Years ago, those in the service dog field told me that most service dogs retire at the age of ten, so I knew this time would come. We’ve already stretched it out longer – Ripley turned ten last May; she’ll be eleven on May 24. I had begun to make initial inquiries, checking into the possibilities of finding a “next” dog. But deep down, I felt entirely unprepared emotionally. How in the world could Ripley and I stop being a team? This dog, who I have had since she was two months old, and who has been at my side for the past six years, 24/7, as my service dog? She is my first, my entire experience of service dog/handler. And she is simply Ripley. What dog could possibly replace her?
As I have struggled with these questions, one of my biggest concerns was that I was following some arbitrary standard, saying that a dog retires at a certain age. Ripley still seemed eager to go, wanted to hop into the truck every time we had an outing, loved being with me, wanted to work. Would bringing in a new dog make her go into a state of decline, fall into depression? I was afraid that retiring her too early would break her heart.
When I first began to investigate other service dog organizations, we were in the midst of big life changes. We were preparing to move from California to New Mexico, my wife was retiring from her job. We were putting our house on the market, packing, in a state of flux. It soon became clear that it was not a good time to put in applications for a new dog, because the organizations all wanted things like photographs of your home, descriptions of your yard, even home visits. We needed to be settled somewhere before I could proceed. So I deferred all of that for another six months or so, and Ripley and I continued on as before.
Once all the boxes were unpacked in New Mexico, I realized it was time. Now that there were no physical obstacles, I found that it was my heart that was getting in the way. Even though I was beginning to notice signs of Ripley’s aging, I doubted myself and needed reassurance that what I was doing was the right thing.
I found an article on Anything Pawsable.com, a website with information for service and working dogs, about knowing when to retire your service dog by Kea Grace. Grace lists five things to look for when making the determination if it is time: your dog isn’t acting happy; she is slowing down; her sleep needs have drastically increased; she has health issues (things like arthritis, cataracts, cancer, diabetes, etc.); and she isn’t responsive.
The first item was not an issue. Ripley is a happy dog, tail always wagging. Whew.
But number two, I had to admit, was true. Ripley is slowing down. She can’t keep up with me. I have recently started going on walks, and she can’t go with me. We tried the first two days, and she was limping afterwards. I thought at first it was a matter of working up to longer walks, but that was not the case. It was simply too much. She doesn’t want to go on the walks.
Three also. Her sleep needs have dramatically increased. When we are at home, most of the time she’s on the bed asleep. Even when we go out, as much as she likes going out, as soon as she gets in the truck she snoozes in the back seat until we arrive at our destination.
She’s also starting to have some health issues, which is entirely new. About two months ago, I noticed gait issues. After a visit to the vet, we determined that she had arthritis in her front legs. She is now on Rimadyl twice a day for pain. I also recently discovered she is developing cataracts, and is having some vision problems.
All of this means that she is sometimes unresponsive. In other words, I ask her to do a task, like walk with me to the mail box, and she won’t come – because she thinks we’re going to go on a longer walk, and she doesn’t want to, because it will hurt. Or she’s supposed to remind me to take my medications, but she’s napping, and doesn’t get up. That sort of thing.
Which means that four of the five indicators on Grace’s list are true for Ripley. Which means…
that Ripley wants to retire. Now I just need to figure out how to do it gracefully, so she still feels valued, loved and needed.
P.S. Tomorrow I have an interview with American Service Dogs of Las Cruces to meet potential candidates for my next dog. Wish me luck.