Guide Dogs: What Happens When They Retire?
Colby is enjoying retirement. On summer days, he takes a dip in the backyard pool whenever he’s hot and spends time cruising on the boat or taking strolls along the boardwalk on trips to the Jersey shore with his family. And in the winter, he vacations in Vermont, where he romps in the snow and plays with the grandchildren.
Colby probably isn’t the retiree you’re picturing.
But after eight years of leading a bustling life as a Seeing Eye dog, he deserves the pampering he’s getting in his senior years from his adoptive family.
Many visually impaired owners keep their guide dogs after they hang up the harness, but it’s not an option for everyone. Some can’t afford the veterinary care that an older dog might need. Some live in apartments where only working dogs are allowed. And others have careers that require a lot of travel with a working dog, and they can’t be home to take care of a retired dog.
Turning to the Puppy Raiser
Whatever the reason, owners who find themselves in a position where they're unable to keep their guide dogs want to find the best possible home for these dogs who’ve given so much of themselves. And there’s no shortage of people willing to take them.
Sometimes it’s a friend or family member of the owner — someone whom the dog already knows. Another common situation is for the dog to be adopted by the person who voluntarily raised him as a puppy.
That’s what happened in Colby’s case.
Maureen Hopkins says she and her husband got a call from The Seeing Eye in May, asking if they’d be willing to take the first puppy they raised for the school back to their New Jersey home.
“It took my husband and I maybe 10, 15 seconds to say yes!” Hopkins says, laughing. “Of course, him being the first one, he’s your favorite.”
Colby’s handler was the president of The Seeing Eye, James Kutsch. Colby spent a lot of his time in Morristown, N.J., where the school is located, and frequently flew with Kutsch around the country and internationally.
Colby was about a year old when Hopkins and her husband finished their portion of his upbringing and brought him back to The Seeing Eye in New Jersey to train with the professionals. The couple wondered whether the yellow Labrador Retriever, now 10, would remember them.
“He came back, and his nose went up in the air, and he was sniffing and sniffing and sniffing,” Hopkins says. And he quickly made himself at home again.
“I tell all my friends he’s the perfect dog,” she says. “Life is very good for Colby, that’s for sure. But I think he’s worked so hard that this is a good reward for him.”
Getting a Direct Request
Last year, Suzan Bocciarelli of Ohio adopted Winslow, the first of six puppies she has raised for Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York.
For Bocciarelli, the invitation to make Winslow her own came directly from his blind owner. The woman had had several guide dogs over the years, and Bocciarelli and her husband would visit with Winslow and his owner whenever they traveled to the school in New York.
The first time they met, Winslow’s owner asked if the Bocciarellis would be willing to take Winslow when it came time for him to retire — and they didn’t hesitate to say yes. When the handler’s health declined last year, she called them. They brought Winslow home in August, and he turned 7 in December.
He’s “pretty young for a retiree, which is nice for us,” Bocciarelli says.
“Every time we go out the door, he does look like, ‘I get to go, right?’” Bocciarelli says. But he has acclimated to kicking back — especially with other dogs in his home to keep him company. “There are four Labradors here, and he’s just one of the guys.”
Right now, he’s busy helping to raise Bocciarelli’s latest trainee. “Those two seem to be really best buddies, and I’m sure the puppy is learning things from him,” she says.
Learning to Relax as a Retiree
Much like a person learning to adjust to the slower pace of retirement, guide dogs go through a transition period.
“The wonderful thing about these dogs is that they are very adaptable,” says Grete Eide, chief canine officer at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in New York. “It’s one of the things that makes them great guide dogs in the first place.”
The age at which guide dogs retire varies depending on the dog and the type of situation he's working in — for example, a major city with a busy professional vs. a senior citizen in a rural area who might take life at a slower pace. But retirement generally comes between the ages of 8 and 10. It’s up to the owner to determine when the dog is ready, and owners are educated on recognizing signs that the dog is starting to slow down.
“Some people feel like their dogs love to work so much that they don’t want to retire,” says Michelle Barlak of The Seeing Eye in New Jersey. “Other people, they want their dog to go into retirement with the same energy and to enjoy their retirement.”
Part of the transition for former guide dogs is getting used to the idea that they can’t go everywhere they once did. Some may require some time to adjust to this new "normal" of being home more often. Being in a home with other dogs, like in Winslow's case, is one way to be sure that these dogs who have had a constant companion for their whole lives aren’t lonely.
Adopting a Retired Dog
While a puppy raiser is usually the first call when a guide dog needs to be rehomed, the raiser may not be available. In that case, the schools may turn to waiting lists to find a home that’s a good fit for the retiree.
