If a handler is not able to afford the care, feeding and training of a service dog, then it never becomes an option for them. However, if you are lucky enough to be able to have one, there are a few things you should be aware of long before your service dog retires.
First and foremost, what happens if you die? While we don’t always like to think about it, our life can end at any moment (accident, stroke, heart attack, etc), so what would happen to your service dog then? If you received your service dog from an agency that will be taking it back, then you have nothing to worry about. However, the majority of service dog owners have already adopted their working dogs and provide training themselves or through a private trainer.
Also, if you already know you would want your service dog to be able to keep working for someone else, you need to seek out ways to make that happen and put instructions in writing. Contact support group leaders, trainers, etc. to have the information you need ready. And NO, your family will not remember or do what you think is the right thing for your service dog. They will do what THEY think is the right thing at the time. So no matter what you believe about the people you rely on, adding the ability to make sound decisions while they are grieving the loss of your death is quite unrealistic. Write it all down, and save your service dog the anxiety of the chaos that ensues after the death of a loved one.
Just as if you would have to provide some solution for your underage children if you died unexpectedly, so must you do this for your service dog (or even a pet!). It is best to have two different options, and by that I mean plan A and a backup plan. For example, if I were to unexpectedly die, I have a friend who automatically gets called to come for Sammy. However, life can change, and if for some reason she is not able to be his new mom, I have a Plan B ~ a second person who would take him (and yes they know they are Plan B). So while this is the first thing you do as a service dog owner, if you haven’t by now, you need to immediately. Especially if your service dog is already retired.
So many people think that once a service dog retires, they are just a pet, and that is simply not true. Imagine being an artist who paints for a living (or doing anything you are passionate about) and suddenly you are told “today you stop doing that” or “you can’t do that anymore, you’re retired”. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, just like you can’t flip off the switch of whatever you feel you should be doing, neither can your working dog.
So deciding who is the best fit for your service dog takes a bit of time. You must first pay attention to what your service dog will need, not just what you want for it. For example, Sammy is definitely an only child. He doesn’t do well with other dogs in his personal space, however he does alright when he’s visiting other dogs in their space for a very short period of time.
Next, you need to see how your service dog acts around others, and how they act around your service dog (when working and at play). Do they respect your working dog? Do they give it the space it needs? How does your service dog react when you mention their name (when they are not around)? What kind of environment does your service dog thrive in when he or she is not working? What kind of life would the person you are considering be able to give your service dog once you were gone? Would they be able to care for your service dog in its old age? Would they keep your service dog on the same diet or switch to a poor quality choice due to money or even their mindset of how a dog is fed and cared for?
So many things to consider before deciding on the right person to take over once you are gone.
Now, let’s talk about your plan to keep your service dog once it’s retired.
If you are someone who will always need a service dog, will you keep your current service dog once it retires? While we all want to do this, it’s not always the best option for your retiring service dog. Some service dogs don’t do well “teaching the next service dog in training”, and instead will get defensive having another animal in its space. Also consider how your own needs have/will change, if at all.
For example, Sammy changed jobs throughout his service dog career, starting as a mobility assistance service dog for about 10 months, then taking a year off. The following year, we trained him for seizure alert after a stroke ignited a seizure disorder in me. I never asked him to be a medical alert dog. He just jumped at the opportunity to help me and I was very grateful. At the same time, we trained him as a Psychiatric Service Dog for my PTSD and TBI triggers (loud noises, sirens, people arguing, etc.).
This isn’t the typical life of a service dog. Instead, they are generally trained for one set of duties (mobility assistance, or medical alert, or vision guide, or psychiatric assistance, etc.) and tend to do those duties all of their working life. Also, some service dogs only work when the handler is alone and needs them, not 24/7. That means that some service dogs will retire in good health and have many healthy years left in them.
On the other hand, some service dogs, who have more stressful jobs, will need to retire earlier due to canine arthritis, declining cognition, and possible diseases. Just as our bodies break down due to constant stress, so do theirs.
There are so many things to consider BEFORE your service dog is even close to being ready to retire, but number one is to have a PLAN in place! You owe it to your service dog.
So many people think they are infallible and can’t imagine dying before their service dog, but the reality is that when you have a disability and/or chronic illness, you are susceptible to additional health problems. For example, I have Lupus that affects my heart and lungs; I have Celiac Disease that affects my gastrointestinal system; I have moderate-to-severe Osteo and Rheumatoid Arthritis that are getting worse every year; and I have suffered a traumatic brain injury as well as a few strokes because of it, one effecting my spinal cord. The thought that I could easily outlive Sammy is ridiculous, because at any time I could have a fatal stroke, heart attack, or asthma attack. I could even have them in my sleep. I could even develop stomach cancer, lung cancer, liver disease, or a brain tumor.
So to not have a plan in place means that you are not considering the needs of others in your life. And while I truly know how easy it can be to become the “woe is me” person because I have all these things wrong with me, or the desire to ignore all my problems because it can seem overwhelming, it’s not OK to plant myself there. In that mindset, I will never thrive in my current state of being, even if that state of being is total disability.
So what plans do you have in place for your service dog before it retires?
Who immediately gets called if you die? That’s the person who needs to know the plan, as well as the person who will now be responsible for your retired service dog. Put this information in your wallet next to your driver’s license.
Who gets called if you die? Does your ICE (in case of emergency) person know who to contact? Have the emergency information in your wallet so it’s easily accessed, or put together a binder with all your important information labeled appropriately.
There are also end-of-life planners you can buy that are organized in a way that allows you to provide all the information someone needs when you die. They are called “what you need to know when I’m gone”, “I’m dead, now what” or even “peace of mind planner”. If this is easier for you, fill it out and let those around you know where it is if they ever need it (or place it somewhere easily seen/accessible). Mine sits on my office desk where anyone can see it when they come looking for it.
If you don’t have a plan in place yet….
Make that plan right now!