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Retiring Your Police Service Dog

Steve White, Seattle Police Department

Handlers retiring their dogs have many emotional and logistical concerns to consider. Above all, you must remember that your situation is unique. It is reasonable to have a little fear of the unknown, but down deep you will know what is right.

Your police dog partner deserves a dignified retirement. Many bureaucrats believe that a police dog is merely a government asset to be used until it breaks down. That’s why many a dog has worked too long. It serves no one’s interests to push a dog beyond its natural service life. You wind up trying to ease your feelings of guilt, making excuses for his decreased performance. Just like his human counterpart, your canine cop needs relief from the street and its stresses. Because it is a tough decision, dog people need to make it, not desk jockeys.

If you are staying in K-9, you’ll have a few extra hurdles to overcome. Most insidious is the unconscious need to make comparisons between your old and new dogs. Many handlers often fall into the “First dog / best dog” trap. The first symptom is when you say to yourself something such as “Good Ol’ King wouldn’t have missed that turn.” Stop yourself right there and take a moment to appreciate the individuality of your new dog. Try to find a way to take advantage of his unique traits. Some handlers have had success in dealing with this by consciously picking dogs as different from their old one as possible. Even to the extent of going to another breed.

Now that you have two dogs, what are you going to do with them? First, you need two kennels. If they are of different sexes you’ll need to take that into account. After all, a bitch in season presents a potent distraction a couple of times a year. Some handlers have succeeded in masking the oestrus odor by giving the female chlorophyll tablets at the first sign of the heat cycle. A better solution may be to get one or both dogs spayed or neutered.

Next comes the Green Eyed Monster - Jealousy. As your old dog sees your new one going off to work in what used to be “his” car he might not take it too well. As your new dog tries to adapt to his new role he may try to show the old codger who’s boss. After all both dogs have lots of drive, and are vying for your affection. These are the seeds of an ongoing conflict.

You are going to have to use your training skills to modify the hierarchy in your “pack.” Though both dogs could be Alpha leaders in other circumstances, you are the Alpha. Your new dog’s confidence must be nurtured since he must believe he can dominate any crook ever spawned. Give the bulk of your attention to the new dog. Your old dog must be made subordinate to the new one. A little extra attention from your spouse goes a long way in alleviating your old dog’s affection generated jealousy.

There are many things to consider, whether you stay in K-9 or not. Do you know where your dog is going to stay while you’re gone for more than on overnighter? Ideally your K-9 Center will provide kenneling for both your dogs. If not, you could try a private kennel. Unfortunately, that’s a great way for your dog to pick up kennel cough, or worse. Leaving your dog with a neighbor, or having one stop by to care for him is an option, but it is a risky one. You can count on being sued if your “personal” dog injures anybody while he’s under someone else’s control. The shysters love it when they get to ask you on the stand if your dog was " . . . formally trained to attack human beings."

All the qualities that make a dog a great K-9, can make for the “Pet from Hell.” Good police dogs have drive in every fiber of their being. Hunting drive, protection drive and retrieving drive, among others. Unfortunately, behavior problems usually occur when such drives have their customary outlets stifled. Problems like digging, chewing, barking, over-aggressiveness and self-mutilation are common. Be prepared. Though your dog never gave you any such problems before, he might need to go through some serious behavior modification therapy.

Even if your old partner doesn’t get malicious you’ll probably experience some property damage. Your old police dog took care of his turf marking needs out on the beat. Now he’ll probably consider your expensive Japanese Maple the vertical of choice. Conversely, he’ll probably only leave fertilizer on the weeds. You can expect more hair on furniture and carpets as well. These are the things that come with having any dog around the house all the time.

Your family probably will love having your old dog around the house. After all, they’ve grown attached to him too. I know my wife sleeps better at night knowing that my old dog is patrolling our backyard instead of the city. One problem here occurs when your family considers your old dog a pet before he does. He still thinks he’s duty bound to shred anyone that remotely resembles a criminal. Your family’s false sense of control can lead to a bad bite.

Although a few agencies pay food and veterinary expenses for retired dogs, most do not. Most handlers who keep their retired dogs feel that they’ve been “dumped on” by their agency. Your dog has become accustomed to food that isn’t cheap. Special diets for sickly old dogs are even more expensive. Veterinary problems are often the reason a dog retires in the first place. Expensive veterinary problems that often require expensive on- going medication. For example, one Washington Police Officer recently shelled out over $1900.00 for surgery on his retired dog. Infirmity means more time devoted to caring for your dog. So . . . go into this with your eyes open. The good news is now that you’ve removed the stress of work your dog’s downhill slide may abate.

Liability – That nasty word that forces us to spend most of our time writing. Most agencies demand a “Hold Harmless” agreement before your police dog can be released to you. This waiver shifts the burden of liability from their deep pockets to your incredibly shallow ones. You can try to get insurance, but it might be tough to find. Most insurance companies balk at providing an “attack dog” rider for your homeowner coverage. Don’t try to slide by without telling your agent about your dog’s background. That’s a sure way to have your claim denied if your dog ever does slip. Remember that a disposition change usually accompanies retirement. Your old partner might be pretty ornery. He may be old and tired, but the old police drives may surface at the most inopportune times. Be careful how you let him interact with others.

All this stuff may sound pretty scary and It should make you be careful. Don’t let it stop you from doing right by your old partner. As Kevin Klason, the officer with $1900.00 vet bill said, “All in all, it’s still worth it.” I heartily agree. That’s why my old girl, Val will be with me until God decides otherwise.

The author is one of the chief instructors at the International Police K9 Conference.

Note: More advanced information on this subject during sessions instructed at the International Police K9 Conferences held annually in various locations throughout North America.

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