The R-word: Retiring Your Guide Dog



When is it time for your guide dog to retire? This is one of the most difficult questions any handler has to answer and there are no hard-and-fast rules. The facile answer is, when the dog no longer wants to work, but this can be difficult to figure out, especially if, one day, he is slow and droopy, and, another day, he’s full of beans. Notwithstanding the difficulty of this fraught inevitability, handlers will do best if they become familiar with the signs and have some kind of plan for their precious companion.


The first question to ask is: How old is my dog? One source breaks it down this way: for mid-sized dogs, the first dog year is equal to fifteen human years, the second dog year is equal to nine human years, and every dog year after that is equal to five human years. For example, your ten-year-old Lab is 64 in human years. The formula is more favorable for smaller dogs and less favorable for larger dogs. Guide dogs usually work for six to seven years and usually retire around ten or eleven years.


Of course, chronological age is just one factor. Another important factor is how hard or easy your dog has worked. Obviously, one or two trips to the store, church, and the grocery store per week imposes much less wear-and-tear on your dog than if he has navigated buses, the subway, and city streets five days per week.


Finally, you can factor in your dog’s overall health. If he has been relatively healthy, then he should enjoy increased longevity. Any serious illness or condition will tend to shorten a dog’s life expectancy.


Now that we’ve set forth some basics, let’s try to answer the big question: When should my dog retire? Sometimes, dogs will let you know. It will be time to go to work and the dog will just refuse to get into the harness. This will probably occur at the end of a long decline, but it might happen overnight – he’s just had enough. More frequently, as noted above, he will show signs of slowing down and reluctance to climb up into a bus, but the next day, he will be perky and seem fine. In the end, you will have to make that heart-rending call.


It’s important to pay attention to the signs:

  • Reluctance to wear the harness
  • Slowing down pace noticeably
  • Losing focus during travel
  • Indecision where the dog previously demonstrated decisiveness
  • Slower to re-ramp up to lead after a period of lying down
  • Failure to respond to correction
  • Increased irritability: growling, chuffing, head-shaking, sighing
  • Sitting down and refusing to go any farther


It is important to remember that most handlers will tend to deny the signs and try to talk themselves into thinking their dog is fine, but it’s crucial that you pay attention and bring your concerns to your veterinarian to make sure there are no underlying health issues. Too often, handlers will put off the decision about retirement until both the dog and the handler are unsafe. Just imagine crossing a busy intersection and the dog decides right there and then to call it quits.


As the handler, you should honor your feelings and find resources that can help you work through them. Other guide dog handlers, guide dog organizations (like PAGDUS), and your guide dog’s school can provide you with excellent feedback and encouragement from folks who have gone through what you are going through. Guide dog handlers tend to be a very supportive community and they know just what kind of a special bond you have with your dog and just how painful coming to terms with his retirement can be.


OK, you’ve detected the signs, there is no underlying health concern, and, after much soul-searching, you have decided it is time. Now what? There are basically two options: keep your dog as a pet or put him out for adoption.

It should be noted that most guide dog schools allow the handler to keep the dog after retirement.


Obviously, your dog is much more than a navigational tool. For many, the guide dog is a precious member of the family and the thought of farming him off to someone else is simply intolerable. So, option number one is to keep him as a pet. If you do this, there will be a transition period where the dog thinks it is time to work but you leave the house without him. This will cause some confusion and maybe some sadness, but your dog should adjust to the new setup, especially if you lavish him with love and make play time at home a priority.


Of course, if you retire your dog and don’t get a replacement, you will probably have to revert to using the white cane. Make sure you have the right outlook and the necessary training to ensure that you are a safe and competent cane traveler.


Now that you have retired your guide dog and he is now a pet, you have to decide whether you will get a replacement dog while your retired dog is still with you or you will wait until your retired dog goes to the happy hunting grounds before you even think about getting another guide. Only you can resolve this dilemma.


There are certainly pros and cons regarding keeping your retired guide as a pet and getting a new guide dog. Most importantly, you and your guide get to keep living together. However, you should know that such a situation can generate confusion in both dogs and depression in your retired dog as he watches you and your new dog leave the house. You may also find it harder to bond with your new dog with your old dog present and needing affection and reassurances. This situation highlights one big advantage of schools that offer hometown training. Instead of you going away for a month or so and coming back with a brand-new dog, hometown training can enlist the expertise of a trainer in the home situation, not only observing signs, but also offering on-the-spot remedies, hopefully ensuring the smoothest possible transition. Even if your school does not offer hometown training, it should provide you with guidance and resources, including expert support as you navigate the challenges of this double-transition.


Given the real challenges of trying to bond with your new dog while your old dog is at home, many handlers find that adoption can be the best option for both handler and dog. Many handlers find a friend or family member to adopt their guides. This is nice because you can visit your guide and know he is part of a loving family. Another option is to have your guide dog school supervise an adoption by either the puppy-raiser family who trained him or by one of the many screened applicants who are on school adoption waiting lists. Your school should provide you with updates about your dog, but they might discourage visits because it might prove too emotionally stressful for dog and handler. Finally, there are organizations that provide comfort and therapy dogs, and guide dogs have had successful second careers providing companionship to loving owners.


No matter which option you choose, please know that it will not be an easy process. It is important for you to stay informed, be aware of your feelings, and be open to the support and encouragement schools and other handlers can provide.

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