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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

Regardless of the costs involved, especially if a dog develops a serious condition such as cancer, most handlers are more than willing to take their dogs home with them for good. "I couldn't give my dog up. He's part of the family," says Officer Mike McDermott, a first-time K-9 handler with the Des Moines (Iowa) Police Department.

"Usually only through a change in life like a divorce or an injury or illness would a retired dog go to a person other than his handler," says Hess.

When a handler is unable to care for his retired K-9 for some reason, other options are available.

Many civilians who live in the country request retired K-9s to serve as family pets and watch dogs on their ranches or farms. But since most dogs end up living with their handlers, there are more requests than K-9s to meet the need. Most departments choose to hand pick a retired K-9's new owner. But there are also not-for-profit groups that screen potential owners and place K-9s in homes.

How Will He Take It?

Because most K-9s have already been living at their handlers' homes, retiring there might not seem like a big change. But the change in a dog's role in life can cause him great confusion.

It's difficult for a K-9 to sit at home while his handler goes to work-without him. K-9s love working, so it's hard for them to give up their role as partner.

Accepting retirement becomes even more difficult for a dog when his handler brings home a new K-9 and begins taking him to work instead.

"I guess it would be like leaving your wife at home and taking your girlfriend out," Hess says. "The dog is viewing it like, 'For five or six years I went five days a week with you and then all at once you get a nice, younger looking dog and leave me at home. What would you think?'"

Although a little jealousy can't be helped, especially when a new K-9 is first introduced, retired K-9s seem more willing to accept a replacement dog if they're already used to being around other animals. There still might be some level of jealousy involved, but there probably won't be a territorial struggle.

Hess also credits good training with K-9s' acceptance of other dogs. He says that since dogs are pack animals, one or both will try to assert dominance as the pack's leader, or alpha. "The trick to that is that the trainer has to be the alpha," he says.

After retiring, your K-9 will miss working and will be confused when you leave without him. It’s important that he feel loved and remain active. If you must stop working as a K-9 handler when your dog retires and you miss that kind of work, former handler J.D. Toth recommends remaining involved with K-9 training at your department or through a police dog association.

Whether you bring in a new dog or not, your retired K-9 will need a lot of attention from you and family members to adjust to retirement. Make sure he remains active and feels that he has a role in the family. Most dogs are more than willing to take over as the family protector, even moreso than when they were working. Watching over the household becomes their job.

Retirement is different for every dog. Be patient with them and let them know you still care.

How Will You Take It?

It's really hard to let go. When you're a handler retiring a dog, you must either start over with a new K-9 or stop being a handler altogether. Neither is easy.

Many handlers like their first dog best. They'll never be able to replace the kind of bond and emotional attachment they shared as partners. McDermott, who's still working his first K-9, Argo, anticipates a difficult transition. "It will be harder for me, I'm sure, than it will be on the dog," he says.

There's a debate as to whether a K-9 handler should be able to take on a replacement dog at all.

It's especially hard for an officer to give up working as a K-9 handler if he's not allowed to continue with another dog. Then he must deal with leaving behind not only a partner, but a line of work he truly enjoyed.

"I personally don't believe in a rotation for dog handlers," says Ramsey. "But you have to supervise those people. You need to weed out the people who don't want to work."

People generally become K-9 officers because they love the job and want to stay in that position for as long as possible. Specific training is costly and time-consuming, and so not easily duplicated. But some departments feel that experience gained as a handler can translate to supervisory work in other areas of the department.

There are pros and cons to both types of policies. Hess suggests not having a policy and leaving it up to the department to work with each handler to determine if moving on from the K-9 unit meets everyone's goals.

Whenever a dog retires, it is a life-changing experience for the dog and his handler. Recognizing this can help a handler come to terms with the reality.

Make it easier on yourself by marking the occasion of retirement with a ceremony or an announcement to the media recognizing your dog's years of service to the department and the community. He might show up in the local papers or even on your local television station. Ramsey is campaigning to create a monument at his police station to thank each police dog for his years of service with an individual plaque.

Whatever you do, make sure that you and your dog enjoy his retirement. Toth says, "Just try to spend a lot of good quality time with them. They've done a lot for us."

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