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Retiring Your K-9

How to smooth the transition from four-legged partner to retiree.

September 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author


A retired K-9 and his handler’s current partner can usually coexist without much trouble. Just expect a little jealousy and some confusion on the part of the retired dog as he gets used to his new status.

Watching your best friend and partner retire can be very difficult; some say traumatic. He's been by your side every day for years and you've put your lives on the line for each other. Now you have to give up that closeness on the job.

And just because your trusted partner is a K-9 doesn't make it any easier to see him leave the force.

You'll still see him after hours, but it won't be the same. This change will be difficult for both of you. Knowing what to expect and how to overcome some of the problems that can come with K-9 retirement can make this transition period a little easier.

When is it Time?

If K-9 cops had their way they'd never retire, so it's up to their handlers to decide when it's best that they stop working. This can be a difficult task. But there are some warning signs to look for and some basic guidelines to follow.

Because dogs handle pain so well, it's not always evident that they're having problems, so it's important to pay close attention to any cues your dog might give you that he isn't up to the task of K-9 duty anymore.

Even if you're looking for clues, it's often difficult to see subtle changes in a dog that you spend every day with. Russ Hess, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA) and a former handler, likens dogs to cars. "You drive your car and little things start occurring as it gets older," he says. "But since you drive it every day you don't notice. Somebody else may get in and say, 'What in the world's wrong with this thing?'"

Signs that your K-9 should retire include inability to meet the physical demands of the job and problems understanding commands. Hess says aging K-9s might not be able to run or jump as fluidly or easily as before and they might start favoring their hind legs.

"Their senses of smell and hearing diminish as they age," adds Hess. "All those things that affect people affect dogs."

Injuries, of course, can always happen while doing police work. If your dog seems not to bounce back from a treated injury, check into it. He might not be up to doing the job anymore.

Some officers want so desperately to keep working as handlers that they ignore dogs' symptoms. This isn't always completely intentional, but it can nevertheless be a problem for the dog as well as a safety concern for the department and community. "These dogs are out there to protect us and other officers and the citizens," says Lt. J.D. Toth, Secretary of the USPCA. "We're not going to have a dog that doesn't meet the criteria."

Most handlers agree that while eight or nine years old is usually the limit for a K-9's career, it's not an absolute. Some K-9s can only stay on the force until the age of five before they start suffering from health problems, while others are able to work until they are 12. Writing a policy dictating what age to retire a dog doesn't make sense because every dog is different.

"We like to get five years out of them and then go from there," says Rick Ramsey, president of the National Police Canine Association (NPCA). This is a good benchmark because, according to Hess, "most make it to age five without any problems."

Yearly veterinary checkups, at the least, are necessary to make sure a K-9 is in tip-top shape. And it's best to keep even a closer eye on a dog the older he gets.

While it's usually a medical condition that forces a K-9 into retirement, some departments decide that at a certain point a dog simply deserves a break. "Sometimes, because of age, we ease them into retirement so they can have some fun time at home with the family," says Toth, who worked as a handler with two K-9s on the Johnson City (Tenn.) Police Department.

Where Will He Go?

Once you and the department have decided it's time for your K-9 to step down, you need to decide where he's going to spend the rest of his days. Most K-9s go home to live with their handlers full-time when they retire.

Common practice calls for a handler to pay the department one dollar to take responsibility for the dog. While this may seem silly, the token amount serves to officially take the dog off the department's hands. According to Hess, "Even though he may have lived with an officer for seven years, a K-9 is still technically a departmental tool or departmental property until someone officially buys him from the agency."

Ramsey believes it's wrong that departments don't support K-9s in their old age. "I never thought that was right," he says. "You've got a dog that on more than one occasion risked his life for people on the department and once they're retired the department just says, 'You're out of here, that's it.' They wash their hands of the whole thing. To me that doesn't seem fair."

Although Hess agrees it would be nice for dogs to receive compensation after leaving the force, he says it's a legal issue. "The way the law is written, a department assumes liability for a K-9 when it assumes the upkeep and maintenance of the animal."

CONTINUED: Retiring Your K-9 «   Page 1 of 2   »

Tags: K-9 Units


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