More than 7,000 assistance dogs are hard at work every single day in the UK. These amazing dogs have been specially chosen and trained to offer emotional and/or physical support and independence to their handlers.
This might mean acting as a person’s eyes or ears, helping with practical tasks at home, detecting seizures before they happen, calming someone who has panic attacks or providing many other life-changing services.
If you have an assistance dog or emotional support animal at home, you’ll know better than anyone what a positive impact they have had on your life.
Sadly though, all good things must come to an end, even the most beautiful of partnerships.
Over the next few blogs, we’ll be exploring some of the issues around pet loss that specifically affect people with assistance animals.
This week, we’re looking at the decisions and feelings you might face when it’s time for your assistance dog to retire.
Do all assistance dogs have to retire?
Being a working or service animal of any kind can be physically and emotionally demanding. Dogs, for example, are carefully chosen for their ability to carry the load required of them.
But just like humans, dogs eventually begin to age and slow down. There typically comes a point when even the most enthusiastic of service dogs lose their working capability, meaning they can no longer provide you with the support you need.
Retirement gives these special dogs a chance to enjoy their twilight years as a pet rather than as a working companion. After a lifetime of faithful service, of doing their job to the best of their ability, they can kick back and relax while the role of assisting you is passed down to a younger pup.
When is the right time for retirement?
Unlike us humans, dogs don’t reach an official retirement age, complete with pension. It can be hard to pinpoint when the moment for retirement has come.
You know your dog better than anyone else in the world so, if your instincts are telling you that retirement is looming, you’re probably right.
Many assistance dogs work until around age 10, with some retiring before and a few retiring after. It will really depend on your dog’s health, personality, their working role and your ability to care for an older dog.
The best advice is to gradually wind down your dog’s working life rather than going from all to nothing overnight (unless a vet recommends an immediate stop due to health issues).
As your assistance dog will have come from an organisation, they should be able to help you manage this transition period so that retirement comes gently rather than as a massive, unexpected change for your companion.
By taking things slowly, the organisation can begin finding you the best possible match for a new assistance dog to take over this vital role when the time comes. They can also help you explore the best retirement option for your pooch.
Signs to look out for
The following signs often show that a dog is nearing retirement:
- They don’t seem as happy or enthusiastic about working or going out
- Their mobility isn’t what it once was – they seem slower or more accident prone
- The dog is having behavioural or memory issues
- They’re missing your cues for familiar tasks
- They become less flexible about changes to routine or lose confidence doing things they once took in their stride
- They want to sleep more than in the past
- They lack energy after a full night’s sleep
- Your dog has been diagnosed with a long-term health condition
If you’ve noticed any of these signs, it is probably time to start thinking about the options for retiring your precious friend.
Common retirement options for assistance dogs
Keeping your dog
In many cases, assistance dogs live out their days as a pet in their lifelong home.
Your dog may not be able to carry out working tasks any more but they can be an ongoing source of emotional support and companionship long into their retirement.
If that’s an option for you then it’s definitely worth exploring.
But what if you’re unable to keep your dog?
Although most people would prefer to keep their assistance dog until the end of the animal’s life, it isn’t always possible.
Caring for an older dog can be physically and emotionally demanding. Due to the nature of your disability or your personal circumstances, you may not be in a position to look after your assistance dog into his or her old age.
Could you clean up toileting accidents or administer medication as needed?
Another situation that sometimes crops up is that former assistance dogs struggle to accept the presence of a new assistance dog in the home. After years of faithful service, it can be hard to watch another dog come in and take over the working role. In these situations, a change in living arrangements might be better for both dogs.
You may also be in housing where assistance dogs are allowed but pets aren’t.
In these situations, you may need to consider rehoming your retired companion, especially if you’re involved in training a younger assistance dog to ensure you have the support you need.
Rehoming the dog with friends or family
A good compromise to keeping a retired assistance dog at home is having him or her adopted by a close friend or family member who can provide a loving home but will also ensure that you continue to see your dog. The bonus is that your dog will already know and have a bond with their adoptive family, which can make the transition from working dog to retiree easier.
Returning your dog to the provider organisation for rehoming
Some organisations that train and provide assistance dogs have a clause in their contract with the handler that requests the dog is returned to them for rehoming once they reach retirement age.
If this is the case, you should have been made aware of this from the outset and have this agreement in writing.
You can also ask the organisation to rehome your retired dog if your circumstances mean you can’t keep them with you.
Organisations that work with assistance dogs usually have a waiting list of people who want to adopt retired assistance dogs or an agreement with the people who raised the dog as a puppy to give them first refusal in the event of the dog being rehomed.
Even knowing that your assistance dog will go to a fantastic home can be tough. It may feel like a bereavement. Please speak to the organisation concerned to find out how you will be supported through this process.
Will you still be able to see your retired companion?
Will you receive regular news and updates from their adoptive family?
Coping with your dog’s retirement
Retiring an assistance dog can be an incredibly emotional experience, even if they don’t have to be rehomed.
You and your dog have spent years together learning each other’s needs and cues in a way that few people will ever experience. Your furry friend has given you independence, peace of mind and unconditional support. It may be that you’ve never been apart.
And now that phase of both of your lives is coming to an end.
The best advice we’ve heard from other assistance dog carers who’ve seen a faithful companion retire is to celebrate the fact that they’re getting to retire as a sign of a job well done.
Instead of thinking about what you stand to lose or have lost, try to think about all the things you gained from each other and how, if you plan to have a new assistance dog, your past experiences will make you a better trainer, handler and carer.
Your ageing assistance dog is starting a new chapter where they can relax and take life at a gentler pace. Hopefully, they have many good years ahead in a loving home, whether that’s with you or with an adopter.
It can be hard to imagine ever loving or trusting another assistance dog the way you love your current companion and you’re bound to make comparisons. Remember, a new assistance dog will be different but different doesn’t mean better or worse. You’ll share a new adventure together and teach each other new things.
You’ll never forget your previous assistance dog; your heart will just double in size to love your new companion too.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be tears and hard times for a while. Try to tap into the support available to you. Talk about retirement options throughout your companion’s life so you’re prepared when the time comes, whatever the future holds for you both.
Look at ways to make the transition from working life to retirement as gentle and easy as possible – again, ask the organisation who provided your dog for advice about this.
The Ralph Site Facebook group is always there for support about any aspect of pet loss, including those who have had their assistance dogs rehomed upon retirement.
Until next time,
Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support