When you are attached to your service dog, thinking about retiring or acquiring your next service dog may seem like a betrayal. The reality is that service dogs do not live forever. They cannot work forever. Sometimes they do get sick. For your health and theirs, it is ok to think about and even plan ahead for your next service dog.
I know how hard it is to think about transitioning a service dog. My first service dog was my heart dog.
Bella: My Heart Dog
I acquired my first service dog while saving for one. I rescued a two year old Newfoundland to train to potentially do therapy work. I was incredibly lucky! This Newfie was a generally sound breeder dump that came from wonderful lines and had a stellar temperament. She turned out to be a one in a million dog, perfect for service and therapy work.
One day in therapy class, my trainer noticed that she was alerting to my medical issues. She suggested that we train my Newfie not just for for therapy work but for service work as well. Bella had amazing potential to be a service dog. I shaped her alerts, honed her obedience skills, trained more tasks, and did public access work with her in order to become a service dog. She also became a certified and insured therapy dog so she could volunteer with me and help me meet my goal of getting out of the house regularly. We became an amazing team and worked together 24/7. Where I went, she went. We were inseparable and she never failed me.
Planning For Retirement
The years passed. Bella was blessed with excellent health. She loved working with me as a service dog and she loved doing her therapy work. I realized though she was a giant breed and that I should consider creating a plan for her retirement. Giant breeds generally retire earlier than other breeds. I started thinking about this when Bella was six. My heart hurt tremendously as I faced the thought of no longer spending every minute with my lifeline and my heart dog. How would I cope without her? How would she cope without me? I wasn’t even worrying about her passing away, I was starting to grieve the loss of our partnership.
As Bella turned seven, and after I had turned down several dogs I researched on my own, I decided that I needed assistance selecting another dog to follow in Bella’s paw prints. I needed a dog that would do both service and therapy work, had excellent temperament, and was approximately a year old with no bad habits. I did not want to start a puppy because that was more training than I wanted to handle. I wanted a low energy dog. Size was not an issue based on tasks on I needed, but I preferred dogs that were not tiny. Grooming was not an issue.
Turning to A Trainer
I called my trainer and set up an appointment. I had funds set aside to purchase a dog and I also wanted to hire my trainer to select a dog based the criteria we discussed.
During the course of our discussion, several amazing things happened. My trainer told me that she was willing to foster and work the potential dog first to screen it. If it did not work, it could either return to rescue or would be placed in a pet home depending on where she located the dog. She told me she would find my dog no matter what it took. I literally cried at this point. What a generous offer my trainer was proposing!
I was overwhelmed about letting go of my relationship with Bella and uncertain about beginning a new service dog partnership. We talked through this and how to address it. My trainer also told me that once she found the right dog, and I met it and it fit with my family, worked the dog a couple of times and determined it was the right choice, she would be happy to start the dog for me and train it for a couple of months for free. My jaw dropped and I was speechless. She told me that she wanted to help me “give back” since I do so much volunteering with kids and I had helped her with several endeavors. I thanked her over and over. Then we worked out a written contract.
Beginning the Search for a Successor
The search began. My trainer was diligent. She looked at rescues and at owner turn-ins. She had local and national connections. I looked, too. We reviewed dogs on paper and turned them down. She looked at numerous dogs near and far. She fostered a couple of dogs that turned out not to be possibilities. One day, I got a phone call from my trainer and I visited a prospective dog. She was adorable and I really liked her. We gave it a trial run but I found out that she would not work for me and everything I was needing in a service dog. My trainer and I tried two more dogs that failed, not to mention others I never met.
A year passed. Bella turned eight. Thank goodness she was still healthy and wanting to work but I could not count on that forever.
Dealing With Doubts
I was worried at this point about finding a service dog and finding one before Bella retired or passed away. Had I started the process early enough? Was I asking too much? Should I change my criteria and just look for a service dog and therapy dog separately? I started to discuss the issues with my husband and my trainer. I was not certain we wanted that many dogs in our home but I also did not want to give up volunteering. I needed a dog that could do both at once. My trainer and my husband encouraged me to have faith for a few more months.
An Unexpected Match
It was two months later that my trainer called me and said, “I know you were not looking for a boy but I think I found your dog. And believe it or not, it’s a beagle.” That is a breed I would have never expected. I wanted a girl but what was most important to me was the right dog for the job.
My trainer told me that Sam came from a family with four children and was well loved and cared for. He was their first dog and after a lengthy process, it was discovered one of the children was allergic. They had to rehome the dog and found my trainer. She agreed to find Sam either a working or pet home for the family after assessing him. She had already worked with Sam for two weeks to check him out and wanted me to meet him.
The First Meeting
I was very nervous but Bella and I went to meet him the next day. Sam made a great first impression. He was a friendly one year old tri colored beagle who was very willing to please. His manners were impeccable and his interactions with Bella were fantastic. I was a bit reserved. I did not want to get my heart broken. What if he did not work out while at the trainer’s? What if my husband did not like him? I was was still working on accepting a new partner. My trainer suggested that Sam and I and she and her service dog go for a walk. Bella could stay and visit with her dog friends at the trainer’s house. I agreed and off we went. It was a big step to take a leash connected to a different potential service dog.
