Monday, February 8, 2010

Retiring dogs - difficult decisions

Another era in dog agility may be coming to a close.  The decision of when to retire a dog is so much easier when we can make the choice ourselves.  It is much harder when the dog makes it for us before we are ready to let go of the joy of running agility with our canine partner.

My very first dog and the one who got my hooked on agility died when she was two years old - shortly after we discovered the fun of agility!  Then Demi was the next one who went blind just when she was starting to get the hang of agility and being a teammate with me (she didn't come to me until she was a year and a half old and she had no training).  The cataract surgery was not enough to help her see to do agility safely in different types of lighting so it wasn't worth the risk of injury.  Then Bradish came along and really got me hooked on competitive agility.  He loved flyball and agility.  I had planned on obedience as his post-agility career.  However the years of flyball took their toll on his carpal joints and he was not sound enough to do the jumps required in Obedience Utility or Open so he was retired from that activity before I was ready.  Then Nigel was always watched carefully because he was diagnosed with moderate hip dysplasia at 2 years old by two different Orthopedic surgeons (one at the U of M) even though OFA said his hips were "good."  He developed Spondylosis as well as severe arthritis in hips and his agility career was very short lived.  He didn't like agility much and probably because it was painful to him at times even though he was plenty fast enough when he felt good. 

Then the next generation came along.  Leysha loved herding and liked agility and obedience.  I tried to do obedience earlier in her life than I did with Bradish in the hopes of actually finishing a UD with her.  Leysha was retired from agility in 2003 after she gave me the run of a lifetime with a fast clean run at the USDAA Veterans Grand Prix Finals.  We took second then.  She learned to love agility with a lot of help from me and I wanted to remember her running agility with that run in mind when we were in sync, she was giving me 200% and having a ton of fun.  She didn't need to do anymore agility after that - that was my gift to her.  She spent much of her retirement doing herding chores around here and earning started sheep and duck titles in AKC.  She became too stressed trying to earn a UD so I retired her from that.  I was able to work her through her initial stress in agility but doing it again at the age of 9-10 in obedience just didn't seem fair to her.  I wanted our obedience runs to be fun together and if she didn't enjoy it then I was not going to try to make her enjoy it.  She has loved her retirement life and she is still going strong and runs around the yard eager to help with any barn chore.  I love seeing her so happy just doing things around here - she was never that happy to go to an agility trial even though she earned many upper level agility championship titles and won national competitions.

Tobie is the next one in this generation.  He came to me at a year and a half.  I learned a lot from him, he loved agility and ran fast.  He taught me what it is like to train and run a fast dog.  He also taught me what it is like to have a reactive dog who is aggressive.  I learned a lot about training and managing a reactive dog.  He was a lot of work to manage at an agility trial.  He also was what I call an adrenaline junkie in that he would get so high he couldn't think when he was running.  It would interfere with our teamwork at trials.  He would listen and follow direction well in training and even at seminars but at a trial he would become like a drug addict who can't hear or follow directions.  He did earn a couple of champion agility titles but it was not fun for me as his teammate to run him at trials.  Yes he was very fast but when he was not a team player more than he was it made it not as much fun for me.  I retired him when he was 9 years old.  I also was concerned that he does get so high in agility that if he did hurt himself he would keep running and as he aged the likelihood of hurting himself increases dramatically.   He actually doesn't seem to mind retirement.  Due to his dog aggressiveness I can't take him to trials with me and I really can't do many other activities with him.  He and I did Rally but he gets high doing that and started barking while waiting his turn and then he can't think clearly.  He is a great dog around the house and easy to live with.

Amigo had to be retired from agility at the age of 3.  His structure with his front-end was causing repeated tears in his pectoral muscles when jumping.  He would have on again and off again lameness.  After rehabbing him twice from the injuries I consulted with a few different people and decided that retiring him from agility made the most sense.  He is a reminder that structure is really important for agility.  If you know your dog has poor structure for agility in some capacity or another you need to take extra care of that area and you need to be prepared that your dog may have to be retired from the sport at a younger age than most dogs.  When selecting a dog for agility it is so important to look at structure in terms of longevity in this sport.

Sonic, well most of you know he lived a short life with us. He left me long before I was ready at the age of 6.  He was just coming into his prime in agility.  He is a constant reminder that they can leave us all too soon at anytime and we need to cherish our time with them all the time. 

Pam's Jedi falls into this generation.  Her is what Pam writes about her struggle with the decision about when to retire him.

Pam writes: "Jedi is almost 11 years old, and a small sheltie who I expected to be able to play with in agility until he was at least 12 or 13. I thought that in the next year I would move him to 8" jumps in the organizations that have that option, and run with him that way for a few more years. I thought he and I had a lot more opportunities to step to the line together and smile at each other before taking off to play our favorite game. Now it's possible that he and I have had our last agility run together. Two different vets have told me it is time to think about retiring him. Mostly I don't want to think about it. I tell myself to wait until he's had time to heal from his latest episode of limping and pain, and then make a decision. I tell myself how much he loves the game. I tell myself lots of things to try to rationalize how this would be an OK thing to keep doing with him. But in my (broken) heart, I think that he and I have run our last agility course together.

I want to stop doing agility with him before it becomes something he is only doing to make me happy. I want to remember his joy and enthusiasm while running a course, not the little worried look he gets when something goes wrong because he was hurting. I want to remember him running fast with me, not struggling to get around a course. And mostly, I want him as strong and healthy as he can be, so his senior years are as joyful to him as his younger years were. I may have to stretch myself to learn new dog activities that Jedi and I can do together with his aging body, but his wonderful attitude that is about loving to do things with me, not necessarily about loving to do agility.

I'm not ready to make a total commitment to retiring him from agility -- I keep telling myself that maybe he will heal well and I will be able to feel good about continuing to play with him. But I hope I am able to make the right decision at the right time. He deserves that from me for all he is and for all he has done for me for so long." - Pam

As Pam notes too, we are the guardians of our canine partners/friends/family members.  It is up to us to decide when it is time to quit/change activities.  They can be so stoic and not show how much pain they are in.  When I see my dogs doing any one of these things: running slower than usual, running around obstacles, missing weave poles and not seeming as interested in doing agility, I stop to check for physical problems.  I don't ever want to knowingly run my dogs when they are in pain.  We have the privilege to say "I know you really like this game but it hurts you too much to do it anymore."  Agility is a game for athletes and it does take a toll on our dogs.  Many dogs will keep playing because they love us and they want to please us so much.  I want my dogs to play because THEY love it not because I love it.  Knowing your dog is very important and being honest about it.  Dogs don't care about titles, placements or national competitions.

Also keep in mind that it is not just the jumps that are hard on our dogs.  We can lower their jump heights but tunnels can be slippery, contacts can be hard on their front ends, weaves are very hard on backs and legs and turns can be hard on the body too.

So give your canine partners a hug and kiss and love them for who they are and not just for what they can do on the agility field!



  1. Pam's thoughts are being tattoed on my arm. Thank you both.

  2. I'm currently grieving the very premature end of my dog's agility career, after he repeatedly ran out of the ring this past weekend. He's barely four years old and up until a year ago, was a very promising pup earning his first Qs and having a blast on the course.
    But he also has epilepsy and although the seizures are spaced far enough apart that his vet doesn't want to medicate him, they have clearly done damage and he isn't the dog he was a year ago (as confirmed by his training team). As his besotted "mom", I was probably slower to recognize the change and tried to work through it - but I have to accept it is futile and not in his best interest to continue.
    I got him to do agility and started him in classes at five months. He was the first dog I trained all the way from puppy class to our first Qs together...and I'm devastated.