No one method will be right for everyone, but here’s my story regarding the steps to take towards getting a successor dog and retiring a current service dog.
First, begin the process before you need to. The last thing anyone wants is to have an older dog that won’t get a chance to retire. I start the process when my current dog is around 8 years old. It often takes 2 years to comfortably switch over to my successor dog and also because one can not replace a soul. There are dogs after your first, second, third, and so on. and they are called “Successor Dogs”.
When you are partnered with dogs as long as I’ve been, you gain a unique perspective. I am an owner trainer that has benefited from the knowledge of many amazing mentors, several of them over the years. A few of my mentors stand out over others, and some are good friends that I have met along the way.
Some people prefer program dogs, that professional trainers teach, and then match them to their people. This is a great route to go. I recommend, because of the time and expense, you start early and learn about fund raising. Also apply to a lot of reputable organizations, especially if you’re not military affiliated (like a Combat Veteran). Most people that aren’t military affiliated don’t get dogs donated, so fundraising is a big deal, since dogs can cost a lot, with price varying due to the complexity of the trained tasks the dog must know and what the dog will be doing.
My personal choice was to be an owner trainer, because I grew up with dogs and have been training dogs for almost 40 years. This is the information I know best.
My first step is to come to terms with the fact that my best partner ever (they each are) is getting older. The big “joke” is that about the time they’re perfect, you need to start the process of training the next of a hopefully long line of dogs, and begin to retire the partner that you’ve worked with for years.
Make a Plan
The next step is to plan. You need to plan and ask and learn. For example, I refresh my memory of how to teach the basic foundation behaviors, as well as their more complicated finished behaviors. It sounds silly, but after having a solid partner to the age of 8 or so, is how to train a solid “stay” still fresh in your mind? Not mine. Before that comes socialization… and the age old question regarding which is more important, is the early window of socialization to the general public or completing the puppy vaccines first more important? I always choose the vaccines, but there is a real discussion on that point.
The next step is to identify your wants and needs. An example follows. I have come to a point in my life where I do not want to sort through 10 candidates to find my next partner. Additionally, I don’t want to deal with teething or house training any more than I have to, so this time, I hired a very trusted professional to pick the dog for me, and due to a move from South Carolina to Texas, I was really very lucky that she was willing to house my dog until I could take delivery of the pup.
I am very happy to say that the dog chosen for me is already 1 year old, and has been tested for all of the medical that could rule him out as a Service/Assistance dog. My amazing trainer helped with the rough edges on the green dog too, so I’m not walking into this blind and starting from scratch at the local pound.
**Tip** If you do go to a Rescue or Humane Society, listen to the kennel staff or “match maker” and think about personalities, ages, work ethics, and energy levels. Use all of the tools put forth to help you find a solid match. This will save you a lot of time, and frazzled nerves, and heartaches. Check out this guide for evaluating Service Dog candidates at the shelter, too.
Use Your Local Resources
Once you have a candidate, from this owner-trainer’s perspective, consider getting into a class or training group. This is a great socialization tool and will help teach your dog that working is separate from playing, that focus is important, as well as that there is a time and a place for everything.
I have never found that working an older dog with a younger dog in public pans out. They don’t imitate as well as some might think… or maybe I just haven’t had any luck with it. It also slows down the process of retiring your current dog, and confuses the process, as well.
I find that taking one dog out at a time, splitting time between dogs as their skill sets dictate is the best method for me. I begin taking the pup to training classes and dog friendly places like Lowes, PetSmart and such, and acclimating them to public that way. And at other times during this period, I take my seasoned dog to Doctor’s appointments and situations where I really need a solid, bomb proof dog.
This eases the pup into their new role, and gives your retiring dog a slow ramp down to Couch-Potato-ism. As you progress, you’ll see that you’re able to work the new dog in more and more public access situations. This comes after, of course, you have achieved passing all of the CGC’s (Canine Good Citizen tests), and your Public Access Tests.
It’s really a rough time on the handler and seasoned dog, but it’s not an optional task… time passes and dogs don’t live as long as we do… no matter how much we wish it weren’t true. So be kind to yourself and to your partners, both current and future. Take time. I usually take 2 years to fully transfer over – which coincides nicely with my retiring dog’s 10th-ish birthday.
Breath easy. There are trainers out there that, for a fee, will administer the various tests that a solid team must be able to pass, from the initial CGC to the Public Access test. For my dogs, I do all of the tests and then I hire an expert to do what I call “Proofing my dog”. This is when I show them every single task my dog does, and all of the public access tests, my confrontational access challenge and education challenges. If I pass, I ask them to write a letter on my behalf, stating their opinion of our team status.
Lastly, once you’ve switched dogs, whether you get to keep your retired dog or not, it’s time to get on with life. There’s a lot of life out there to be lived. Get on with it!
Remember, leave nothing but a great impression, and enjoy your new partner. Life is good.