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."[PAGEBREAK]
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.
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."