I cut up a watermelon for the kids. He was a troubled dog I did my best with for as long as I could. I failed him, I know, and I still feel guilty and grief-stricken about that. But I’m thankful that we were able to give him 8 wonderful years. He was loved so much by all of us! I just don’t know how to deal with any of these feelings.

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—Brokenhearted and Consumed with Guilt

Dear Brokenhearted,

I am brokenhearted too. I’m so sorry about your niece, so sorry about what your younger children had to witness, so sorry about your eldest son’s sadness and anger, and so sorry about Lou. All of it is awful. And as someone who has been through this—although in my case it was I who was attacked by a beloved, troubled dog—I understand very well the swirl of guilt and grief and horror and heartsickness in the wake of caring for, and loving—and doing your best for—a dog whose brain is mis-wired. Although you don’t mention this, I know that all of these feelings are compounded by the mistaken but commonly held notion that aggression in dogs is always the fault of the humans who have raised them, and that aggression can always be “trained out of” a dog.

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The animal behaviorist I worked with at the Ohio State University’s veterinary hospital was the first person who told me that there are dogs who are born fearful and reactive, whose aggression cannot be “fixed.” I’ve since learned that many people, like me, have made every effort—multiple trainers, behaviorists, and medications—and finally have had to recognize that some dogs will never be able to live healthy, happy lives, and the people who live with them (and the people with whom they happen to come into contact) will never be safe with them. I know all about making excuses for “snaps” and snarls and other warning signs. No one who has a dog they love wants to believe that this dog is capable of hurting someone. You didn’t “fail” Lou. You did your best by, and for, him. And you had no idea he was going to attack a child. This too is not your fault.

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I think the way to talk to your children is to be honest about all of this. Brooke Purcell, who has her own behavioral euthanasia story and is also the parent of a young child—and who has a professional background in helping people through traumatic experiences—has told me that she didn’t want to hide her sadness or anger from her child, or her wish that things could have had a different ending, but that she believes “it was stabilizing for him to hear from me that I believed I had done the best I could in awful circumstances.” She also mentioned that her own pain had been complicated by “the feeling that this ‘shouldn’t’ be that big a deal emotionally” and that it was immensely helpful to her to consult “a mental health professional, who used terms like ‘trauma’ and ‘complicated grief’ to describe this experience.” You may need to get some professional help with this too, especially if everyone is still suffering a full year later. For my part, I have been helped enormously by a support group on Facebook* for people who have been through this. (I want to stress that dogs with inborn difficulties this severe are rare—but given the sheer number of dogs, and the people who love them, all over the world, there are a lot of us who have experienced what you and I and Brooke have.)

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As to the matter of neutering, there is research that concludes that neutered males are more aggressive than non-neutered ones—and other research that concludes the antithesis is true (and anecdotal evidence demonstrating both … as well as research that suggests that it doesn’t matter either way). As one of the wise people who administer the Facebook support group notes: “Grief tends to bring ‘if only’ and a wish to wind back time that could get to a different outcome.” Be kind to yourself; be gentle with yourself.

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*If you are a reader who is struggling with this, you can request membership in this group. Make sure to explain your circumstances with complete specificity in the message to the administrators, and then be patient, because anytime there is a mention in the media, as there was this past June in Slate, they are deluged with requests.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ll start by saying that I know the answer to this question is “go to therapy.” But! I have emotional trauma from my childhood, and I am parenting a 2-year-old, and my baggage is making me feel as if I am being manipulated by my child. Due to a number of factors, my kid-brain learned that if I am a “bother” (very loosely defined), it is possible that I will no longer be loved. I spent my childhood on eggshells around a difficult dad and learned not to have needs, or at least not to speak up about them. I am now parenting a very opinionated 2-year-old, who tells me things like “Mommy, don’t sing!” or “Don’t talk to Daddy!” It is always, always my first instinct to acquiesce to these absurd requests, because of my poorly trained neural pathways. My daughter is too young to really understand the message I keep trying to get through to her: “You don’t get to decide what other people do”—but what can I say to her in these situations? I am already going to therapy to work on retraining my brain, and I rationally know that my child won’t stop loving me because I loudly sing Weird Al in the car, but I don’t know what to do in the moment.

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—Tired of Boss Baby

Dear Tired,

My answer is to fake it till you make it. In other words, even as your “kid-brain” screams at you to obey the Boss Baby’s orders, don’t listen. Either to your child or your child-self. The most amazing thing about doing what you know you need to do even when it feels (neurotically) wrong at a very deep level is that if you keep doing it, it eventually works. And because you’re working on changing this pathway from the inside too, I’m willing to bet it will work even more effectively.

I know how hard it is to silence one’s own demons. In the meantime—in the moment, every time—ignore them. And what you can say to your child in these situations, lightly and with affection, is, “Oh, sweetie, but I love to sing! I don’t want to stop because it makes me so happy!” Your 2-year-old will not be happy about this, but learning they are not in charge of their parents is as important to their development and individuation as their attempts at bossiness are. You’ve done a good job raising her if she is comfortable expressing her opinions and trying to boss you around! Now keep it up by cheerfully letting her know that she won’t always get her way.

