Weeks before Hunter’s 13th birthday on March 7, 2016, he and Donna walk along their favorite Trail; shows Greening Moss: photo by Rich Hill.
Despite the many wonderful things guide dogs can do for their blind handlers, they share a common flaw. Though they can find the post office, a seat on a train or deftly navigate a construction zone, they can’t live as long as we’d prefer.
Hunter, Donna’s black Lab guide dog, on Hill’s Pond-Berm Trail with blooming yellow Birdsfoot Trefoil, Showing his Gray in Summer of 2013: photo by Rich Hill.
Hunter got sick a year and a half ago, and was ultimately diagnosed with Lymphocytic-Plasmacytic Enteritis (LPE, a form of canine Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Since then, people have been asking me when I would be getting a new guide dog. The issue comes up even more now that he’s thirteen.
Guide Dogs, Ownership & Retirement
Donna & Hunter rest by a lake in South Dakota several years ago: photo by Rich Hill.
The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind (Smithtown, NY), where I received all four of my furry helpers, is one of only a few schools which offer guide dog handlers full ownership of their dogs. Like many GDF students, I always opt in.
Despite having transferred all of the legal responsibility for the dogs to the blind owners, however, GDF is there with help and support throughout the life of the team. They, of course, help in the retirement process. The transition from one guide dog to the next is replete with many questions, unforeseen circumstances, and difficult decisions.
When Should a Guide Dog Retire?
Safety is the most important consideration. If a guide dog is, for any reason, no longer able to perform his duties, and it’s not a matter that veterinary care or further training can rectify, it’s time.
The dog’s health isn’t the only factor. Sometimes, the dog just slows down with age or shows signs that work is becoming too stressful. Since opportunities for independent living and employment for blind Americans are primarily in urban areas, many blind people live in cities, use public transportation and live in apartment complexes. This presents more and different challenges than living in a small town or — as we do — in the country.
Many handlers choose to retire their dogs in middle age. This is done for several reasons. Handlers need to take time off from work to train with a new guide dog. Having the flexibility to schedule something that works for the employer and GDF is preferable to being stuck in the city with no guide dog, waiting for a place on class and using alternate methods to go about one’s life. Furthermore, many people want their beloved canine friends to have a happy retirement while they are still healthy enough to enjoy it.
What Happens to Retired Guide Dogs?
Some guide dogs suddenly become ill and pass away. Most guide dogs, however, are retired in relatively good health. The blind person can keep the retired guide dog and get a new one at the same time. When we lived in Glenside, I knew a couple who each had a working guide dog. They also had a retired guide dog and a cat. They all slept together in a king-sized water bed.
3 Lazy Boys & 1 Lazy Girl: shows Donna, black Lab guide dog Hunter & rescued orange tabby Goofus in a Lazy Boy recliner: photo by Rich Hill.
Not everyone can, or wishes to, keep their retired dogs, however. Some people give them to their parents, other family members or friends that the dog already knows. Others prefer finding a country environment, where the dog has more freedom.
For those who need another option, GDF has a retirement program. The family who raised the dog as a puppy is usually given the option to take the dog back, and many do. If that doesn’t work, there is a long list of volunteer families ready to adopt retired guide dogs.
My Experience with Retiring My Guide Dogs: a Different Path
Donnna – with her black Lab guide dog, Hunter – donates The Heart of Applebutter Hill to Dir. Jesse Johnson of the Towanda Public Library: photo by Rich Hill.
I’ve never gotten a new guide until after the one I was with passed away. None of my dogs have ever left our home or my care. I understand why people have to do this and consider myself profoundly blessed that I have not had to, though it comes with its own challenges. It was less of a well-thought-out decision on my part than just the way things happened that got me started down this path.
Donna Sitting with her first guide dog Simba (a black Lab) in Tennessee’s Great Smokies National Park in ’81: photo by Rich Hill.
