What Happens to Service Dogs When They Retire?

Yes, one option is adoption!

Service dogs are more than your standard pet. Since dogs are smarter than you think, they play a critical role in the lives of the people they assist. “They assist with day-to-day activities to foster independence, they keep the person safe, and they provide comfort and companionship,” says Mary R. Burch, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist and the director of American Kennel Club Family Dog. The average dog lifespan is 10 to 13 years, so what happens when service dogs retire? Here are the possibilities for soon-to-retire pups, according to experts.

Why do service dogs retire?

Some service dogs are simply too old to do their job because of medical conditions like hearing or vision loss, according to Erin Conley, the director of communications for Freedom Service Dogs (FSD). Most dogs retire when they’re about eight to 10 years old, but some variables can affect this. On the other hand, sometimes the owner’s health declines, which makes it hard or impossible for them to care for the pup. There are also some dogs that don’t make the initial cut for service and become “career-change dogs” that go up for adoption. It makes sense since some dogs just aren’t cut out for certain responsibilities, like the dogs you can adopt that were “too nice” for TSA training.

retirement party service dogCourtesy Freedom Service Dogs

What happens to service dogs when they retire?

It’s not surprising that when it’s time for these dogs to retire, in most cases, they stay with the service dog user as a family pet and companion. Meanwhile, another dog assumes the service dog job. But there are some exceptions. “One is that guide dogs for people who are blind are often placed in another loving home where they can enjoy retirement, and another highly trained dog becomes the guide dog,” Burch says. Many of these dogs are heroes; some of whom saved the lives of veterans. 

Sometimes, clients choose not to keep the former service dog because they can’t afford the cost of caring for two dogs, according to Conley. Some people might live somewhere service dogs are OK, but pets are not. It could also come down to not having enough space for both dogs, among other reasons. If this happens, and the owner can’t keep their first service dog, the pup often goes with family or friends to maintain a relationship with the client.

Some agencies require the dog to return to them when it might be time to retire, where they determine if the dog remains a service dog or transitions to a therapy dog, according to Lisa Bernier, the head of BARK For Good. “Sometimes they return the dog to the original foster family that raised the dog as a puppy,” Bernier says. For FSD dogs, if a family placement isn’t an option, the dog returns to FSD and enters an adoption program. There are many different options for these pups, but know that they don’t end up in shelters. And other pups who are rescue dogs also have the chance to find homes they deserve.

How can I adopt a retired service dog?

Get ready to play the waiting game. Clients and family or friends have first dibs to keep a retired service dog, and there are fewer retired dogs up for adoption each year, according to Conley. If you don’t mind waiting to adopt a retiring service dog, Burch recommends searching for local dog service agencies and signing up ASAP. Instead, you might want to adopt one of these 43 dogs who need a home.

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is an associate editor at The Healthy and a former assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her work has appeared online at the Food Network and Well + Good and in print at Westchester Magazine, and more. When she's not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.