The Last GREAT Thing

Retiring your service dog

Article Highlights:
  • How do you know when your devoted partner is ready to retire? How do you transition to a new service dog?  How can you provide care for your aging former partner?
  • Keeping your dog healthy and preventing excess weight gain are essential to a long life of service.
  • Be alert to signs your dog is slowing down, and start planning to integrate a new dog.
  • Your old service dog will be the best trainer for your young dog.
  • Some service dog providers will provide care for retiring dogs that they've trained.
by Jan Blaustone on October 1, 2009 - 7:50am

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 4

Anyone who has a service dog will agree that the first day home with your new partner is like no other. Akin to adopting a child, your thoughts are ecstatic and you embrace every subsequent minute until it’s time for Fido’s retirement and you are left wondering where all the time went.

Thankfully, the end of your aging service dog’s working days doesn’t necessarily mean that he will leave you. But how do you know when your devoted partner is ready to retire from his or her job — and what happens then? How do you transition to a new service dog, assuming you want one?

Keeping going

A good question to ask at any point in your dog’s working life is: How can you keep your partner healthy and working as long as possible?

What separates aging service dogs from the average family pet is that service dogs generally are large-breed dogs genetically prone to hip and joint problems later in life — and they’ve been working hard up until retirement.

The simplest plan to extend your partner’s working life is an easy and affordable one.

“Weight is the one thing we can control and it’s a big factor in your partner retiring at 8 — earlier for wheelchair pulling dogs — versus 10 or 11,” says Kent Bruner, veterinarian for Canine Assistants, a non-profit service dog provider in Milton, Ga.

Clinical studies sponsored by Purina show that when working dogs are kept at a lower weight throughout their lives, they average two extra years of healthy, active living as opposed to same-breed dogs (pets) that are overweight, says Bruner.

“When dogs are fat, it’s hard on their joints and organs. It’s harder for them to regulate body heat and surgeries are more risky. It’s not unlike humans,” says Bruner. “It’s the same story my doctor tells me.”

Weight can sneak up on both you and your dog. Is your belt at the same notch? Is his vest still fitting?

“You want to see a defined waist and easily feel the dog’s ribs,” says Bruner. “We recommend weighing your dog monthly when you give him his heartworm preventative.”

Veterinarian Blake Malone, Nashville, Tenn., agrees. “Dogs are exactly like people. The more obese they become, the more arthritic they become.”

Mary Templeman and her beloved Keno. She says he'll be hard to replace.

Malone recommends keeping working dogs on a lower-calorie diet, providing regular exercise and giving prescribed supplements including a dietary supplement of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (anti-inflammatory). “This will increase life span up to 20 percent,” he says. “But you need to begin when they’re young adults, not 5 or 6.”

A low-impact exercise program (no joint trauma) like swimming is ideal for an older dog. But Bruner cautions that water other than a swimming pool can be risky — especially in Florida where hungry gators lurk! (And don’t forget to give a fresh-water rinse afterward.)

When is it time?

How do you know it’s time for your partner to slow down?

“Because of the undying love service animals have for their partner, working through chronic pain is especially true in the service dog population,” says Malone. “Look for a lackluster performance or a drop in hearing and visual abilities.”

Does your partner now avoid your lap when he retrieves and hands you something? Is turning the light on and off out of the question? Is she not getting up as quickly when you move? Does she hear you move? How are the teeth and gums? (Service dogs do so much with their mouths, which is why annual cleanings and gum care are vital.)

“Usually by the time the person is ready, the dog is SO ready,” says Bruner.

Letting go

Mary Templeman, who lives near Austin, Texas, couldn’t agree more.

“It was so hard to let go,” she says. “Keno was my best friend. He saved my life at least twice.” Templeman, 53, has dermatomyositis, an autoimmune muscle disease covered by MDA that affects both her balance and vision. Keno, her British black Lab service dog, assisted her with both disabilities until he died of lymphoma at age 10 in 2008.

Although Keno wasn’t sick until the very end, Templeman says that by age 6 he already was slowing down. (Yes, Templeman admits, Keno was overweight.) When they lived in Philadelphia, the bitterly cold winters affected his stamina and when they moved to Texas, he was hit with 100-plus temperatures.

“By the time he was 8,” says Templeman, “he needed a lot of coaxing to get out the door, whereas during his younger years he would snap to attention.”

Without Keno’s assistance, Templeman now has more difficulty maneuvering her power wheelchair in crowds, transferring, using her bathroom and getting around safely with her diminishing eyesight.

“I’m risking my neck without him, but there is so much heartache still,” she says. “Finding a dog as talented as Keno won’t be easy but the alternative is to have an aide, and I much prefer a dog.”

Getting a new dog

It’s best not to wait until your service dog no longer can assist you to introduce a second partner, says Bruner.

“Like people, dogs will be ready to retire at different stages. But, if at all possible, don’t wait until something happens,” he advises. “Dogs are competitive by nature. When your new dog sees your old dog get rewarded for doing something, he’ll think, ‘Hey, I can do that!’

“The last great thing your service dog will do for you is help train your new service dog. It will help you with the transition and he’s happy to do it.”

If you’re still very active and on the go, your retiring service dog won’t mind napping as you and the “young-un” run out the door. But Bruner advises thinking about your own changing lifestyle when considering a new service dog.

“Keep in mind that you got your first service dog maybe 10 years ago and now your condition is more advanced,” he warns. “If you’re slowing down, you may want to consider a service dog with a lower arousal rate, rather than a driven one like your first service dog.”

Some may feel “there’s no other dog for me” and also may not have the energy to break in a second dog without help from the first dog.

“Most people want a clone of their first dog, but that’s not possible,” he says. “Nor is it necessarily what they need. While feeling there is no dog as good as their first is a legitimate concern, it’s not necessarily true. The second service dog can be just as unique, will perform some things better and other things not as well, and will become just as loved.”

Older dog care

Once you’ve decided it is time for your beloved partner’s retirement, what will the future bring? Can you

Semiretired Polo gets a big hug from the author.

afford the care of two dogs? Will you be able to physically tend to the needs of a senior, large-breed dog?

“When your service dog retires fully,” says Malone, “a role reversal occurs. Now your partner becomes dependent on you for his basic necessities.”

Some things he advises thinking about in advance: Will you be able to help her up from a slick floor and can you “towel walk” her to potty outside (sling a towel underneath her tummy and support her torso)? If he becomes diabetic, can you give him insulin shots twice a day and take him to routine doctor visits? Can you afford to take care of oral health? Can you provide a leisurely daily walk to your retired partner while also exercising your active second service dog? Are you able to clean up if incontinence becomes a problem?

To manage these issues and maintain the dog’s quality of life, you may require help. Luckily, it’s out there.

Service dog providers will take back the working dogs they train, says Bruner. Original foster families and trainers themselves often offer homes for retired dogs.

But, he says, “Most retirees go to live with family members of their partner. Typically the service dog means something to all extended family members. As hard as this choice may be, you are providing a lifetime of care for a lifetime of work.”

Jan Blaustone, a power wheelchair user with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, lives in Nashville with her service dogs Chris, 13, who retired early due to anterior cruciate ligament surgery (see “Service Dog or Psycho Dog?”, Quest, December 2000); Polo, 10, who is semiretired; Butterball, 7 months, who is in training; and four dogs she rescued.

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