Averages vary, and they really don’t mean much when you are dealing with individuals, be it people or dogs. Some estimate that guide dogs work for an average of 6 to 8 years; if a dog is issued at around 1.5 years old, then an average retirement age might be 7.5 to 9 years old. Mileage will vary; some retire earlier, and some later! Guide dogs can retire at any age for any number of reasons – work issues, medical issues, behaviour issues, old age, or basic mismatch; or perhaps it is just time and they have earned their retirement! When changes become chronic or if they progress, then it may be time to consider retirement. Suffice it to say that a handler who is in tune with their dog is often the first to perceive changes, whatever the cause. With Bode, he was just done. No need to go into the details, but he was showing me that he was ready to hang up the harness and pass the responsibility on to the next capable canine.
For those of you who know Bode, you already know he has been a wonderful worker for me. When we moved to our community, he was already a mature and seasoned worker. The new dog will be trained but will be a greenhorn. I like to compare it to a teenager who has graduated from high school; they have graduated, but they don’t yet have experience or life skills. It will take at least a year for us to become a smooth working team. But this post isn’t about the new dog.
Bode and I are like a well-oiled team. We know each others’ moods, reactions, and feelings; it’s like we can read each other’s minds. I know what Bode is communicating by reading or “feeling” his gait, body tension, and posturing through the harness. I know when he is concentrating and working extra hard; I know when he is proud as punch for solving a problem or doing something extra special. I know when he is stressed. I know when he is having an off day. I know when he is distracted; I know when he is on his game! On the other side of the coin, Bode can read me like a book. He knows what I mean often before I say it. He knows when I mean “left” when I say “right”; he knows our regular destinations and will indicate them with a break in stride or a slight turn of the head; he knows when to take charge when I’m unsure; he knows when “I’m” the one who is distracted and not paying attention!
It takes time and lots of work to develop such an intimate human/dog relationship. It is a grieving process to let go of that level of freedom and independence and start from scratch with a new dog to rebuild that rapport. But for me, the end result is worth all the work in the world.
Bode retired at the end of November 2017. Once I realized he needed to retire, I vowed not to work him. Personally, I will never put my needs for a guide dog ahead of a dog’s welfare. Bode is retiring with us and will stay with us as a pet. He has earned his snuggles on the bed, his playtime at the park with Jim, and his “sniff walks” with either of us. He is adjusting well and enjoying his retirement!
Bode has been an exemplary guide dog. I grieve the ending of our working partnership; the separation, the loss, the need to start again. But I also celebrate Bode for the wonderful dog he is and the gifts he has and continues to give me.
Perhaps this is anthropomorphising, but I wonder how Bode sees his retirement. I can tell you from experience with past dogs that they NEVER forget their work ethic even in retirement. Perhaps Bode will be a mentor and consultant for his successor.