A survey of working dogs highlights years in the field and reasons for retirement. Does it also endorse the benefits of remaining active, wonders David Tomlinson

It’s not often that you see pensioners in the shooting field – canine I mean, not human – as shooting is, for a dog, hard work. Many of us hope that our dogs will carry on working until they are 12, perhaps even 13, but the harsh truth is that most will have stopped around their 10th birthday, and only a few continue until they are 12 or 13. A recent survey of 665 working gundogs found that the average age of retirement across all the breeds was 10. Intriguingly, while the majority of springer spaniels retired at the age of 11, for cockers it was nine, while labradors slotted neatly into the middle at 10.


The survey, published in the journal VetRecord, was undertaken by John Houlton, who is best known for his expertise on hip dysplasia in dogs in general and retrievers in particular. For many years he has picked up with a team of labradors, so he has long been interested in every aspect of the health of working dogs. Until he undertook his research on canine retirement, there were lots of theories but no facts. The general assumption was that the majority of gundogs are retired because of old age, while spaniels stop earlier than retrievers due to their more exuberant working style. 

What the survey found was that slightly more gundogs retired due to lameness than old age, with arthritis in the elbows the commonest problem. English springers confounded predictions, and the fact that the majority manage an extra year compared to labradors is statistically significant. However, I doubt if anyone would have predicted that cockers have the shortest active life of any of the working breeds. The analogy has to be with small cars and high-revving engines, for most cockers seem to work at maximum revs for most of the time, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they pack up early. 


To put the survey into perspective, it’s essential to consider the dogs that took part and the sort of work they did. The great majority (354) were labradors, with English springer spaniels in second place (123) and cockers third (82). There was a sprinkling of the minority breeds, including a couple of Clumbers and a trio of Sussex spaniel, but only 29 HPRs (of seven different breeds). There were also two terriers and four labrador crosses.

Picking up was the main activity (64.51%), with 21.5% beating, while peg dogs only formed 4.06%, with just 1.35% trialling. The number of days worked per season was interesting, as the majority did between 11 and 30 days, though more than 30% managed between 31 and 50, and 8% performed a strenuous 71 days or more. I would suspect that latter group would be among the early retirees, but it was beyond the scope of the survey to establish this.  

Forty-four dogs in the survey died before they were able to retire. Some 26 of these (59.09%) were found dead at home, four died due to an accident at home, while 14 died while working. Five of these were run over, a reminder of the need for caution when handling dogs around vehicles in the shooting field; another died from a penetrating injury and another from a heart attack, while one unfortunate animal was trampled to death by a herd of cows. These were the dogs that died of natural (or accidental) causes, but a further 158 dogs were put down before they could retire to a life in front of the Aga. By far the majority of these (92) were destroyed due to cancer, with another 20 because of incurable lameness and three because of behavioural problems.

For those dogs that did retire, the reasons were as varied as the breeds (22) considered in the survey. Lameness (168) just beat old age (158), with deafness the third most significant factor, with 52 dogs stopping for this reason. (Should we be developing a deaf aid for dogs?) I was fascinated to learn that the survey didn’t detect any difference in the incidence of deafness in peg dogs compared to picking-up dogs, which seems surprising as they are so much closer to the bangs. Springer spaniels were more prone to deafness than any of the other breeds: most springers I have known feign deafness from an early age, making it hard to detect when the genuine thing sets in.

Seven dogs were retired because they lost interest, and four because they were gun-shy, the same number that were withdrawn from the shooting field for disobedience. Eight dogs had to give up due to failing eyesight, while I felt sorry for the two who ‘kept getting lost’. Two dogs retired for eating game: one of these was a spaniel of mine, as I submitted her details to the survey. In mitigation, I will point out that she was approaching her 13th birthday, so was well beyond the age when most spaniels have given up. 

Dementia is just as serious a problem in old dogs as it is in elderly humans, so I found the fact that only one dog retired for this reason encouraging. Could it be that an active working life keeps a working dog’s brain healthier than that of a pet that’s never had to think of anything other than when its next meal is due?