When RCMP service dogs retire, typically around age eight, it's into a life of leisure filled with toys, treats and copious cuddles, at home with their handler. In cases where the dog can't remain with the handler, it's rehomed to a trusted colleague or friend.
One such happy dog retired this spring, at age nine, after a six-year career as a tracker in British Columbia.
"Boomer will be my mountain-biking, hiking and fishing buddy from here on out," says Cst. Clay Wurzinger, who is a member of the Police Dog Services Unit in Nanaimo, B.C. He says the partners had a close bond that was strictly professional.
"Boomer was a working dog through and through. His entire existence seemed to revolve around a tracking harness and search rewards," says Wurzinger. "He didn't ever seek attention from me. I was merely the facilitator of fun and the driver of his truck."
Since retiring though, Boomer's personality has completely changed, says Wurzinger, who moved him inside to integrate with the family a few months before their last assignment together. Now, the German shepherd is more affectionate and at ease with loud noises that used to put him on edge, such as the phone ringing and cars passing.
The career of a service dog in the RCMP typically begins between the age of 18 and 20 months, and ends after approximately five and a half to seven years, depending on how hard they work, injuries and illnesses. Typical life expectancy is between 10 and 12 years.
Ready to retire
Wurzinger decided to retire Boomer last summer when he noticed the dog had less energy on hot days and was sore for longer after a difficult assignment.
"He was looking healthy and strong otherwise, but I didn't want to run him into the ground," says Wurzinger. "He didn't owe any more than he had given to anyone. He earned the right to a healthy, happy retired life, and it was time."
The decision about when to retire a dog is made between a handler and their K9 trainer, who retests the dog's performance each year during the length of its career. The time is right when the dog starts showing signs of fatigue, such as having less energy, resting and sleeping more, says S/Sgt. Grant Hignell, a policy manager at the RCMP's Police Dog Service Policy Centre in Innisfail, Alta.
But sometimes a dog's career is cut short because of an injury, most commonly to the joints.
Hignell, who has been a handler to seven dogs over the years, says he retired his latest partner, Chevy, at age seven, when he developed sciatic nerve damage after close to six years of service specializing in narcotics detection.
"One day when he was out running, I threw a ball for him and looked back, and all of a sudden he was dragging his left leg, just running on three legs," says Hignell. Now he spends time throwing Chevy his favourite ball, which was also his preferred reward for completing tasks on the job.
"He learned very quickly, when I was cutting the grass, to drop his ball in front of the lawn mower so I'd have to stop and throw it for him," says Hignell.
Two years after his first service dog, Astro, had to be put down in May 2016, the bond between them still makes Cpl. Ryan Drohomereski emotional.
"He has his spot on our mantle. His ashes are waiting for mine," says Drohomereski, who works in the Police Dog Services unit in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
Drohomereski retired Astro at age seven after a six-year career specializing in explosives. Eleven months after working his last shift, the dog developed a rare form of rapidly spreading and painful skin cancer. He was euthanized less than two weeks after the diagnosis.
"We were hoping for a long retirement for him, but it just took him quick," says Drohomereski. "There was just no quality of life there."
Though it was short-lived, Astro took to retirement life well — camping and taking trips with the family. It took nearly two months for him to stop getting excited, expecting an assignment, when the phone rang. But as seasons passed so did his expectation to work.
"His routine, like any senior citizen, was get up in the morning, go to the bathroom, and sit on the couch all day," laughs Drohomereski.
Now, Drohomereski has a new partner. Corbin, a six-year-old German shepherd who began working with the officer when he was three.
Though they are close, Drohomereski says it is no match to the bond he shared with Astro.
"I miss him every day," he says.