Challenges with Service Dog Retirement
Jeff Schettler stopped by Working Like Dogs on www.petliferadio.com this week to visit with me and Whistle about his new book, Red Dog Rising. As we talked about his police K9, Ronin, the conversation ultimately led to Ronin’s retirement. Jeff shared with me the difficulty he had with Ronin’s retirement. This is definitely something I have struggled with also. I am on my third service dog now and I have experienced two very different types of retirement.
My first dog, Ramona, was retired abruptly. She was 7 years old. I thought she was in her prime when I was informed that she had bone spurs on her vertebrae and had to be retired immediately. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I also felt like I had become disabled all over again. I was lost. How could I go out at night without her? Would I be safe? Would it be OK? More importantly, would she be OK? What was she going to think about being left at home alone?
The first few times I left her after her retirement it was agonizing. She did not understand nor appreciate the fact that she was being left at home. She knew that I needed her and it really wasn’t safe for her to be left behind. But, we got through it. I took her in public on a part-time basis and started gradually leaving her at home more and more. When Morgan, my successor dog arrived, she looked at him like, “What in the world took you so long to get here?” She then promptly made herself comfortable on the couch and the torch was successfully passed onto Morgan.
Morgan and I worked together until he began showing signs of slowing down a few years ago. My bouncy, playful golden retriever was reluctantly getting dressed in the mornings. He seemed to be saying, “Let’s don’t go to work today, let’s just stay home and see if a good movie is on TV.” I had to face the reality that it was time for him to retire and to get the rest and relaxation that he so richly deserved.
I began to slowly take Morgan out of service on a part-time basis. He became more and more accustomed to staying home. And then, one day Whistle, his successor, arrived. I was hoping Morgan would have the same reaction Ramona had expressed.
To my disappointment, he had the opposite response. Morgan resisted every aspect of retirement. It was gut-wrenching to see the look on his face when he realized that I was training with Whistle. He would bark incessantly as if to say, “How dare you work with my mom—I am the only one who knows how to help her.” And, he was right. Morgan and I had been together so long that he knew or could anticipate my every move. We were inseparable and he was irreplaceable.
Transitioning to Whistle was difficult. Whistle is an amazing dog. He is a pure athlete but he was also a stranger. I did not know his likes or dislikes, his habits, and his favorite treats. He was not my cuddly, adorable golden retriever, Morgan who knew me better than I knew myself. Whistle and I were strangers. Poor Whistle walked into a house with an established service dog and four cats.
It took time and work for all three of us to transition into our new life together. I had to work with Morgan to make sure he felt secure in his new retirement life. And, I had to work extra hard to make Whistle understand that he was my new service dog. I have to admit that at times I wondered if the three of us would survive. I love both dogs and I want to honor both of their roles and commitments to me as their human partner. I especially love how Whistle respects Morgan and still relinquishes toys or treats to Morgan. It is really beautiful to watch the two of them together. Whistle seems to idolize Morgan.
I wish I could say it was easy. I will say it was work and the three of us now share a unique bond. Morgan has come to understand that he is still my dog but, he has to stay home. He really doesn’t want to go out of the house anymore, but he still keeps a close eye on Whistle to make sure he is performing his commands correctly and making sure he doesn’t get more treats or attention than Morgan.
Whistle, on the other hand, likes going with me everyday. He is always ready to get dressed and head out the door. He loves traveling with me when it is just the two of us in a hotel room. He enjoys being the only dog in my world for a little while and Morgan enjoys having a house sitter to take care of him while we’re gone.
Transitioning from one service dog to another can be challenging. It is a delicate process that must be handled with love and respect. It is painful for all three beings. Occasionally, Morgan gets a spark in his eye as if he wants to try and go with me as I am gathering my purse and keys although we both know it’s probably not a good idea. As he approaches 12, he still has the desire to be a service dog and I still wish he could go with me. It hurts, but then I turn and look into Whistle’s trusting face. Thank goodness for Morgan AND Whistle.