Retirement – Are you ready? Your service dog is.

By Kristin Hartness, Canines for Disabled Kids & Service Dog Partner

Retirement—the point where a person stops employment completely.

Well, that sounds very official, and it should as it came directly from the Wikipedia. For a service dog this statement may or may not be true.

Retiring a service dog

Retiring My First Service Dog

Laddie, my first service dog, retired in 2008 and was honored by the training program that produced him, the American Working Collie Association (he is in their Hall of Fame) and the Collie Club of America.

There was dog safe cake and gifts (no gold watch). It was a sendoff any employee would be proud of.
I stood there absorbing the celebration of the work he had done and was filled with emotions. Emotions that ranged from, "WAIT—Please I want Laddie to work forever" to, "I am so proud and grateful to have had Laddie as my partner, he's earned this."

Choosing to take on a service dog as a tool to help you be as independent as possible takes a lot of consideration and planning. I talk with families everyday who are excited and working through a check list to get their homes ready to welcome a service dog.

  • Fenced the yard.
  • Set up the crate.
  • Buy the dishes and toys.
  • Secure the veterinarian.
  • Make a plan for retirement.

Oh wait, no one wants to talk about retirement. How can we think of that—the dog has not even started working! Trust me—the time to think about it is now—before the dog enters your life. Having realistic expectation for the working life of your service dog is important to assure your successor service dog is ready when you need it. Service dogs change your life and I do not want to be without their support any longer than necessary.

One of the classes your training program will/should require is commonly called "Succession Planning" but, behind closed doors, is called the "Dead Dog" class. This is meant with no disrespect to the new partnership but as a hard truth—as soon as you start your partnership, you need to be preparing for the reality that most of us will outlive our service dogs and is designed to help us be ready—ready for retirement and end of life.

Preparation Paves the Way for Your Successor Dog

So are you ready? The answer for me is a clear and unequivocal NO. At the time I wrote this article, I had retired three service dogs and buried two of them. My head understood and guided my heart through, but my heart was never ready—never.

Looking back, I believe I was more prepared for the passing of my service dogs than I was for their retirement. Any who has had pets experiences their loss. It is always painful and too soon, but it is part of the reality of owning pets. The death of your service dog is gut wrenching painful and I took time off from work to grieve. Retirement is something else altogether.

Retiring a service dog

Almost two years before Laddie's retirement I started thinking about when it would be the right time. It was a small thought and one I needed to let grow. I didn't want to ask him to give more than he could safely give. I knew he would retire but it was a faraway thought belonging in the distant future in a galaxy far, far away. (Yea right.)

Succession planning started with the expectations set by the training program and knowledge of the breed of my dog. His life expectancy was 12 – 14 years. He was working a skill set that was physically challenging and was the first dog this program had trained with this skill set. Recommendation? Retire him before age 10. Wow! How can I think about that with this beautiful 2-year-old?!?

I was gifted to have gifted people around me who were prepared with more knowledge and experience than I had, and they had the emotional separation I did not have. Laddie's breeder-donor approached his training program to say he was breeding a litter of pups for the purpose of gifting me my successor dog.

Later I was gifted this knowledge and blessed with a visit to new litter of collie pups who had high expectations piled on them. Three of the six pups were destined to join the service dog program which had trained Laddie. This is unusual but helped me greatly. It set my timeline, if all went well, Laddie would retire in 18 – 24 months and one of these pups would be my successor.

First-time service dog partners run the real risk of worrying too early about retirement or waiting too long to prepare. I was in the first group.

Service dogs are important working tools that spend their adult lives dedicated to the person they are partnered with. Every day their skills keep that person independent with the bonus of companionship. We rely on them; trust they will complete tasks when asked. In short, we need them, so how can we think about not having them by our sides.

Most service dogs will give you little signs that they are aging and slowing down. This does not mean they don't want to be with you every moment of every day. It does mean you have to be responsible and help them transition from full time work to full retirement.

I chose to have my successor dogs before my previous dog passed. This is a personal choice and while it is the most common choice it is not the only choice. Many people, especially teens, wait until their first has passed before obtaining a successor dog for emotional separation between dogs. Know that both choices are good.

Having a fully trained service dog gives me confidence that I have the right tools to take on what life puts in my way. I want time between service dogs to be as short as possible. This means my succession plans include having pups-in-training by the time my active service dog is 8 years old and crossed fingers that one will be ready by the time my active dog is 10.

The Transition is Emotional for Both Service Dog and their Human Partners

Having both dogs at the same time, helped me and them.

Laddie quickly released almost all his task work to Bronson, my second service dog. I could see Laddie watch and step back after he had seen Bronson successfully complete tasks in the home with one exception—my socks. Laddie loved to take off my socks and did so every day until his death. All other tasks he would look at Bronson, look at the task and walk away.

Tasks were one thing but, separation was another. Some training programs require you to spend time each week without your pup to reduce the stress of unexpected separation and retirement. Not a bad idea but not foolproof. My dogs showed less stress when they saw me working with a successor than when they saw me leave space without a dog at all. I can't explain this other than to say service dogs know their jobs are important and mine were concerned when I did not have a service dog by my side. Laddie visible relaxed when Bronson was in harness with me.

Full transition from active service dog to retired service dog took Laddie three months. In the beginning, he walked with me to the car hopping in and settling for the ride to work, slowly we moved to short rides around the block before dropping him at home then going to the office. Once Laddie was home waiting for me he would meet me at the door ready as soon as he heard my car in the driveway, then he would wait till I opened the door before coming to great me and finally waiting on the bed for me to come to him when I returned home.

Retiring a service dog

The first day I left home without Laddie I listened at the door to his barking, like a parent dropping a child at daycare for the first time. He barked and paced for about 15 minutes before he went to lay down. The first time I traveled and spent the night away, I called home and insisted on being on speaker phone so he could hear me. We did not have smart phones with Zoom or Facetime or I would have insisted he be put on camera so I could see him. I purchased toys that he could play with and hear my voice which drove my human family members crazy but which all my dogs loved. And I prayed that nothing bad happened before I came home.

Eventually a routine settled for Laddie, Bronson and me. I never stopped asking about Laddie when I traveled or worrying something would happen before I came home, but trusted he was safe and well cared for while I was away. He taught me so much that I have applied to how I work with each of my successors: be prepared but don't worry too soon, listen to your dog and have people you trust to care for him when you can't be there, know that no service dog will replace those who came before but each will be trained to fit you perfectly.

Your training program will be a great help to you and will do all they can to support you and your service dogs through the transition. Be sure to talk with them and understand their process for obtaining your successor service dog and their expectations for your retired service dog.

Oh, in case you are wondering…of the three pups who entered service dog training from that litter gifted to me so many years ago, two successfully completed the program while one was dropped for medical concerns. Bronson became my second Stability Service Dog and his littermate was matched as the Hearing Assistance dog for a veteran in Virginia.

About the Author:

Kristin Hartness is the Executive Director for Canines for Disabled Kids and has had three service dog partners. Her third, Asha, retired in August 2022. She is currently waiting for her next service dog partner.

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