Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Working Dog Blues

Is it time for your dog to retire from a sport or job? The answer is intensely personal and depends on the dog’s attitude and physical ability

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

My dog Harper and I recently flew to Oregon to compete in a nose work trial. I worried a little bit before we left that traipsing through three different airports, taking two flights and participating in a high-level competition on a hot day might be too much for an 11 1/2-year-old dog, but she breezed through all of it with a smiling prance.

But every dog ages differently, depending on factors such as genetics, size, overall health and diet. At other trials recently, owners of 12-year-old dogs told me that it was their dogs’ last day of competition because the dog just wasn’t up to it anymore.

Teaming up with a dog to compete in a sport, make therapy visits to hospitals or other facilities, or do detection work is one of the most satisfying experiences a dog lover can have. It builds trust, confidence and communication between you and your canine pal; fosters happiness and emotional well-being for both of you; and reduces stress in your lives. But like professional athletes, working and sport dogs can have a limited shelf life. They begin to slow down, become injured more frequently or simply indicate that they’re no longer having fun.

One sign that it’s time to stop is loss of enthusiasm.

“With therapy dogs, if they start hiding when you bring out the vest, it's a good indication that they're done,” says Daleen Comer. “Usually evaluators can catch that at the evaluations, which is why it's good that they are every two years.”

Signs that a dog is reluctant can be subtle. It’s essential to carefully watch and interpret body language, or to decide for the dog that all the preparation -- baths before therapy visits, for instance, or waits in the sun between runs or searches -- are too hard on an aging dog’s body.

Health is another issue. Comer’s dog Duffy made therapy visits until he died, but Bonnie retired due to heart problems and Macy retired at 13 when she began to have trouble walking on slippery floors.

Terry Albert retired her 11-year-old dog Tank from agility after they came home from a trial one day and she noticed that two hours later he was still panting. He was diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis.

“My dogs retire from agility when they start spending more time recovering from injuries than training in the sport,” says Jenn Stollery.

Some dogs don’t want to give up their work despite health issues. Bison, a Bernese mountain dog, finished his last agility title just weeks before he was diagnosed with lymphoma. “Even deep into chemo, he insisted on carting the recycling out to the curb,” says owner Adam Conn.

If you’re not sure your dog is ready for retirement, a second opinion can help.

“It truly helps to have another pair of eyes to give one an honest appraisal,” says Barbara Brill. “I had asked a trainer to observe me practicing obedience with my then-3-year-old collie. What was I doing wrong to cause her to lag? The trainer recommended I have my dog X-rayed because she suspected a structural fault. I did, and Tiffy was diagnosed with spondylitis. The doctor recommended no more obedience practice.”

Retirement doesn’t mean your dog has to stop playing, though. Many people transition their dogs from active sports, such as agility and obedience, to slower or more low-impact activities, such as nose work, rally, swimming or walks on the beach.

Adam Conn’s Australian shepherd, Pockets, earned her Rally Novice title when she was 15 years old. That level of competition has no jumping and is done with the dog on a lead.

“Until your dog tells you she’s done, let her keep going,” he says. “Even if she runs out of things to compete in, you can still do training sessions.”

Harper? We’re road-tripping to Colorado this week so she can nose around for a good time.


Best ways to

catproof home

Q: I’m getting my first cat, and I want to make sure my home is safe for her. What should I be concerned about?

A: Lots of things in your home can injure your cat, make her sick or even kill her. Be vigilant when it comes to the following items.

-- Poisons. Mouse and rat bait, insecticides and herbicides, antifreeze, and medications for yourself or other animals in the home are all substances that can kill cats. If a contractor or landscaper treats your home for insects or other pests, confirm that the products will not be used in areas where your cat goes. Any time a product is applied to a lawn, floor or other surface, keep your cat away from that area until the product has dried. It’s all too common for cats to walk across a treated surface and then lick their paws to clean them. Clean up antifreeze drips immediately, and keep any medications behind closed doors. Parasite preventives made for dogs are often toxic to cats, so don’t let them share.

-- Plants. Some cats enjoy chewing grass or nibbling on plants. If yours is one of them, don’t keep any of the following in your home or yard: azalea, chrysanthemum, crocus, cyclamen, dieffenbachia, English ivy, lilies, philodendron, Sago palm, tulip bulbs and yew. A more complete list is available from the ASPCA or pet poison hotlines.

-- Household items. Cats aren’t as bad as dogs when it comes to gulping things down, but it’s not for nothing that we have the saying “curiosity killed the cat.” Candles, coins, mothballs, nutshells and potpourri are just a few potentially toxic items commonly found in homes. Assume that your cat might investigate these and other items, and keep them out of reach. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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Keep dogs safe

at the park

-- Dog park etiquette -- it’s a thing. Here are five tips to help keep visits fun and safe: Take only friendly, well-trained dogs. Let your dog play only with other dogs of the same size; you never know when a dog with high prey drive will decide your little Lulu looks like lunch. Stay home if your female dog is in season. Bring a water dish for your dog so he doesn’t run the risk of exposure to disease from slurping out of a communal water dish. Don’t lose sight of your dog while you’re talking with others; you should always know where he is, what he’s doing and who he’s with.

-- The Balinese is a glamour puss Siamese, with a long, silky coat in color points of seal, chocolate, blue or lilac. The busy, inquisitive cats are outgoing and affectionate, with a quieter voice than their Siamese cousins. They are thought to be the result of a spontaneous genetic mutation for long hair in the Siamese breed, but it’s also speculated that they’re the offspring of crosses between Siamese and Angora or Persian cats nearly a century ago. Except for their long hair, Balinese resemble Siamese, having sleek, muscular bodies, wedge-shaped heads, blue eyes and large triangular ears.

-- Parrots are popular, but how much do you really know about them? The order Psittaciformes is made up of approximately 393 species found in Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Central and South America, as well as other tropical and subtropical regions. Parrot characteristics include a powerful -- painfully so -- curved bill and four toes -- two that face forward and two that face backward, a trait known as zygodactyly. A typical parrot diet features nuts, seeds, fruit, flowers and insects. Parrots commonly kept as companions include Amazons, cockatiels, cockatoos, macaws and parakeets. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.