The roles carried out by assistance, therapy and working dogs means that the bond developed with their handlers may be far deeper than the usual relationship a pet dog has with their owner. Therapy dogs provide emotional support whereas assistance dogs are trained to carry out specific tasks for their disabled handlers. Working dogs, like those used in the Police, Military or SAR are trained to protect, or search in some of the most hostile environments. These roles are often vital to the independence and safety of the handler and the death of their assistance dog can have a catastrophic impact on their lives.
Charities who provide assistance dogs generally have robust back-up in place to support those whose assistance dogs die and although another highly trained dog may be waiting in the wings as a replacement if independence is compromised, the grief felt by the handler can be overwhelming. The working life of a support dog may be relatively short in terms of the dog’s life expectancy e.g. a support dog is approximately 2yrs old when it completes its training and placed with its handler, and will usually retire age 10, leaving the handler to grieve for the loss of their service dog.
An incredibly profound bond is developed between a handler and their dog regardless of the type of support given. A handler’s life often depends on their dog and the trust between them is immense. The circumstances surrounding the loss of a working dog must be taken into consideration when supporting their handler. Feelings of guilt can be overwhelming especially when a working dog retires and the handler may not be in a position to keep the dog.
Having an understanding of the profound bond and overwhelming feelings of guilt that may remain with handlers for many years is important.