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Senior service dog with young companion

When is it time to retire my service dog?

The bond between a service dog and its owner runs deep, and it can be difficult to know when it’s time to retire your animal. The decision is often an emotional one, and should be given the time and attention that it warrants.

Signs it May Be Time to Retire Your Service Animal

There are several objective signs that often signal owners that the time is now to reduce their animal’s workload and responsibilities.

  • Your animal doesn’t seem happy (experiencing mood changes). If you’ve worked with your service dog awhile, you’ve probably become pretty 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 animal can no longer keep pace with you. Age takes a physical toll on service animals, 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 could be the cause. This can be a signal that the time for retirement is near.
  • Your animal has special health needs of its own. Many health issues—including visual impairment (cataracts), arthritis, deafness, or diminished kidney function, to name only a few—can affect your animal’s ability to work and function. You need an animal 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 care.
  • Your animal shows cognitive deterioration. Your service animal relies upon its senses and its mental acuity to perform its duties. If your dog becomes less responsive or begins to miss important commands or cues, the cause could be cognitive decline. Memory problems affect older dogs as they do older humans, so it’s important to observe your dog’s behavior as the animal ages to look for signs of cognitive impairment.

Listen to your heart.

If you’ve been working with a service animal for a while, chances are that you’ve built both a powerful rapport and a good understanding of what normal is for your animal’s agility, attentiveness, appetite, mood, etc. For many, making the hard decision to retire a service dog begins with little more than a gut feeling. Perhaps it’s nothing you can pinpoint—just the general observation that your beloved and devoted animal is beginning to show the signs of advanced age. In such situations, many owners let their hearts decide when the time is right.

What will happen to my retired service dog?

The answer to this question depends a great deal upon you and your resources. For some owners, letting their service animal live out its retirement at home is the ideal option because it preserves the companionship and emotional bond that you already share. Some owners, who can no longer care for an aged service animal, will allow the animal to be rehomed with a trusted family member, making visits possible. And in yet other cases, the animal is returned to the agency or program that originally trained it. Whichever you choose, it should be a resolution that takes into account your physical and emotional health, as well as those of your animal.

Editor’s Note: The scope of the service dog in human society has broadened to help address many physical and mental challenges that people face. If you are looking to acquire a service animal, here are a few things to consider.

Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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