If you’ve ever watched an assistance dog lead a person across the street, or a narcotics dog sniff suitcases at the airport, you’ve probably wondered, “What would it take to have a dog like that as a pet?” Working dogs are smart, focused animals who have been highly trained. They seem like the perfect companion.
Adopting a working dog can be a hugely rewarding choice, but it’s not as easy as going down to the shelter and saying, “That one.” Our guide to adopting a working dog will give you all the information you need to decide whether a working dog is right for you.
Why working dogs stop working
Working dogs are made available for adoption when they are unable to complete training or are deemed no longer suitable for their positions. There are a few common reasons a working dog may be asked to hang up its uniform:
- They have behavioral traits that make them unsuitable to complete the training program (for example, a dog who is too easily distracted can not be put to work as a guide, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a great pet!)
- They have physical ailments that prevent them from doing their job, i.e. hip dysplasia or cataracts.
- Their career has reached its natural end and it’s time to retire.
Working dog organizations run elite, demanding programs, and there’s no shame in not making it through. Some dogs just aren’t the right fit. Guide Dogs for the Blind call their adoptable dogs “Career Change Dogs,” and take as much care in finding good non-working homes as they do in placing working dogs with people in need.
How the adoption process works
When working dogs retire or are removed from a training program, they are often made available for adoption through the training organization itself. Different organizations have different guidelines for adopting out their retired or reassigned dogs, but you can generally expect a thorough application and interview process. Working dog programs take extreme care in the selection, training, and placement of their dogs, and that care extends to adoptions, as well.
Working dog programs take extreme care in adopting out career change dogs.
You may also have a long wait. Depending on the program, there can be years-long waitlists to adopt a working dog, although dogs who have been career-changed due to medical issues may be available much sooner.
If you are approved to adopt a working dog, you’ll need to travel to the organization’s headquarters to meet the dog in person and transport it home. For example, the TSA recently announced that they are seeking homes for explosives detection dogs, but you’ll need to get to San Antonio, Texas to complete an adoption.
What to expect from your adopted working dog
Whether they’re TSA bomb-sniffing dogs or guide dogs for people with special needs, “working dogs” are selected based on their intelligence, drive, and focus. If you adopt a working dog, you can expect some degree of all three.
Working dogs are selected based on their intelligence, drive, and focus.
However, “career change” dogs come in all stages of training. Paws with a Cause, an organization that trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities, includes a disclaimer about training in their adoption info: “These dogs career change at various levels of our program, therefore, there is no guarantee made of any training the dog has received or how the dog will behave in your home.” In other words, you can expect your working dog to be smart, but don’t expect them to be perfectly trained.
Adopted working dogs are pets, not employees.
Career-change dogs are not to be trained for working in your home. Remember, they’ve either been deemed unsuitable to work, or retired from the job. If you or a loved one is in need of a service dog, there are resources available. Adopting a working dog means adopting a pet, not an employee.
Set up your non-working working dog for success
Working dogs often come with a lot of training, but they’re not perfect! There are a few things you can do to make sure your new dog is happy and comfortable at home.
- Continue training to keep their mind and manners sharp. Some working dogs come with a complete round of training, and others have been let go from the training program and are not fully trained. The organization will tell you what level of training your dog completed, and give you advice on how to continue working with your new friend.
- Provide lots of exercise and activity. Potential working dogs are selected in part because of their energy and drive, so unless lack of drive is the reason they were removed from training, you can expect a focused dog. Plenty of exercise and playtime will help keep them busy and wear them out.
- Give them time to relax. The flipside of an energetic young training school drop-out is a mellow retiree. Often times, retired working dogs are content to spend most of the day lounging with their new family. After all, they’ve been working hard for years. Now it’s time to chill!
- Expect the same challenges and rewards as any adopted dog. Working dogs have some unique qualities, but all the same advice for bringing home a new dog applies.
Where to find a working dog
If a working dog sounds like the right pet for your family, start the search right away! Depending on the organization, most working dog adoption programs have long waitlists, and it can take years to be matched with the right dog.
A simple web search will turn up plenty of options, but here’s a brief list of working dog programs who offer adoptions to get you started:
- TSA Explosives Detection Dogs
- Warrior Dog Foundation (retired military dogs)
- Guide Dogs for the Blind (adopts to families in western states only)
- Service Dogs, Inc. (dogs rescued from shelters to be trained as Hearing and Service dogs)
While they may come with a variety of special abilities, at the end of the day, a service dog is a dog. Adopting a service dog will come with the same joys, triumphs, and occasional challenges as any other pet. Take time in your search, be prepared, and enjoy a lifetime of love with your new best friend!
Top image via flickr/smerikal