Siren, going for the classic French look.
If you had told me that my first dog was going to be a Miniature Poodle, I never would have believed you. And doubly so if you’d told me that Poodle was going to be 15 1/2 years old when I brought her home. But I am one of those people who believes the adage that you don’t always get the dog you want, you get the dog you need, and so it was that I brought home an ancient Miniature Poodle from work. And I loved her. She was senile, not really housebroken, had congestive heart failure and weakening kidneys, but she was mine.
Who dumps an elderly dog? Well, an elderly woman who was no longer able to care for herself, much less a dog with her own laundry list of medical conditions and pill organizers full of pills. (No lie, she was on five different pills as well as eye drops by the time it was all said and done.) She had made arrangements in advance: her young poodle went to her groomer to place, and Siren went to her veterinarian. She lived in the kennel at work for awhile, and I would let her out with me at night (I worked nights by myself, and it was usually fairly quiet- paperwork, housekeeping, monitoring hospitalized patients, sterilizing surgical instruments and gowns). At first I couldn’t stand her- she paced and paced and pottied on the floor and paced some more. But with time, she got comfortable with me, and her pacing changed to wandering around looking for toenails to eat, and then settling in her basket to snooze.
She was not an easy dog. She didn’t deal well with being left alone, she was not at all housebroken, she didn’t see well, she didn’t hear well. But she loved life and she loved people, and I’d take her for carries around the neighborhood because she could only walk for a block or two.
Siren gave me a great gift: she gave me a love for old dogs. I love my young dogs too, don’t get me wrong, but there is something that feels really good to me about giving an old dog a place to live out whatever time she has left.
So a number of years after Siren, despite already having two pit bulls at home, I started trolling Petfinder for another old dog, and adopted Harv. Harv’s story was a bit more harsh. He was seized by animal control as a cruelty case (though I didn’t know this until after he’d passed). He was evaluated as adoptable, but nobody wanted an older black pit bull, so he lived in the shelter for over a year. He was finally at long last adopted, only to be returned a year later, a victim, this time, of divorce. And there he sat for another several months until I showed up. And even though I didn’t fit the general requirement that pit bull adopters need to live in the same county as the shelter, they let me take him home. (And I want to give a shout-out to the York County SPCA for housing and caring for a not very adoptable black, elderly pit bull until somebody showed up who wanted him. I would guess that in a depressing number of places, my old man never would have had a chance. But they were rooting for him, and so many of the employees and volunteers who were there when I went to meet him and then to pick him up were overjoyed that he was finally going home.)
How could I leave this face in the shelter?
Harv was an epic dog. I only had him for fourteen months until a brain tumor claimed him, but it seems like so much longer. He was the most wonderful old fart of a dog. We went to beginner obedience class and changed some minds over what pit bulls are like, though I think all he actually learned was sit and down. He was kind and gentle and loved everybody. He tried so hard to play with the other dogs but he was endlessly awkward about it. He spent a lot of time not really knowing what was going on, but he was Happy! He would run back and forth through the house and bite my butt while I was getting dog meals ready, and I could never correct him for it because it made me laugh so hard.
A lot of people have asked me how I could do that to myself– bring home an old dog I knew was going to die soon. You know, nothing is ever certain. I had a puppy die too. It’s different, I think, to bring home an older dog, and I think my relationship has been different with them, but I didn’t love them any less, and the time we shared… I wouldn’t give that back for anything.
They have certainly been high maintenance. Bringing home an elderly dog means bringing home a dog right in the midst of what is probably going to be the most expensive time of his life. Siren had her heart failure and she also had an ugly bout of pancreatitis. Harv, whom I swore I would not spend a lot of money on, developed excruciatingly painful glaucoma (high pressure) in one of his eyes, probably secondary to an old injury. I had his eye removed, since he couldn’t see out of it anyway. I could hardly put him to sleep for something we could fix! And then one of his teeth abscessed, so even though he was already having seizures from his brain tumor at that point, we put him under anesthesia and took that out, because again, it was something that needed to be fixed. Oh expensive dog!
A little rough around the edges, but happy til the end.
Training is a ittle iffy with an old dog whose mind is not as sharp as it used to be, but at the same time, training is one of the very best things you can do with an old dog. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Harv loved his food-dispensing ball, and it was good for him to have to interact with it to get his food. We did obedience class because I’m an obedience class junkie, but I am glad that we did.
I do think old dogs can be a bit less flexible about things, and they can get very attached to their routines. I think that’s simply one of those things that goes with old age. But at the same time, they’re mostly pretty darned content to just be. Harv spent a lot of time crashed out, snoring, on a dog bed. He didn’t really want for anything else. An occasional romp around the yard, some walks around town, his dinner, a bone to chew. He was good.
I have shared my stories of Siren and Harv with a lot of people, and my hope is that if I can keep sharing it, more people will consider giving a home to an older dog. There are so many oldsters in our shelters and rescues who are there through no fault of their own. Yes, it can be hard. Yes, it can be heartbreaking. But it is also an incredible joy to cherish and spoil an old soul, and to give a good old dog the comfort he deserves for the time he has left.