Working Dog Blues
Is it time for your dog to retire from a sport or job? The answer is intensely personal and depends on the dog’s attitude and physical ability
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
My dog Harper and I recently flew to Oregon to compete in a nose work trial. I worried a little bit before we left that traipsing through three different airports, taking two flights and participating in a high-level competition on a hot day might be too much for an 11 1/2-year-old dog, but she breezed through all of it with a smiling prance.
But every dog ages differently, depending on factors such as genetics, size, overall health and diet. At other trials recently, owners of 12-year-old dogs told me that it was their dogs’ last day of competition because the dog just wasn’t up to it anymore.
Teaming up with a dog to compete in a sport, make therapy visits to hospitals or other facilities, or do detection work is one of the most satisfying experiences a dog lover can have. It builds trust, confidence and communication between you and your canine pal; fosters happiness and emotional well-being for both of you; and reduces stress in your lives. But like professional athletes, working and sport dogs can have a limited shelf life. They begin to slow down, become injured more frequently or simply indicate that they’re no longer having fun.
One sign that it’s time to stop is loss of enthusiasm.
“With therapy dogs, if they start hiding when you bring out the vest, it’s a good indication that they’re done,” says Daleen Comer. “Usually evaluators can catch that at the evaluations, which is why it’s good that they are every two years.”
Signs that a dog is reluctant can be subtle. It’s essential to carefully watch and interpret body language, or to decide for the dog that all the preparation — baths before therapy visits, for instance, or waits in the sun between runs or searches — are too hard on an aging dog’s body.
Health is another issue. Comer’s dog Duffy made therapy visits until he died, but Bonnie retired due to heart problems and Macy retired at 13 when she began to have trouble walking on slippery floors.
Terry Albert retired her 11-year-old dog Tank from agility after they came home from a trial one day and she noticed that two hours later he was still panting. He was diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis.
“My dogs retire from agility when they start spending more time recovering from injuries than training in the sport,” says Jenn Stollery.
Some dogs don’t want to give up their work despite health issues. Bison, a Bernese mountain dog, finished his last agility title just weeks before he was diagnosed with lymphoma. “Even deep into chemo, he insisted on carting the recycling out to the curb,” says owner Adam Conn.
If you’re not sure your dog is ready for retirement, a second opinion can help.
“It truly helps to have another pair of eyes to give one an honest appraisal,” says Barbara Brill. “I had asked a trainer to observe me practicing obedience with my then-3-year-old collie. What was I doing wrong to cause her to lag? The trainer recommended I have my dog X-rayed because she suspected a structural fault. I did, and Tiffy was diagnosed with spondylitis. The doctor recommended no more obedience practice.”
Retirement doesn’t mean your dog has to stop playing, though. Many people transition their dogs from active sports, such as agility and obedience, to slower or more low-impact activities, such as nose work, rally, swimming or walks on the beach.
Adam Conn’s Australian shepherd, Pockets, earned her Rally Novice title when she was 15 years old. That level of competition has no jumping and is done with the dog on a lead.
“Until your dog tells you she’s done, let her keep going,” he says. “Even if she runs out of things to compete in, you can still do training sessions.”
Harper? We’re road-tripping to Colorado this week so she can nose around for a good time.