In every partnership, there comes a time for retiring your assistance dog. This is a profoundly emotional time for both you and your dog. You’ve probably spent many years relying on the help and companionship of your guide, hearing, or service dog, and also probably haven’t ever been apart for more than a few hours or so in all that time. That’s a closer relationship than people have with pets, and even with family members.
For those who’ve never had an assistance dog, it’s impossible to fully grasp how hard it can be to watch such a deep relationship draw to a close. Your instinct at first may be to make excuses for why your canine companion seems to be slowing down or not quite as into her work. But once you start to suspect the time for retiring your assistance dog is approaching, it probably is; you know your partner so well, you’ll pick up on the cues.
The life of an assistance dog is physically and psychologically demanding. These remarkable animals are carefully selected for their ability to handle the load, but it’s not fair to make them continue on once it becomes difficult, painful, or unsafe—and this time comes in every dog’s life. They have earned a fabulous retirement, and as hard as it is, you don’t want to push them too long or deprive them of their well-deserved R&R.
When Is It Time to Retire Your Assistance Dog?
This is a subjective matter that differs from dog to dog. Most guide, hearing, and service dogs retire some time around the age of 10. Still, some need to stop work earlier, typically due to health concerns, and some are able to go on a little longer, though it’s generally not recommended.
There are two big questions to ask:
- Is your assistance dog still reliably performing all the tasks you need her for?
- Is she still doing so completely happily and comfortably?
When the answer to either is no, it’s likely time to start the retirement process.
Of course, you should certainly visit your veterinarian to make sure there’s not some health issue you can successfully treat to keep your dog going, especially if your dog is young for retirement. Generally speaking though, as your assistance dog approaches her senior years, while her health concerns obviously need to be managed, you shouldn’t be looking to extend her working time.
Signs Retirement Is Approaching
A variety of signs may point to the need to retire your assistance dog. Again, your intimate familiarity with your partner will make it easy for you to spot them, even long before your loved ones. Some of the more common things to watch for include:
- Your dog doesn’t seem as happy anymore
- She isn’t as enthusiastic about going out or working
- She’s slowing down or her mobility is otherwise becoming impaired
- She’s having behavioral or memory issues
- She’s missing cues or otherwise demonstrating diminshed ability to work
- Her sleep needs are notably increasing
- She’s consistently not as energetic after a night’s sleep
- She’s been diagnosed with a chronic health condition like arthritis, vision or hearing impairment, cognitive impairment, kidney disorder, cancer, diabetes, etc.
What Happens to Your Retiring Assistance Dog?
A few options usually exist for your retiring guide, hearing, or service dog, and it’s a personal decision which route you pursue. However, most organizations that provide assistance dogs include retirement options in their contracts, so you may not have all the choices discussed below; some require that retired dogs are returned to them.
If you have to return your dog, or if you choose to do so, she will usually be placed back with the puppy raiser or into a loving adopted home. There is a myth that retired assistance dogs are put to sleep, but it is just that: a myth.
Some people keep their retired partner as a pet. While this often seems like the only possibility you’d ever consider—and while it can in many cases work out well—there are some things to consider. First, if you live somewhere with a no-pets policy, once your dog stops working, you no longer have the right to keep her under the Fair Housing Act or other relevant laws. Also, assuming you take on a new assistance dog, your previous partner may become jealous, depressed, or otherwise upset by the change in your relationship and replacement by another dog.
Many opt for a compromise, giving their assistance dog to a family member or close friend. This is often an excellent solution for you and your dog, especially if she’s acquainted with her new adoptive family. This eliminates the potential issues at home with your new dog while still affording you and your former partner the opportunity to see each other.
The Transition Period
Most trainers agree it’s best to phase your assistance dog out of her working life. Her work is a huge part of her identity, and remember that she was originally chosen for training in part because of her love of completing tasks, keeping busy, and pleasing people.
Gradually reduce her responsibilities and trips out of the home as well as her health allows. Your veterinarian may have some valuable input regarding how you can successfully provide needed relief while still letting your partner fulfill responsibilities. Consult the organization or trainer you acquired from for personalized advice on easing the transition for both you and your dog. You’ll also need professional tailored advice for bringing your new helper into your life during this transitional phase.
A New Beginning
There’s no way around the sadness that comes with retiring your assistance dog. It’s important not to delay in facing it, though, as this is only putting off the inevitable at the expense of your best friend’s comfort and happiness.
To get through it, focus on how thankful you are for the relationship and all the joy you found in each other. Also, remember that retirement is a new life stage for a working dog; just like with us humans, while it may be a tough adjustment at first, it will ultimately be a welcome change bringing relaxation and calmness. Turn to your new partner, too, and find that special support you know you’ll be counting on for years to come, and enjoy once again experiencing the formation of this incredibly unique, special relationship.