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• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two sons, “Oliver,” age 6, and “Alex,” age 13. Alex was born when I was 19, and two years later his father, “Todd,” left without warning while I was at work: an hour into my shift I get a call from my mom that Todd had dropped Alex off with her, and when I got home I found that the apartment, and our bank account, were almost completely cleaned out. Although I never refused to let Todd see Alex after that, I also never initiated or offered anything (and Todd never expressed interest in seeing him). I also didn’t file for child support. A few years later, I met the love of my life, “Allen.” We married when Alex was 5, had Oliver when he was 7, and then Allen adopted him when he was 9. It was an uncontested adoption—Todd signed his rights away willingly. Allen is the only father Alex has ever really known, and Allen’s family has accepted and loved Alex from the first minute they met him. Even after we had our second child, who is biologically both of ours, nothing changed. It’s beautiful and wonderful and exactly how a blended family should be.

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My issue is with Todd’s parents. They are very nice people and they love Alex. Until recently they’ve been pretty active in his life despite their son’s absence from it. They’ve come to his school functions, sports, etc. This last year, however, they’ve had hardly any contact with him (of course, it was an unprecedented year, and I wouldn’t have let Alex visit them anyway since his younger brother is high risk—but they didn’t even call but once or twice all year, and Alex has his own phone so it’s not like I’m the gatekeeper of their relationship). Also, before the pandemic—in August 2019—I had mentioned that Oliver would like to get to know them, too, because they’re such a big part of Alex’s life. They said they weren’t interested. (Side note: Oliver doesn’t know that he and Alex are biologically half brothers. He’s so young—what’s the point in telling him that? So he just thinks that Alex has these special grandparents who don’t want anything to do with him, which breaks my heart.) My mother thinks I should try harder to include Todd’s parents in our life—that I should be the one to initiate telephone calls and visits. I completely disagree. If they really wanted to be a bigger part of his life, THEY would try harder. I’m also hurt by their apathy towards Oliver, especially when I have Allen’s family as a shining example of what family should be.

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I don’t want to cut them off, even though I have the legal right to, but I just don’t know what to do anymore. Do I do as my mother suggests and make more of an effort with them, or do I leave their relationship with Alex up to them and their whims? Do I allow them to foster their relationship with just one of my children or do I explain that if they want to have a relationship with anyone in this family they have to have a relationship with the whole family?

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—Overwhelmed Mama

Dear OM,

This is a complicated situation and you have my sympathy—I can see that it has been difficult for you to navigate. But I must gently point out that the correspondence between your asking Todd’s parents to become involved in your younger son’s life (and their letting you know that they weren’t interested in that) and their dropping out of sight in Alex’s life doesn’t sound like a coincidence. I mean, it might be—or it might be related but not consciously on the part of Alex’s bio- grandparents—but, either way, it seems to me you are asking a lot of these people who are (or were) just trying to do right by the child their son abandoned. I can imagine it must be quite painful to them to know their son behaved so abominably, that it must be heartbreaking for them that Todd so blithely signed away his parental rights, and that the emotional cost of their remaining involved with Alex has been considerable for them, even as they mourn the much closer relationship with him that might have been. It doesn’t shock me that they don’t want to take on a grandparenting role with Oliver, that this feels like too much emotional labor. It would be gracious and generous for them to do so, of course, but that doesn’t make it a requirement.

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I think the real problem here is that you have lied to Oliver and that you continue to. Does Alex know the truth? Have you asked him to lie to his brother, too? If so, the problem is even bigger than I think (please don’t ask a child to keep a secret from his sibling; please don’t ever ask children to lie about anything). It’s time to come clean. The point in Oliver knowing is not only that he will no longer think that one set of grandparents is mysteriously ignoring him while being “special” to his brother but that he understand who he is. Tell him, in an age-appropriate way, about his biological father. Make clear that there is a difference between a bio-parent and a parent. (Parents whose kids are adopted have to deal with this distinction, as do parents whose children were conceived in ways other than the traditional one.) There are plenty of tips available for how to do this—both specific to talking about a bio-dad and more generally, and some of the information out there for adoptive parents will be relevant too, especially for your husband.

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As to your parents’ advice, in general I agree with you that reaching out to Alex is up to Todd’s parents, that it’s not your job to facilitate a relationship between your son and them. But given the possible non-coincidence I’ve suggested, I would urge you to contact them once and tell them how much they mean to their grandson and that you wouldn’t want to do anything to interfere with that. And do your best to believe that. And, yes, to allow them to have a relationship with their grandson that does not include his brother. Your children are separate people: They are allowed to have separate relationships. I think it’s you—and your determination to keep an important piece of information about his identity a secret from your younger son—who’s set up a roadblock to this. It’s time to move the roadblock out of the way.

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—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My older sister and her husband are much, much more well-off than my family. They can afford to travel several times each year, own multiple homes and expensive cars, and were able to pay in full for my nieces’ college and graduate school at private colleges. We are very close, and they are some of the kindest, most genuine people you’ll ever meet. My son is a rising junior, and we know he’ll probably have to take out loans for college. My sister and her husband have offered to pay for his college, but my husband won’t accept it. We need this. What should we do?

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