Jackie Cordry's schnauzer-terrier mix, Skinner, is what some in the dog world would call a "fabulous flunkout." Cordry adopted him at age three from Texas Hearing & Service Dogs in Austin after Skinner failed the training to become a guide dog for a deaf person. "I guess you'd say he was drummed out of the corps" because he barked excitedly at loud noises, says Cordry, who lives on a ranch in Brownwood, Tex. But while Skinner isn't an ideal guide dog, "he's wonderful for me," she says, especially since her husband died last year. "Skinner is good company."
There are many reasons retired or rejected service dogs make great pets. Though undesirable as working dogs, they're often better trained and bred than dogs available elsewhere. Plus, many groups offer purebred Labrador and golden retrievers or German shepherds for prices lower than a breeder might charge.
Young dogs may be released from a training program because they don't have quite the right temperament for the job. For example, an animal that startles easily or has a tendency to bark at strangers won't make the best dog for the blind. You may also find service dogs that lose the will to work, according to Paula Keicer, spokesperson for the Canine Training Unit of the Customs & Border Patrol Div. of the U.S. Homeland Security Dept. "They can be gung-ho at first and then just decide they don't want to do it anymore," she says.
Still, a burned-out sniffer or a dog that can't quite get a sightless person across the street safely can be perfect for a family. And these dogs bond with you even if you get them when they're long past puppyhood. "Dogs can form deep attachments at any age," says Warren Eckstein, an animal-behavior expert who hosts The Pet Show, syndicated nationally on the radio.
Dogs are available through organizations that train animals for the disabled as well as through government and military entities that use dogs for various tasks, including searches for drugs or explosives. Some groups, such as Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. (guidingeyes.org), have their own breeding programs and seek homes for puppies who don't pass their initial screening as well as older dogs that fail to make the final cut. Other groups, including National Education for Assistance Dog Services in Princeton, Mass. (neads.org), find recruits in shelters. Those put up for adoption are usually housebroken -- or close to it -- and have had at least basic obedience training.
Adopting a retired or rejected service dog usually requires filling out an extensive application and submitting to an interview. Expect some serious scrutiny. These organizations are protective about their dogs and want them to go to good homes. Grounds for disqualification might include another dog in the family, especially an aggressive breed such as a pit bull. You may have to wait a year or more for a dog, at which point the adoption fee ranges from $100 to $600. And you generally need to pick up the dog yourself. For example, if you want a former military dog, you'll have to travel to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where the Defense Dept.'s Military Working Dog Center is located.
However, almost every state has service-dog training organizations. To find one near you, consult the Web site of the American Dog Trainers Network. In addition to giving a state-by-state breakdown, it shows resources in Australia, Canada, and Britain. The dogs you'll find may have flunked out of school, but that doesn't mean they won't work hard to win your affection.
By Kate Murphy