When Is It Time To Retire A Service Dog?

While I get a lot of service dog related questions, since Sammy’s retirement we get a lot of questions about when the right time to retire is. While a healthy, well-trained, mentally happy, service dog can work until 9 years of age before they begin to show signs of retirement, that is no guarantee that your dog will.

That is why the number one thing any handler wants to know when they become partners with a service dog is, when should I retire my service dog? This is because our lives depend on the help of this canine companion!

Retiring a Service Dog is an incredibly tough decision, particularly after years of partnership, and one that should never be taken lightly. Retiring a Service Dog is a highly emotional and difficult step to take, especially if you’re contemplating retiring your first partner. There is no definitive guide, but the advice to “follow your heart” offers the surest route to success.

And yes, this can also mean that only after a year or two of working, your service dog may show signs of needing to retire. Retirement has nothing to do with ability, and everything to do with quality of life.

If you’ve been working with a service dog for a few years, chances are that you’ve built both a strong bond and a good understanding of what normal is for your service dog’s agility, attentiveness, appetite, mood, and so on. For many, making the hard decision to retire a service dog begins with little more than a gut feeling. Sometimes it’s nothing you can pinpoint—just the general observation that your cherished and faithful canine is beginning to show the signs of advanced age. In such situations, many owners let their hearts decide when the time is right.

There are several obvious signs that signal that it’s time to reduce your service dog’s workload and responsibilities.

Your service dog doesn’t seem happy (experiencing mood changes). 

After working with your service dog awhile, you’ll become skilled at gauging its mood. If your dog seems sluggish, depressed, or fails to greet daily routines with enthusiasm, it could be a sign that they are ready for a less demanding schedule.

Your service dog cannot keep pace with you. 

Age takes a physical toll on service animals, just as it does on humans. If your service dog can no longer keep pace with you or your daily activities—and you’ve ruled out potential medical conditions—age is most likely the cause. This can be a signal that retirement is here.

Your service dog has developed special health needs of its own. 

Many health issues—including visual impairment (like cataracts), arthritis, hearing loss, diminished kidney function, to name a few—can affect your canine’s ability to do its job effectively, and function how you need them to. As a disabled person, you need a service dog that is healthy enough to perform its routine duties, and you must consider whether your own health would permit you to meet your animal’s needs without sacrificing your own care.

Your service dog shows signs of cognitive deterioration. 

Your service dog relies upon its senses and its mental acuity to perform its tasks. If your dog becomes less responsive or begins to miss important commands or cues, the cause could most likely be cognitive decline. Memory problems affect older dogs just as they do older humans, so it’s important to observe your dog’s behavior as it ages to look for signs of cognitive impairment.

The emotional difficulty of retiring a service dog is an issue every handler must confront at some point. We should perceive the ending of a working career as a well-deserved, positive celebration and a guarantee that the animal will enjoy the remainder of his or her life. However, retirement also marks finality and can be a difficult road for both animals and handlers to navigate physically and emotionally.

Remember, a Service Dog should retire when, and preferably before, it exhibits physical or mental health conditions that impair its ability to work. There are no evidence-based studies nor standard established guidelines that indicate when an assistance animal should retire or how to retire them. 

In situations where the dog is still owned by an assistance service dog agency, each agency may have their own parameters to determine when the animal is ready to retire, typically based on veterinarian reports, annual reports from handlers, and site visits.

There are agencies that give over the right to the service dog upon beginning service via adoption. Also, there are many canines who have been trained and owned by their handlers, and both of these are the responsibility of the handler upon retirement.

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