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Retiring a Service Dog: Signs It Is Time

Retiring a Service Dog is a hard decision, particularly after years of partnership, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s hard to know when the time is right or how to go about it, but here are some points to consider before taking the leap.

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.

When is it time to retire my Service Dog?
“When is it time” is the most frequently asked question about retiring a Service Dog and the one that’s the hardest to answer. The truth is that there isn’t a good answer. Every dog, every team and every situation is different, and only you can know when it is time to begin easing your canine partner out of working. Follow your gut and listen to your heart – if you’re beginning to think it may be time, you’re probably right. Ryan Cambio, owner and head trainer of service dog organization K9 Lifeline and its associated working dog gear division, K9 Lifeline Designs, advices, “Keep in close contact with your program/trainer/mentor, especially as your Service Dog ages. Another set of eyes can help show/tell you as the time comes, since it can be hard to see as you’re in daily contact with your partner.” He goes on to note, “Day by day, nothing seems to change but you look back, and everything is different. It’s your responsibility as the human half of the team to know when the dog is ready to retire. They can’t and wont tell you.”  

What are signs my Service Dog should be retired?
The easiest way to know when it is time to think about retiring a Service Dog is to watch out for some of the signs that your partner isn’t as happy working or isn’t as able to do her job well or safely. Here’s a list to consider:

  1. Your partner just isn’t happy. Her tail doesn’t wag, her ears don’t perk up, and she doesn’t seem to be excited about going out any more. Of course, take your partner’s historical actions into consideration. If your partner has never been a waggy, upbeat dog, don’t worry. But if she has, and she’s slowly becoming not, it might be time to think about making some changes to her schedule and work load.
  2. Your partner is slowing down. Is she able to keep pace with you still? Can she put in a full day and bounce back as good as new after a good night’s sleep? If not, try to find the reason behind it. If you can fix it, and she’s happy, then hi ho, it’s off to work we go – but if not and she’s requiring more and more rest throughout the day, it may be time to retire her.
  3. Your partner’s sleep needs have drastically increased.
  4. Your partner is showcasing health issues. Arthritis, cataracts, hearing problems, kidney issues, joint/back pain, weight gain, cancer, diabetes or any of the other ailments of age are cause for retirement. It’s not fair to ask your partner to continue working through discomfort or malaise.
  5. Your partner isn’t as responsive. If your partner is missing cues, isn’t fully completing tasks or requires multiple reminders, look deeper than “she’s disobeying.” Your partner may be experiencing memory problems, have something physical going on (like hearing loss) or may not be otherwise able to work to the best of her ability. If your partner “always listens” and her training is solid, but she’s starting to seem to ignore you, then it likely isn’t a behavior problem.

What are the options for my retired Service Dog?
Options for retiring your Service Dog depend on the kind of Service Dog you have, where she came from and what your plans are moving forward. If your partner came from a program, you’ll need to follow their standards for retirement, and each is different. Guide Dogs for the Blind, for example, allows retired Guide Dogs to remain with their human partner, whereas other programs require them to be returned if the handler wants a successor dog. Regardless of the conditions of your partnership, there are a few basic options available:

  1. Your partner remains with you as a pet once retired and lives out her (his)  life as a queen (or he as king) with the official title of “Living Room Princess” or “Couch Prince.”
  2. Your partner returns to the program she came from.
  3. Your partner is rehomed, either with her puppy raiser, a trust friend or family member, or a loving family.

How, exactly, do I retire my Service Dog?
How is about like when – only you can really know what’s best for your partner. However, trainers tend to agree it is best to transition your partner out of working.

Do you have other advice about retiring a Service Dog, a story to share or something you wish someone had told you? Share in the comments!




  • Kris Church-DiCiccio September 17, 2014

    I’ve retired a few service dogs in my time, but the hardest one was my partner KC. She still had that “working” mindset, but her body was failing her (thanks to a condition known as DM). To her, it was difficult to relinquish her vest and submit all control/knowledge to my current partner Chara. However, we made this transition easier on her by allowing her to “work” at least an hour a week and assist me with training the new dogs that entered the program. Plus this retirement came with its other perks: plenty of naps on temperpedic beds with heated blankets, homemade cookies, antlers, and other chew flips. I was fortunate that she remained by my side to the very end (vice versa I’m sure). She’s greatly missed and she’s set the bar high with the other service dogs (in training and certified).

  • chilbrooklabradors September 17, 2014

    Some very good points, I have only had one instance where a client had the retired dog with the puppy that being raised to replace it and it turns out the older dog would help the puppy learn the tasks. From that experience I would suggest if possible to keep your older dog and allow them to interact with the newer dog and hopefully some words of wisdom will be passed along.

  • emissary007 September 17, 2014

    Very much agree with points shared and the other comment. My Boxer is 12 years old and suddenly almost died from heart leakage 8 months ago. Prior to that he was and always had been talk of the town. Fortunately the medications made miraculous improvement BUT his hearing, drive and eyesight were just not their. I went ahead and got the 8 weeks old replacement puppy a female Doberman feeling that the bonding, teach and pack mentality( We have a Yorkie too) would be a help. It has been the exact right mix. My 12 year old distinguished Gentleman is enjoy his sunset period being pampered with not stress while I am wrestling this unbelievably smart puppy. It will lessen to pain when the retired dog passes.

  • Friday Jewel Lowrey October 9, 2014

    I have had to retire my 13 yr old service dog. He became intolerant of other dogs and is not focus ed on his tasks. The challenge is he doesn’t know he retired. I want to rehom enhim but am so concerned about his attachment to me and jow stressed he will be. I am also trying to be realistic about how he is negatively effecting the teain Ing of my new dog. Itbis so hard.

