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Understanding the Impact of Service Dog Loss

    • 406 posts
    March 22, 2023 3:45 PM EDT

    Service dogs provide emotional and practical support and assist their disabled handlers in living a more independent life. These animals increase their handler's well-being and position them to be less likely to need a variety of support services. 

    The death or retirement of a service dog is very significant - it's not only a loss of a close companion but a level of independence that the dog facilitated for its handler. Until recently, little research had been done to examine the impact of this loss. 

    A team of researchers conducted a study to explore this topic and their results offer insights into how veterinary professionals and service dog organizations can best support handlers - before and through their loss. A survey was conducted of 118 handlers who had recently lost a service dog through death or retirement. A sub-sample of these handlers were also interviewed. The findings of the study clearly showed that service dog handlers suffer significant grief at the loss of their dog. Those whose service dogs died had higher grief scores as compared to those who retired.

    Handlers may lose several dogs over the course of their lifetime and it's important to help them find a way to manage their losses. It can take weeks to months (or longer) for a disabled person to obtain a new service animal. Veterinary professionals are uniquely positioned to support the handler by educating them on how to recognize early warning signs of health issues that may impact their dog's ability to do their work. In addition, veterinary professionals need to maintain a heightened awareness regarding the health of these animals. As an example, dogs can be stoic and often don't show signs of pain. In the case of a service dog whose job includes pulling tasks, painful arthritis or dental disease could prevent the animal from doing its job. Proactive measures to screen for and treat these health conditions could make all the difference in the world to a disabled person and its service animal.

    Whether due to aging or illness, helping handlers identify signs that indicate it might be time for their dog to retire is also important. It's critical to preparing for the future. Retirement is a unique kind of loss - it can be complicated for many reasons including having to find a home for the retired dog and obtaining a successor dog.

    In this segment*, Dr. Jennifer Currin-McCulloch, PhD, LMSW discusses some of the findings of the study regarding service dog loss and some key takeaways and recommendations for veterinary professionals (running time: 18 mins): 

    VetVine Members: View the full webinar here.
    Non-Members: Register to access the webinar for free here.

    Read more in these related publications:

    The Loss of a Service Dog Through Death or Retirement: Experiences and Impact on Partners (2021)

    The Loss of a Service Dog Through Retirement: Experiences and Impact on Human Partners (2022)

    The Loss of a Service Dog Through Death: Experiences of Partners (2022)