Old Black Lab

Retiring a Service Dog: Why, When and How

You and your service dog have finally become a team after putting in the work of bonding and training to become the partners you are today.  It’s a wonderful feeling to have that special someone at your side that supports you and knows how to execute those carefully taught commands.  Why would you even think about your next service dog? Why would you utter the words “retirement” and “transition”?

Make It a Priority to Be Prepared

It is important to plan ahead in life. Just as you plan for your retirement, you should plan early and well for the retirement of your service dog and for the potential options you have once your service dog retires. Service dogs do not live or work forever. That is a reality. Sometimes their lives or working lives are shortened by illnesses, diseases or accidents. Planning and preparation can help you cope with the potential changes posed as your service dog transitions to retirement.

When Should You Begin Thinking About Retirement Planning?

Ideally you begin thinking about these changes while your service dog is healthy and working. Why might you ask? While your dog is healthy and working, you are not stressed about your service dog and will hopefully be able to think and plan clearly for the future. Early planning also gives you time to save for the plan you develop for your next service dog.

As you consider the timing of your planning, the age and breed of your service dog comes into play. The older your service dog is and the larger your dog, the sooner you will need to begin your planning.  For example, a Newfoundland service dog becomes a senior dog at age seven. Many people would retire a Newfoundland service dog at age six.  If your service dog were doing mobility work, he or she might retire earlier due to the workload.  Medium and large service dogs have longer working lives with small service dogs having the longest working lives overall.  So planning should begin early, while your service dog is healthy and active.

What Questions Do You Ask As You Begin to Think About Retirement and Transition?

It helps to break it down into three parts:

Part 1: Think About Your Needs

The first set of questions in planning for a next service dog start with:

“What might your needs be in terms of a new partner?”

Think about how your current service dog fulfills your needs and mitigates your disability.  Have your needs changed?  What tasks do you want to add on or delete?  Then think about how this affects the size and possible breed of the dog.  Has your ability to care for or train the dog changed?  Do you need to think about grooming needs when you select a dog?  Do you want to start with a puppy or an older dog? Are you comfortable/ physically ready to deal with puppy behaviors? All of these questions (and their answers) may provide important information to help you select your next partner.

Part 2: Honestly Assess Your Training Abilities

The second question set of questions revolves around:

“What is your ability to train a dog skill wise, emotionally and physically?”

Do you want to owner train?  Would you prefer a program dog?  There are pros and cons to taking each route.  Owner training allows you more control over the process, is sometimes less expensive, and allows you to participate more in the bonding and training.  Programs provide a trained dog, some provide life time support, some offer a short team training orientation, and some provide follow up.

Part 3: What Resources Do You Have Available?

The third consideration you have when you retire service dog is:

“What is your financial situation?”

This also affects and/or limits how much assistance you may rely on if you choose to owner train or select a program dog. There is much to consider as you plan.

Dog trainer teaching dogsOne option that may help with lowering costs while adding to success is working with a trainer to select a potential service dog.  You could begin by owner training, then attending group classes for socialization, basic and advanced obedience and finally consulting with a trainer for task training and trouble  shooting.  It is a less expensive option if you are experienced and have a task set already.

You could also choose to hire a trainer to help select your dog, to help train your dog and to provide guidance through weekly or biweekly training sessions if you wanted more support while owner training.  This is would be more expensive.

If you plan ahead, meet their criteria, and are lucky enough to get into a program that is free, a program might be for you.  There is also the option of planning and saving for a program dog.  This is the most expensive option up front. Finances are a consideration but should not be your sole consideration.

How to Support Your Current Service Dog Through the Transition Process

Anther question to consider is:

“How do you transition your service dog to retirement and make the leap to partnering with a new service dog?”

To answer this question, you want to create a plan to retire your service dog. A plan might include knowing the age and breed of your service dog so that you are aware of the time your dog becomes a senior.

Work with your vet and trainer to do appropriate health and behavior checks to insure that your service dog is happy and healthy while working. Review your documentation with your trainer to see if your service dog has changed in terms of ability to complete tasks, work a full day or is enjoying working. If changes are noted, like willingness to please, increased sleeping, general tiredness and slowing down or the vet notes physical issues, it is past time to begin training your next service dog. It is good to begin selecting and training your next prospect a year or more before you might want your next service dog.

Other Important Steps

Other steps to take to transition yourself, your service dog and your new service dog might include: giving yourself time to grieve the old relationship and to adjust to the new relationship, allowing the dogs time and space to meet each other, and establish rules/boundaries providing each dog opportunities for individual attention. Taking the time to grieve and adjust may include talking through your feelings with friends, family, Facebook community, and/or trainer. You may want to journal about it.

2 Dogs Greeting Each otherProviding an appropriate first meeting for your old service dog and new service dog is very important. It is often suggested that when two dogs meet for the first time, the meeting take place on neutral ground. Next, two people walk the dogs while treating them for positive behaviors. After a short walk, the dogs are allowed to greet and sniff one another. If all goes well (as expected), then the dogs can proceed to controlled interactions in the home.

Another step to transition your household is to establish rules/ boundaries and provide opportunities for individual time for both your dogs. Each dog will need to follow house rules and have some individual space (bed/crate).  Each dog will need time when they are given individual attention. Your new service dog will naturally receive attention through his work with you. Your old service dog will need time, whether through grooming, long walks, or pet friendly outings, to help him or her to transition from working dog to pet.

An additional transition step to take is to help your other family members adjust to a new service dog is introducing your new service dog properly and establishing rules/boundaries for all members.

Transition and retirement can be scary and sad. But careful planning and thorough transitioning of an old service dog, new service dog, handler and family can lead to a successful experience for all involved. The old service will retire happily. The new service dog and handler will form a working team with a great bond.

Lesley Nord
Lesley is a retired teacher. She currently volunteers with Sam, her Service Dog/Therapy Dog.