My first guide, Simba, was 13 and working well when he was diagnosed with lympho-sarcoma. I was a street performer in Philadelphia’s center-city train terminal Suburban Station. At the time of Simba’s diagnosis, there was a system-wide strike by SEPTA (the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority). Even if I could have gotten to center city, no one else would have been there. It was very liberating, and I never had to think of Simba’s condition as interfering with my livelihood.
At the time, the treatment, which our local vet warned us had more side effects than the specialists would acknowledge, offered a fifty percent chance of a remission lasting up to six months. Without it, they estimated that he’d have six weeks.
He had about two. Our vet put him to sleep in our back yard with Rich and I comforting him and a tape of Segovia playing.
“The best for the best,” as Rich said.
Donna & Curly Connor in opening of stone wall at Grey Towers National Historical Site (Milford, PA), mid ’90s: photo by Rich Hill.
The real Curly Connor, the half black Lab and half Golden Retriever upon whom Abigail’s guide dog in The Heart of Applebutter Hill is based, had sudden back end paralysis from a vaccination reaction at age 12. The vet thought it was arthritis, but I asked him to humor me and do an x-ray. He stood there clicking his pen and finally said that Connor had the hips of a 6-year-old.
With the help of Dr. Jean Dodds, a veterinary epidemiologist referred to us by Emily Biegel, our GDF trainer, along with a local neurologist, we got him passed that so that he worked for 2 more years.
When I retired him, Curly Connor would still go for walks with me. I didn’t work him; I was using my white cane. We’d get rides to school-assembly presentations from Rich, who had been laid off by then. This allowed Curly Connor to dress up like a guide dog and walk around for the kids, which he loved.
We were in Glenside by then and no longer street singing. Curly Connor died in our Living room at the ripe old age of 15. The vet who put him to sleep said it had been an honor to know and treat him.
I deeply regret not having a picture of my eighty-pound black Lab/Golden Retriever tough guy, MoMo. Rich hasn’t yet digitized that part of his photography archives.
MoMo died suddenly at age 9, and we were living here in the mountains. I hadn’t yet transferred my school assembly skills to this area and was using him primarily for long walks. We knew he was aging rapidly, but tests weren’t showing anything. One day we woke up to an emergency. We rushed him to the vet’s, and he died while they were examining him. Later we learned that he had angio-sarcoma.
At 12.5, Hunter, Donna’s black Lab guide dog, found a new way to carry his red rubber Ring. It’s in his mouth but flipped up over his face: photo by Rich Hill.
Hunter has been essentially retired for a year and a half. He recovered from LPE, regained the twelve pounds he had lost and returned to what we called “modified assignment.” we took short walks on our trails here on the property, and Rich threw Hunter’s beloved red rubber ring to build up his strength. Until a couple of months ago, When we went out, he accompanied us and was still up to working in stores.
Recently, however, things have changed. Though he sees and hears as well as ever and his appetite remains as respectable as his breed demands, his strength is evaporating before our eyes. We have to lift him into our car, and when he plays with his red rubber ring, it’s more of a prance than a run.
Donna & her guide dog Hunter walk along path in California Redwoods in September 2009. There’s a glowing mist: Photo by Rich Hill.
Yes, I miss our long walks. Nevertheless, I feel blessed that we are in a position to allow Hunter to spend his waning days or weeks or whatever it is with us, working when he’s up to it. Just as there will never be another Simba, another Curly Connor or another MoMo, I know that I can never replace Hunter either. I am, however, still blind. So, when Hunter is gone, I will get another guide dog, and we will give him all of our love.
Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind – providing guide dogs at no cost to qualified students
Dr. Jean Dodds
Dr. Jean Dodds’ Pet Health Resource Blog: Considered one of the foremost experts in pet healthcare, Dr. Dodds focuses on vaccination protocols, thyroid issues and nutrition. http://drjeandoddspethealthresource.tumblr.com/