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Who, what, why: Where do working dogs go when they retire?

  • 18 September 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Explosives sniffer dog in Afghanistan

Two guard dogs used to protect the Duke of Cambridge have been put down, with the MoD giving the reasons as old age and "behavioural issues". What normally happens to working dogs, asks Kathryn Westcott.

Farm dogs, sniffer dogs, police dogs, service dogs, guide dogs - our canine friends are used to the world of work. Some even miss it when it comes to an end. But what generally happens to a dog when it retires?

Think of a working dog and it tends to be certain breeds - border collies on farms, German shepherds or Belgian shepherds (malinois) as police or security dogs, springer or cocker spaniels as sniffer dogs, Labradors and retrievers as guide dogs.

The MoD said Brus, a nine-year-old Belgian shepherd, had "come to the end of his working life", while Blade, a German shepherd, whose age is unknown, "had a record of veterinary and behavioural issues" and couldn't be reassigned to other duties.

The MoD says military dogs will be rehomed when they come to the end of their lives and that putting them down was a last resort.

Military working dogs play a key role in battle, in counter-insurgency and bombs. There are dozens working in Afghanistan, helping to clear routes, buildings and vehicles as well as guarding military bases.

Sniffer dogs - often springer or cocker spaniels - who have completed years of service tend to go and live with their handler's family.

But what about the German and Belgian shepherds, which like police dogs have been trained as "attack dogs"?

In 2012, The Daily Mail revealed that the number of dogs destroyed by the MoD had risen with British troops being stationed in Afghanistan.

"Twenty canines were put down in 2002, the first full year of the conflict in Afghanistan, but that shot up to 89 in 2003 when the Second Gulf War began. The number of dogs destroyed rose again to 95 in 2006 when thousands more British troops were sent to Afghanistan," the paper reported.

In response to Freedom of Information requests from the Daily Mirror, the MoD released figures for the years 2002 to 2011. The number of dogs put down peaked at 125 in 2009 when troops were still stationed in Iraq,

At the time, the MoD said that around half of the dogs destroyed in 2009 and 2010 were put down because of behavioural issues or old age.

In response to the news that two dogs that had guarded Prince William had been put down, the Dogs Trust charity said: "Dogs are not pieces of disposable kit that can be decommissioned at the end of their 'useful' military life. We fully understand that most service dogs cannot be rehomed as pets and there are other alternatives that we hope the RAF would have fully investigated."

Jayne Shenstone of German Shepherd Dog Rescue says there is no reason why an ex-military or police dog can't be rehomed with a responsible owner.

"The MoD generally view the dogs as a disposable commodity - as property. When they are around eight years old, they are dispensed with when, in fact, they could have another four years of happy retirement. Old age and behavioural issues are just used as excuses to get rid of them."

But wouldn't a civilian find a ex "attack dog" tricky to handle?

These are dogs that have been highly trained to respond to their handler's instructions, she says. As long as the words or cues associated with attack are avoided then all should be well.

It's all about finding the right environment for them, says Shenstone.

"Ex-police dogs make the most wonderful pets. There is usually a waiting list for them - they are well-trained and walk well on a lead."

Police dog handlers are given the option of keeping their dogs, otherwise a suitable family will be sought by the force.

Thousands of racing greyhounds are rehomed each year as pets, according to the Retired Greyhound Trust (RGT). The charity says it rehomes approximately 4,000 a year, out of the estimated 8,000 which are leaving the racing environment a year. Other charities also help find new homes for the ex-racers. "They are such good pet material," an RGT spokesman said. "They are really adaptable."

But not all dogs who have spent their whole life as working dogs become family pets.

Mike Cooke from Border Collie Rescue in Richmond, North Yorkshire, who rehomes ex-farm dogs says some are shot when they are no longer any use to the farmer.

"It's down to culture. Hill farms in remote, rural communities tend to stick to their old ways. If there is a culture of disposing of animals quickly - if the dog is regarded as a tool rather than a colleague, the dog might be shot and the farmer think nothing of it. Some will be taken to a vet to be put down but that could cost £100. It is not illegal for a farmer to shoot his own dog, as long as it is done humanely."

But he says that nowadays this is only a small percentage. Bigger, commercial farms that employ trained shepherds or stockmen might keep the dog on the farm because they feel a duty to keep them. Others will give the dogs up to be re-homed. Rescue charities, he says, have waiting lists to take on the dogs.

"Sometimes it can be difficult to get a dog to retire - we have one that is 14 years old and still wants to work but can't," says Cooke.

"Some will lose interest in working and could be rehoused as a companion dog but it could be a liability if done in the wrong area - it might for example want to chase sheep, such is the strong instinct to work.

"Farm dogs are usually born and bred on a farm. They are not used to over-stimulation, and they tend to bond with a single person. It really is a case of one man and his dog - put them in a different environment and they can be out of their depth."

He says he can understand how a dog that is bred for a particular job can display "behavioural issues" if taken out of the situation they are used to.

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