  • joan cobb March 31, 2015

    I recently retired my very first service dog at the age of 14 years old. She actually let me know she didn’t want to work in public anymore.

    She just didn’t want to go with me anymore. She would ignore me whenI asked if she was ready to go. If i was getting ready to go out and i reached to get her ready, she would walk away and go lay down.

    I took her to the vet to make sure she was ok and he said she was good. So i got her point, she had retired herself.

    She worked long enough to help me in training her replacement, after he was trained my girl kicked up her doggy feet and she was retired.

    Now she lives the well deserved life of a well loved pet. I love her with all my heart and I appreciate everything she’s ever done for me.

  • Kate July 11, 2015

    My 12 year old service dog has experienced multiple traumas while working. The most recent was a roll over accident in my pickup, when I drove off road to avoid an elk. I was trapped in the truck, and my rescuers got Bonnie out first. They held her about 20 feet away, and she was fighting and barking, trying to get back to me. Eventually, after repeated shouted requests, they did turn her loose, and she came straight back to me and turned around so I could grab her harness. She was able to pull me out of the truck, and stayed by my side while the EMTs checked me out. She also stood quietly while they did a full checkup on her, then joined me in the ambulance.

    Now, she still wants to work, and will bounce over and grab her harness, but I can tell by the look in her eyes that she is very stressed in crowded or strange situations. She is very distrustful of certain strange men and, although she has not yet bitten, I am afraid that she will. I only take her to her favorite restaurant, where a side of link sausages accompanies whatever meal I order. The waitress and the owner of the restaurant come to my table and ask permission to break her rules of training. Under the circumstances, I always let them, in this one restaurant only. Her restaurant manners are still impeccable, both here and in the few other restaurants that we have patronized.

    She is still very helpful at home, and I suspect that this will continue even after I find a new dog. Since Bonnie is selectively dog reactive, my search for a new candidate has been long and frustrating. I may have found one that meets are my criteria, but it will require a trip to Oregon for introductions. I hope that I can manage that soon, as finding a candidate that is both dog and cat friendly has proven to be a challenge.

  • Traci August 20, 2015

    I was a care taker to a woman who had a service dog. The woman passed away, & now I have the dog. Shes old & i plan on giving her the very best life, as she deserves it & then some.
    my question is this: how do I help her? She isnt used to staying alone & she wants to work… shes just too darn old.
    Can I still take her places sometimes? She seems depressed & bored :/
    Any help would be MUCH appreciated.

    • Lise September 22, 2015

      Hi Traci. Since she is not your service dog you can’t work with her in public as if she were your partner. However there is a lot you can do. Old dogs benefit a great deal from any kind of new positive reinforcement training. If I were you I would start carrying a clicker and treats and teach her fun new random things that you two can do both inside and outside. A dog absolutely needs mental stimulation especially after coming from a life of service. Good luck.

  • Angela Boone November 6, 2017

    I’m battling the hard questions myself of retirement of my service dog after 8 years. He was attacked viciously outside of a restaurant by Woman’s pet she left in her truck. Several Staples and lots of health issues laters his anxiety is so tremendous every time we go out in town. We did eventually get him over his fear of being around larger dogs. But anytime the car slows down for him to get out his whining and barking becomes uncontrollable. He will settle down once he’s out but if he sees another dog he gets so out of control with his whining, that I have to leave the business I’m in. He still signals me for my seizures on a regular basis at home and out in public. But when left alone at home he will whine and bark until he actually loses his voice and has to be put on medication. His separation anxiety is too hard for him being left alone. Many trainers have told me that it is time to retire him for public life and he can only help me around the house. But again I am training a new service dog and he knows it. Every time we leave my neighbor says he whines so hard and so loud that they feel sorry for him and he will not stop not even for 9 hours straight. If anyone has any suggestions on how to help him with his separation anxiety, or even with his performance intown, I would greatly greatly appreciate it. I’m on a fixed income and unable to pay for more training classes. We’ve already been through a year of training classes with one trainer who finally told me it’s time to retire him. We’ve tried treats,bones, blankets, everything you could think of to help with anxiety, changing the environment as well. Unfortunately nothing seems completely work. When he’s been left alone with another dog he’s not as bad, but he still whines and scratches at the door for hours at a time. This is a very hard decision to make especially since it’s not his fault he got attacked. He has saved my life so many times within the last 8 years and I hate that he’s going through this. The new service dog seems to be working really good however I do feel bad that I’m having to take the dog from my son. He no longer needs a dog ( his health has improved) but was already bonded with him after 2 years. So it’s a very hard choice to make whether to retire my small dog and use my son’s dog, or just find a way to help my small dog get over his anxiety in public. Very hard decision to make not only my health but the health of my partner of eight years.

  • Kris10 January 1, 2018

    My family has just adopted s retired service dog so the family can get a new service dog. I dont know much about service dogs — or where to start to keep her happy and somewhat busy (ie does she need small jobs?) . We have another dog, so they are companions to each other, but I can see she is a lot different than a dog who has been socialized as a “family” dog. Can you suggest how I find resources to help us and her make the transition?

    • Anything Pawsable Staff January 3, 2018

      Congratulations on your new family member! There’s nothing different or specific that you should do when welcoming a retired Service Dog from any other dog as each dog has their own specific personality. Take your time, watch their behavior and provide lots of love.


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