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

Jennifer Currin-McCulloch¹, Cori Bussolari², Wendy Packman3 , Lori Kogan4 , & Phyllis Erdman5

¹Colorado State University, School of Social Work, Fort Collins, Colorado, United States
²University of San Francisco, Department of Clinical Psychology, San Francisco, California, United
³Professor Emerita, Palo Alto University, Department of Psychology, Palo Alto, California, United
⁴Colorado State University, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Department of
Clinical Sciences, Fort Collins, Colorado, United States
⁵Washington State University, College of Education, Pullman, Washington, United States

This study describes the experiences of service dog partners (N=22) whose service dog had retired within the previous five years. The participants were service dog partners who participated in a larger quantitative study (N=56) and agreed to a follow up interview. Guided by bereavement and human-animal bond theories and prior research, researchers coded the interviews using directed content analysis to identify prevalent themes. Findings underscore that the retirement of a service dog is poorly understood by others, and often results in disenfranchised grief about this ambiguous loss. The retirement process is difficult and often partners struggled with the need to quickly acquire another service dog and the subsequent impact this had on their ability to grieve. These results suggest that, given the unique nature of service dogs and the relationship between dog and partner, it is important that service dog organizations, mental health counselors and veterinarians are aware of the challenges and losses associated with the retirement of a service dog and offer appropriate tools and support to their clients during this challenging time.

Keywords: service dog partners, retirement, ambiguous loss, continuing bonds

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