Andrea Spencer, who lives in New York with her husband and two children, ages 7 and 9, volunteers with the Guide Dog Foundation and put her name on a waiting list to adopt an older dog.
Generally, between two and six retiring dogs a year are adopted out in this way at the Guide Dog Foundation. “It’s definitely a big commitment, and one of the big parts of our screening process is making sure [the adopter is] financially and emotionally ready to take this on,” says the foundation’s Eide.
Spencer brought Lydon home about a year ago, when the black Lab and Golden Retriever cross was 12 ½ years old.
“He’s an unusual dog in the fact that he worked until he was 12 [in Philadelphia],” she says. Dogs who work in major cities often retire a little earlier.
Lydon loved working, and he still wants to help. “He always wants to work; he wants to be by your side,” Spencer says. “He goes to the door a lot. He’ll block the stairs for me [a guide dog behavior]. He wants to be in the front passenger’s seat. He’s not stressed about it, but I think he’s a little confused.”
Spencer also has a rescued Lab, Ruby, who’s 4 or 5 years old, and a 1- to 2-year-old Lab mix foster. Lydon likes having them around, but he doesn’t exactly understand why they’re so playful. “When I have my rescues here play-fighting, he kind of looks at them like, ‘What are you doing?’” she says. “I know he was a good guide dog in his heyday — you just look at him, and you can tell he’s smart.”
Spencer says her husband was apprehensive about adopting a retiring dog, knowing that they may not have much time with him and fearful that the kids would grow attached to him. But Spencer says their children are proud to have a guide dog, and although Lydon suffers from arthritis, he’s quite healthy.
“We enjoy him every day because, you know, we don’t know [how much time he might have]," she says. She adds that the family celebrates Lydon’s half-birthdays now.
Staying Home and Meeting the New Guy
Lydon’s case is fairly unusual. In many cases, the dog does stay with the blind handler, and those dogs face a transition period, too.
Michelle Brier of Guiding Eyes for the Blind describes how it can be an adjustment for dogs who stay with their handler to relax while a new working dog arrives at the home. She says it’s not unusual to hear stories about owners taking out the harness when they’re ready to leave the house in the morning and finding two noses poking through it. But the retired dog learns quickly.
Vic Pereira worked with his Lab-Poodle mix, Hanna, who’s from the Guide Dog Foundation, for seven and a half years before determining that she was ready to retire. He thought she was showing some anxiety while they were making their daily commute to his office in Manitoba, Canada, using public transportation, and he didn’t want to put his loyal dog in an “uncomfortable situation.”
Pereira brought Hanna home from the school in New York when his children were just 3 and 5, and she quickly became a part of their family. “It doesn’t take long for a dog to sort of worm her way into your heart,” he says. Because he had family members at home during the day, it was possible for them to keep her when she retired at age 9.
“It was an easy decision to keep her as part of the family,” he says. “Emotionally we just couldn’t let her go.”
Pereira stopped working with Hanna and went back to using a mobility cane about four to five weeks before he went to the school to train with his new guide dog, a yellow Lab named Kyle.
“For the first couple weeks when she would see me getting ready to go, she would be running for the door,” he says. “When the new dog came home, she was OK because by then she realized that she wasn’t a working dog anymore.”
Hanna, now 13, is healthy and happy at home with the Pereira family. She still loves going for long walks and playing in the snow. She gets along with Kyle, who respects her position in their home. “Kyle knows that what she says goes,” Pereira says.
Never a Dog Without a Home
An older dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind made national headlines late last year. Orlando, a black Lab, was getting ready to retire when his blind owner, Cecil Williams, fell off a platform onto subway tracks in New York. Orlando quickly jumped down with him and lay over him, protecting him from an oncoming train.
Afterward, Williams described how he was going to have to give Orlando up once the 11-year-old dog retired. Brier of Guiding Eyes explains that this was because Williams would no longer receive the veterinary stipend that some owners get through donations to the school because only working dogs are eligible. Earlier this year, though, Williams got a new guide dog, and he was able to keep Orlando thanks to generous donations to Guiding Eyes to pay for his care. Brier explains that the school had lined up a home for Orlando before that, though. He was slated to go back to live with his puppy raiser.
Even if that weren’t the case, Guiding Eyes, the Guide Dog Foundation and The Seeing Eye say they are always willing to take their dogs back and find them a good home.
“They love what they do, and they give it so freely, and they change lives,” Eide says. “You want to make those lives as enjoyable and as rich as they can be.”
Brier of Guiding Eyes agrees.
“There never is a dog in our program who is without a home,” she says. “We believe our dogs are wonderful and work hard. We want them to be able to put their feet up and relax — they certainly deserve that.”
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