Our First Walk Together
My first walk with Sam was so different from walking Bella. There was the literal 100 lb size difference. I was also suddenly thrust back into training mode because I was used to walking a dog that is fully trained and in tune with me. I immediately began questioning whether or not I could do this when I had trouble reaching down to hand him a treat. I was not used to bending. My trainer reminded me that I would adjust and to relax. Slowly it got easier and I found a rhythm with Sam, who moved happily beside me wagging his tail and following my directions flawlessly. I realized this just might work. We returned to the trainer’s home and planned two more outings.
Sam met my husband and my other dogs. He met my horses and cats over the course of the next few weeks. I worked him several times. Meanwhile, my trainer continued to assess him. I know not everyone has this luxury.
Making a Final Decision
It was time for a decision. My trainer and I sat down to review Sam’s abilities, her observations, my thoughts and concerns, and my family’s input. Sam had the ability to become an service dog and therapy dog. He could do all tasks I needed but one mobility task. Instead he could be trained to get help. I liked Sam. My family got along well with Sam. The only concern was how my school would react to such a change in size and breed. My trainer came up with an inspired suggestion: ask my school if they would like to meet Sam.
I talked with my school and they were comfortable having my trainer visit and bring Sam one day while Bella and I were volunteering. We would visit with two classes during home room and walk the hallway during passing period. This would allow us to see the student and staff reaction to Sam and also gauge his reaction to such a large group setting. It would be an excellent test.
Sam passed with flying colors. He was calm and sat while students asked to pet him. During passing period, he looked at the chaos and moved as needed to avoid being jostled. He rocked it. He met the administrators and they were impressed with his calm demeanor. My trainer and I exchanged smiles. It was clear that Sam was going to be my next partner.
Putting in the Work
My trainer began the serious work of obedience training, training sessions in pet friendly places followed by public access and the initial steps for task training. Simultaneously I began to prepare mentally and physically for my new service dog. I bought a crate and set it up in my room for the short times, Sam might need it. I bought a bed for him and “go place” mats. I purchased a vest in his size and a therapy bandana since he would do both therapy and service dog work. I set up a binder to hold his training notes, vet work, therapy information, class documentation, miscellaneous notes and trainer information. I started to talk with friends and family about the upcoming transition to help prepare myself.
Starting the Transition
The transition began. The first phase happened while Sam was at the trainer’s home. We scheduled weekly meetings to discuss his progress and made time for me to meet with him and walk him and work him. During a “walk” with my trainer and Sam, it was a time to work on his skills and mine. I learned what he had done during the week and we improved as a team through hands on practice in the community.
We encountered typical things that dogs can be distracted by: humans, good smells, leftover food, and other dogs. Using a clicker (my personal nemesis) and treats, we wallked two to three miles and often stopped at a dog friendly patio to eat. My trainer provided constant feedback and conversation and as we walked I talked less. I focused on Sam and working to click and give praise to him. But our walks went very well. We were becoming a very good team!
After four months, my trainer and I assessed Sam’s progress. It was excellent. He had a very solid foundation in advanced obedience, public access and only needed me to finish his teamwork and public access skills. I was very excited and nervous at the same time. It was April. School started in August. I wanted to be ready as a therapy team and I needed Sam to be ready to task for me. There was much to be done.
We set up a specific plan to move forward successfully. Sam would come home with me. I would begin training walks twice a day but they would be 1/2 to 1 mile. I would also do short training sessions in the home with him daily working on his tasks. Sam would attend obedience class with me to help me focus on obedience around other dogs since I live in a remote area. My trainer taught the class so I would not panic which is an issue. I would immediately begin pet friendly access twice a week with Sam. My trainer and I also worked with our therapy organization to begin our 10 one hour supervised therapy visits. (His temperament test and therapy class requirement had already been met).
And Sam came home! Despite everything and the fact that everyone got along perfectly, once I settled everyone in their beds, I shed tears. I will not lie. I thought I did everything to be prepared for change, but change still hurt. Bella was transitioning to a new role. She would no longer be my service dog and 24/7 partner. At that moment, my husband, Bella, and Sam comforted me. With tears rolling down my face, a beagle in my lap, a Newfie pressed info my side and my husband hugging me, I smiled. This transition was fine.
Fast forward to August… we (Sam and I) put in lots of work over the summer. I did not cry anymore. There was no time. Bella and Sam got along fabulously.
I did formal access training with Sam and my trainer. Sam was trained to alert to my medical issues. He completed his therapy hours and became a certified and insured therapy dog. On August 10, 2017, Sam accompanied me to school for professional development as my SD. On August 11, 2017, Sam debuted as a therapy dog welcoming our entire sixth grade to Noe Middle School. Bella stayed home and enjoyed being a diva. The transition was complete.
**For those with concerns regarding the dual training and use of a service dog/therapy dog, both dogs were specially chosen by trainers to work for Lesley in the volunteer environment. Her dog is assessed annually to insure that it can function at both jobs simultaneously.