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When is the right time to say goodbye to your dog?

It’s a decision no one wants to make, but we owe it to our dogs to do the right thing for them at the end, writes Ellena Swift

working dog

It's an owners responsibility to always put their dog's needs above their own

While chatting to a very close friend recently, we discussed how her Christmas plans had changed due to the loss of her oldest labrador. This dog was extremely special, with an incredible working career and a massively enviable trialling career, whether it was beating, competing, picking up or sitting on peg. Once home, he was content to walk around the house, offering everyone the chance to throw him his toy pheasant.

His owner explained how he had begun to lose control of his back end and would sometimes fall. He was over 14 years of age, and as he grew weaker it became apparent that the time had come to say goodbye. This horrendous decision is something all experienced dog owners will have had to deal with at some point.

Old labrador with owner

Each dog is individual, and you know them best as their owner

Dora was my first working dog. A longhaired German shepherd bitch may not have appeared the ideal shooting companion, but there was nothing she wouldn’t do. She lived with me at university and worked with me beating, on the peg, picking up, dogging-in and even stalking. It was not until I was 30 that I had to say my final farewell. I was unbelievably lucky that I had her for so long. Not many dogs get to reach the ripe old age of 15.

But I was also very lucky that Dora, ever the perfect dog, did not force me to make that awful decision. One night she simply decided it was time and wouldn’t settle until I arrived home from work. As I walked through the door, I knew something was wrong. I sat down on the floor and she lay across my lap and closed her eyes forever. It absolutely broke me. However, I was fortunate that she did not suffer. Nor did I have to decide when it was time for her to go.

Quality of life

This decision is not one that comes easily or one that anyone wants to make. But how do you know when it is time to say goodbye to your dog finally? I worked within the veterinary industry for many years in various roles, and one thing I often saw was dogs suffering that should not have been. When it comes to our beloved dogs, it is very easy to be selfish. We believe we give them everything they want and need, but so often it is the other way around. (Read more on euthanising dogs.)

Because of dogs, many people are not lonely. They help with anxiety, stress, exercise and there is even evidence that they improve our cardiovascular health. Very often because of this, we forget why the dog wants to be here, so we don’t see their pain and unhappiness as clearly. Owners begin to anthropomorphise the dog, putting human emotions and feelings on to them. This very often means a dog’s life will be sustained (in my opinion) unnecessarily. Operations, treatments and procedures all take place that essentially keep the dog alive but do not mean it has any quality of life.

Like all owners, I feel I know my dogs better than anyone else. Every dog is different and thrives on different things. When a dog is retired from work, many settle into a slower and more relaxed pace of life. I know a lot of owners who retire kennel dogs into the house. In Dora’s final season, she still managed the odd drive. Although deaf and slower, she could still cope with walking to where I would stand and unbelievably she picked two lost birds during her final year. So technically she never retired; I believe that leaving her at home would have ended her life sooner.

Even if they can no longer work properly, the odd retrieve can help keep an ageing gundog happy

There is certainly no definitive answer as to when the right time is for any dog. Each individual owner knows their dog and knows what has brought them joy and happiness during their life. If all of that is removed, you must ask yourself what else is left for the dog. The dog simply being there may well ease the owner’s pain and avoid an awful time for them, but it is so important to think selflessly about the dog.

When my second working German shepherd began to show signs of ageing and went deaf at nine years old, I had to retire her from the shooting field. Physically she was still fit and well, but she easily lost me if working and I was concerned for her safety. I knew she needed to retire from one job so I found her another as a therapy dog.

She absolutely relished the change and I am sure was grateful to have a purpose still. She also helped work the sheep at home and so was getting plenty of mental and physical stimulation. If possible, with all our working dogs, it is important to ensure their lives still have value. They need to continue with some sort of normality. So, even if they cannot go out and work properly, the odd retrieve thrown out now and then can keep them happy in their later years.

In December 2021, she began to noticeably lose control of her back end. When going around a corner, it would give way and she would fall over. This would happen a few times a day. She then began to have the odd accident at night. This stressed her out a lot as she was naturally a very clean dog and she hated that she messed in the house. At her age (12 years), I was not going to go down the road of veterinary treatment.


We could alleviate some of the pain and perhaps help with the incontinence using medication, but the loss of muscle and weakness would only get worse. She could no longer bounce and run with her friends or join us on outings. I tried changing her sleeping arrangements so it did not matter if she messed, but she got so stressed about all these changes she chewed the door frame. That was when I knew it was time.

Every time I had to leave her at home, clean up her mess or help her get back up after falling, I could see the misery in her eyes. The pain it caused her that she could no longer enjoy what she normally did. She was still eating and could walk very slowly or have a small run, but very little of that held any pleasure for her.

I asked myself, “Why am I prolonging her stress and pain?” I did not want to lose her or be without her, but that was unbelievably selfish. I took her for a gentle stroll with her friends, gave her a brush and lots of treats and drove her to the vets to say our final goodbye. I have no doubt that, if allowed, she could have survived for a few more months, maybe more. But with what quality of life? From her point of view, very little. She had been selfless all her life for me, and I could now repay it.

Border terrier

Many working dogs thrive on mental and physical stimulation, even as they reach their twilight years

This decision is vastly easier to make with an older dog. Every now and then, a dog owner has the horrendous job of making this decision with a younger dog. My poor father had this very scenario with a cracking black labrador bitch who was a month off turning two years old. Over a period of two weeks, she went downhill fast. Despite numerous veterinary visits, investigations and treatments, nothing changed. Our only option was a specialist hospital that would be able to investigate further but with no guarantee of a diagnosis, let alone survival.

The tests required were invasive and extremely stressful for her. The specialist had an inkling of what it might be, which if correct would mean she would have one lung removed in surgery and possibly part of the other. She would require medication for the rest of her life, not be allowed to work and would likely struggle with anything over a gentle stroll. No running, playing, working, chasing, retrieving. Her life would be unrecognisable.

If it were anything else, it would have meant being put to sleep was our only option. The only reason for continuing would be for our own benefit to keep her with us. As much as it absolutely broke us, we made the decision to let her go to sleep.

Honour them

When it comes to your own dog, they will tell you when they have had enough. If you truly look at them, they will communicate with you when it is time. Our only job is to honour our dogs’ lives and make sure that we are purely thinking of them and not ourselves. It will break your heart every time and hurt, but you can know that in your last act as their owner, you acted purely selflessly and thought of only them. Make sure you are always with them until the end, that you are the one to hold them close. One of my favourite quotes is: “Dogs’ lives are too short.” Their only fault, really.

Read our guide to the best beds for working dogs.