Heading Towards Retirement: The Story of One Working Dog Part I

Have been deciding wether or not to share this part of the story. They live incredible lives, and do things for us that we will never be able to reciprocate. We are merely human.


One of my passions in life is to celebrate and document the lives of working dogs. I have terabytes of images of frolicking puppies, dogs climbing ladders, swinging on the high line, leaping across mangled metal and concrete, certification successes and failures, and precious moments between handlers and their K9 partners in training. These images are precious to me, they inspire me and I hope they inspire others to delve deeper into the relationships that we have with dogs (and other animals).

There is another part of their story that is worth sharing, and just as incredible as the joys of puppyhood and the amazing feats of training. The trials and tribulations of the aging working dog, and the terrorizing decisions that have to be made when one of these creatures is in your charge is as a part of this path as the rest. I hope you will all come along.

Photo of Ben by Nicole Reusser-Hillbrecht of Rock Solid K9

Photo of Ben by Nicole Reusser-Hillbrecht of Rock Solid K9

He is to date the most incredible creature I've ever met, maybe that I will ever meet (of course he is our dog, so we may be biased, but I don't think so). The kind of working dog with no off switch. You may know the type. Nearly impossible to live with. As a 2 year old, if Ben wasn't in his crate, he was either hunting or barking in demand of a tug. He saw no boundaries. Kitchen tables, countertops, crowds of people sunbathing on the beach. He would plow through (or over) anything in his path. Nothing else mattered. A real "bull in a china shop" kind of dog. He once jumped a 6 foot block wall to enter a neighbor's dog door to find the homeowner "lost" in the shower while barking and frothing at the mouth (we kept his rabies vaccine info handy in case of inquiries). We spent a lot of time explaining or apologizing for his behavior in public. He was born to do this. To find people trapped in the most precarious of places. 

It would take years to build a real relationship with this dog. All he wanted was to hunt, and be rewarded. He seemed to care nothing about the human-animal bond thing. We had only 1 purpose to him...a transportation element to get him to the next search.


Fast forward to 2017. He is 9 years old, and he finally has kind of an off switch, but it only functions normally if we are all in the house and every human is sitting down, or in bed (or if he's had some kind of chemical sedation at the vets). He's still a searching machine. There are hints of him slowing down here and there. He may take a step back to get some momentum before making a giant leap onto a high boulder, or he may hesitate for a fraction of a second when leaping off of a high ledge when in scent, but unless you knew him in his prime you probably wouldn't notice. He still sails over the chain link fences to eat the bread put out for the birds in the neighbor's yard 2 doors down if we aren't watching. There are other signs that he's entered senior citizen-hood. He's got the salt and pepper or "lamington"(a delicious Australian dessert cake) muzzle. In spite of a regular physical fitness schedule, he's not as greatly muscled as he once was (a process called sarcopenia-it's harder to maintain muscle mass as we age), and he's got one of those weekly pill organizers that holds all of the supplements and medications to manage his chronic skin and toenail disorders. 

Ben searching for a hidden survivor during a training exercise

Ben searching for a hidden survivor during a training exercise

I think often about what will trigger his retirement. Arthritis, laryngeal dysfunction (his bark has changed a bit recently), catastrophic injury, and of course, cancer. The thought of him NOT being operational makes me profoundly sad, but of course I realize it is inevitable and more importantly I just want him to live a happy life. For now, we do what we can to delay the future. We keep him fit and trim, and he gets regular exercise to maintain his physical mobility and strength so he can perform the job. We also make regular trips to the vet.

During a recent trip to the vet Ben had an informal ultrasound scan to view the major organs including the spleen (if you've had retrievers long enough, you know how troublesome the spleen can be in an older dog). Well.........let's just say Ben's spleen didn't look quite right. 

I'm sure many of you have been in a similar position. Something abnormal was found with your working dog. Could be nothing, could be something bad, or could be something really, really bad. I work as a nurse in a veterinary intensive care unit, so I see the really, really bad every day at work, so that's where my mind goes. 

Search Dog Ben the day after his first Ultrasound

Search Dog Ben the day after his first Ultrasound

Trying not to panic, I make an appointment with an internist, and radiologist to get some more information. In anticipation of the appointment, I spend the next week passing the time by worrying and wondering if this is going to be the trigger for his retirement and ultimately lead to the end of his life. Dark, I know, but this is what goes on up there in my head. I can't really help it. A complete abdominal ultrasound confirmed the splenic abnormality, but thankfully all of the other abdominal organs were normal. I'll leave out the part where Ben sang (by this I mean barked very loudly in rapid succession) up and down the halls, cataloging the dozens of human scent profiles in the 4 story hospital and begging to be released to go find the ones he can't see (remember his off switch problem?). You can leave it to Ben to always embarrass me at work (I lead them all to believe I am a dog trainer, and then Ben comes in and pulls stunts like this). The character of the splenic abnormality suggested the process causing it was benign, but they could not rule out cancer without getting a sample. 

Now I don't just go putting my dog through procedures for little to no diagnostic yield. After all, he's not sick. I painstakingly weigh the benefits and risks of each step, and this was no exception. I could wait and recheck the spleen in a few months, to see if anything changed all the while wondering if he's got cancer in there or I could wait until he shows symptoms and then act. Or I could assume the small risk of a needle aspirate today, when he's healthy, and lay it all to rest. If it is cancer, we'll be proactive and deal with it while he's still feeling pretty good.

It will take more than your standard opioid sedation to trigger his off switch to get a sample for cytology, so they reached for an alpha-2 combo. The needle aspirate procedure was quick (less than 10 minutes), and it was soon time for Ben to wake up. Opioid-induced-stupor Ben is one of my favorites. He walks calmly on a leash, no barking, but still tugs and carries his toy around. Obeys all commands like a dream. Gives me a glimpse of what Ben would be like as a "normal dog". 

Lots of descriptive cytological terms on the report, but the here's the jist: "INTERPRETATION: Unremarkable splenic elements, possible lymphoid hyperplasia; no atypical neoplastic cells seen". When someone is describing your organs, you want them to use words like "unremarkable" and "no atypical neoplastic cells". Great news for sure. He doesn't have cancer, although I can't help but think of this as one of the first steps towards retirement for our beloved working dog.

Those of you that love working dogs, but aren't interested in reading about the irrational mind of a veterinary nurse with an attachment to a very special dog, you can stop reading now. 

Of course when you are me, and you have access to an entire university library of scientific papers, you end up going down an internet rabbit hole powered by the statement "possible lymphoid hyperplasia"...

Check out Part II of "Heading Towards Retirement: The Story of One Working Dog"