I competed in a local triathlon this past Sunday, and the day before was race packet pick up at a local running apparel store. When I arrived at the store, I could not help but notice the 7 yellow Labrador retrievers in front on the entrance, each one wearing a service dog smock and sitting regally next to his/her own handler. When I inquired about why all these dogs were here, I was informed by one of the volunteers that the dogs were up for adoption, which really surprised me.
Prior to this past weekend, I had just assumed that service dogs lived out their lives with their special needs person that they were bred and trained to serve. However, after I had a discussion with a service dog volunteer, I realized how naïve my assumptions were, especially given the profession in which I work.
I learned that these dogs are bred and trained for performing essential functions for people of afflicted with any number of physical disabilities, from the deaf or blind, to the paralyzed and even those affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome; for only a finite period of time. The services they perform require a certain level of physical ability and mental acuity, traits that diminish with age. Thus, while the humans whom they serve may become emotionally attached to their canine wards, once their age causes their ability to serve to wane over time, they must be replaced, no matter how sad such a parting may be for both parties.
So after spending ¾ quarters of their lives in obedient and loving service of another, service dogs in most cases eventually find themselves in need of loving homes where they may live out their retirement with the love and kindness they have more than earned, but are often left with too few takers to offer it. People typically are more consumed with the idea of getting a puppy, because what is more cute, snuggly, and innocent than a puppy?
Only, once a person or family takes the plunge and adopts a puppy, they often are not prepared for the amount of work they entail. They are not house trained, nor trained in any manner for that matter. They chew shoes and other valuable items, and have to even be taught even simply how to walk on a leash properly. The true breeding make-up of puppies is often truly not ever known, so owners may unknowingly be adopting a dog that may later manifest with inherited genetic diseases that shorten their lives and/or lead to high vet bills.
I am not discouraging the adoption of puppies, but in contrast, senior age service dogs come from typically high end breeding lines that are well vetted, and since congenital diseases most commonly manifest by 2 years of age, from a genetic disease standpoint, often what you see is what you get.
Service dogs are hyper-intelligent; otherwise they would not have passed the rigorous service dog training program…some of the smartest, most well-adjusted dogs I have ever seen are service dog program dropouts. They come with a level of training and obedience most dog owners could only dream of, and although they may not be spring chickens any more, they are still usually physically capable of swimming, going for walks, and even doing a bit of fetching, in many cases for years to come.
Most importantly, these dogs have served and loved their whole lives, and would love nothing more than to offer that level of dedication and unconditional love to another human; for the mere low price of loving them back and letting them live out the twilight of their lives with the security and peace they have earned.
So if you are thinking of canine companionship and may not have the time or energy to devote to a puppy, or simply feel compelled to give back to those who have given so much of themselves, consider adopting a service dog. If you are interested, since each state has its own service dog programs, policies, and adoption groups, the best way to find out how to adopt a service dog is to type “service dog adoption [your state]” in the search box of your favorite internet search engine.
Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM.