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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My siblings and I were "stairsteps." When we were all stillin grade school our family got a dog. Nell was like a sixth sibling --- funny, crazy, kind of wild, dearly loved. By the time she was 13, we were all out of house --- either living in other cities pursuing career or in college. My poor mother had to take her for that "last visit" to the vet; and then let us know. I think it was harder for her to let go. Because letting her go was really letting go of our childhood, when we were all together and safe from the travails of adulthood that she knew lay ahead. Like you, Ms Harrington, she always thought of us as her 5 "kidlets" running and playing with Nell.

Mary Dell Harrington

Lizzie, that is such a sweet story and I can only imagine how your mom enjoyed Nell's companionship around the house after you all left. I am sure it was very hard, too, to let go of "your childhood" as you put it. Wonderful memories....

Jeri Dayle Rabi...

Hi. I am a fellow writer, pet parent, and fan of My Dog Skip. Our family has also done a lot of rescue work and volunteering. This September, our rabbit Pelusso passed away. Since the night we rescued him, he spent 8.5 wonderful years in our home. He was given a death sentence by one vet 1.5 years ago, then an exotics vets gave us hope; showing my daughter how to administer medication with a syringe and find the spot where it doesn't hurt. When Pelusso crossed the rainbow bridge my daughter was away, having just started her third year of college.

Mary Dell Harrington

Jeri, I am sure that was a very hard phone call to make to your daughter. Thank you for sharing your story about sweet Pelusso. I am sure your bunny had a wonderful home.

Barbee Joy Hall

Loosing your dog/companion is the worst part of life but unfortunately we all go though it. I cried after reading this story. Words could never express how Morris
felt and is still feeling but life does go on. Through the years for I have had dogs and 1 cat. You really cannot help but get so attached. While they are with us enjoy the moments and hope for the best. We now have an westie who is so sweet.

Mary Dell Harrington

Our pets are our wonderful companions for only so long. We are lucky to have them and will always retain sweet memories.


So sorry for your loss. It's so hard losing the family pet, they're like one of the children. I cried reading your story, my heart aches for you.
Through the years, I have lost many cherished pets, it's hard. I now have a Jack Russell Molly, a pitbull Bailey, siamese cat Peyton, and a domestic Dexter. All rescues. They are the best kind of pet, they thank you in their own way every day.

Mary Dell Harrington

Jani, sounds like you have a big heart and love animals! Thank you for your kindness.

Lynda H.

I too, grew up with a dog that went all the way from the time I was about 5 right into my marriage for several years. She went from little sister to daughter to me. I know how hard it is to lose a life long close pal. It was so hard for me to finally make the decision to put her down. I've gone through many dogs since then, but never one like her. She was a rescue when my dad brought her home to me, but at that time no one called them recues. She will always be my "heart dog".

MAry Dell Harrington

Lynda, I understand what you mean about a "heart dog." We have been lucky to have dogs as companions and it sounds like you had yours for a very long time.