Needed: Retirement homes for old dogs.

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.

21 thoughts on “Needed: Retirement homes for old dogs.

  1. Wow, you sound a lot like me.

    I adopted an 8 year old Great Dane from Animal Control. I only got to love her for three years, but she was my heart. I wanted one for years – and I told myself I didn’t want an old dog… but one look at her and I melted. She earned her RN title, and became a damn good therapy dog. I loved her so much and when she came down with an osteosarcoma it nearly killed me. Losing her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done n my life so far.

    And for some reason, I also took in a 10 year old arthtric, bad toothed old German Shepherd. He’s a good, goofy old dog but he has had some abuse and can be hard to handle. He’s quick to bite and doesn’t tolerate much – but he’s still so wonderful. He is 13 this year, don’t know how much longer he’ll hang around but I’ll make damn sure he’s happy until he goes.

    Then I have my old dog, Cozmo – who will be 14 next month. I’ve had him since he was born, and I love him dearly.

    For a long time I felt like I was running an old folk’s home for dogs. I didn’t know how hard it would be to lose Delilah. I didn’t think I could bond with a dog as fiercely as I did with her. It still kills me to think of her, and it’s been over a year.

    You’re a wonderful person for taking in these old guys. Old dogs have so much to offer. They seem so grateful for getting that last bit of peace before they go.

    • It always makes me so happy to hear other people tell their stories of old dogs. It’s nice to know I’m not the only soft-hearted weirdo out there. The dogs I adopted when they were young are turning ten in the next couple months, and I’m struggling so much more with that than I ever did with the thought of bringing home a dog who was already old.

  2. My Scampi was thirteen when I adopted him and almost eighteen when he died. I too have fond memories of carries round the block – he loved to potter round the park on a long leash, but he wasn’t up to walking there and back so I’d lug him home. I have a vivid memory of watching him mistake a tree for me – his sight and hearing were both pretty much gone by then, but he lit up and wiggled with joy.

    I adopted him because the family who’d had him since six weeks old were going to put him down because his separation anxiety was making their lives impossible. I get embarrassed when people say I did an unselfish thing there, because honestly, I gained just as much as he did from the deal – maybe more. I certainly wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t had him, nor would I have thought of looking for a border collie to adopt if he hadn’t been a BC mix. He’s been gone for ten years but he’s still giving back to me tenfold.

  3. Thank you for posting this. The oldies break my heart. Someday, I’ll have a houseful of geriatrics. There is something ineffably sweet about an old dog, especially one that hasn’t had an easy time of it.

    • I didn’t find out Harv’s story until after he’d passed, and it makes me wonder a little bit if I would have treated him differently if I had known he’d been abused. I don’t think so. He couldn’t have been much more spoiled than he was.

      It warms my heart how many people still have fond feelings about him, even though he’s been gone for years. He touched the lives of an amazing number of people.

    • It makes me especially sad when I find out that there were people who had no choice but to abandon their aged pets because of their own aging process and poor health. My little poodle had an owner who loved her very much, but couldn’t care for herself anymore, much less a dog. She had made plans for her dogs if that point was to come, but it breaks my heart to think of how hard that must have been for her.

  4. There is simply so much to be learned from an old dog! My fourteen year old is snoozing at my side now, but Bruce and James- those two fosters changed my life!

  5. What heart-warming stories these are about your adopted senior dogs. I volunteer at Pets Alive Westchester, which was formerly the Elmsford Animal Shelter where animals were basically hoarded. More were taken in than were adopted out, and when the place fell to ruins and ran out of money Pets Alive stepped in and took over- thus inheriting hundreds of dogs and cats (about a thousand animals total). Some had been there their whole lives- from puppy hood to golden years, and many didn’t make it out into a home before they passed- this broke my heart more than anything. Now the new management is doing a great job of adopting out the seniors, but we STILL have over 90 “legacy dogs” (dogs who have been there since the previous administration- dogs who have been there between 2.5 and 13years!) If anyone is considering a senior, please check out one of ours who have been waiting many many years in a cement kennel-run! http://www.petsalivewest.org – I LOVE our seniors at the shelter!!!
    oh and PS, the majority of the seniors we’ve adopted out were already housebroken or at least were easy to house-break. Some call it magic how very house-broken and well behaved the seniors from my shelter are!!!

    • Hey Juliette–I am going to post this link on our main FB page so we can make sure everyone sees it. Thanks for all the good work you’re doing!

  6. My neighbour adopted a dog a few years ago. She went for a fat little Cairn Terrier mix who was already ageing when she got her… And she and that dog have enjoyed each other so damn much.

    We can see her slowing down – she has diabetes, high blood pressure, and is mostly blind (and from what I can see, she seems to be developing arthritis in her hips)… But my neighbour’s life revolves around her little old lady. It strengthens my faith in humanity every time I see them together :)

  7. I am reading your post’s and tears are running down my face. I have done rescue and adoption for years but a geriatric pet captures my heart and soul.
    My sweet bichon Ari(cept) was rescued from certain death in an Arkansas shelter. He was dirty, matted, depressed and confused. The vet would never assign an age to him other then ‘old.’
    Ari, never found an adopter but it’s likely I would never have let him go anyway. Despite his horrendous urinary infections, painful glaucoma, and arthritis he was a champ. Ari, loved life and both my canine family and I loved him unconditionally.
    Ari, lived with me for three years before passing away in my arms. He became ill when I was at work but waited for me to hold him one last time before passing on. Ari, taught me so much, Ari, was love.

  8. I work with a rescue in WNY. A couple weeks ago, we had an email from a social worker who had a 93 year old gentleman as a client and was being placed in a home, as he was no longer able to live on his own. The gentleman had a 16 year old Peke/Spaniel mix who is deaf and blind. We all knew her prospects were grim. The social worker had already spent weeks trying to find a place for her. No one wanted a 16 yeard old, deaf, blind dog. I said I would take her. I visited her on a Friday. She was adorable and far more spry than I could have imagined. I said I would come back for her the next morning and bring her home and with any luck, all would go well merging her in with my juvenile delinquents. On the way to pick her up Saturday morning, my cell was blowing up with email notifications. I pulled over when one caught my eye. It was a friend responding to a Facebook post about my soon to be new addition. Her response was “How do I take care of a blind dog? Call me.” A phenomenal ending for Ginger, the Peke/Spaniel mix, 16 years old, deaf and blind. Turns out she had 2 homes who wanted her! She’ll likely live another 16 years and star in yogurt commercials. Bless her little heart!

  9. I loved this article! I adopted a 70lb, 9 year old, American Staffordshire Terrier. She was originally in a puppy mill, but was abandoned on the streets in DC after she became too old to have puppies. I got her from the Washington Humane Society, which is one amazing rescue organization. She is the one of the best decisions I have ever made and the best doggy friend I could ever ask for.

    Within the first 3 months of adopting her, I had to have her eye removed due to glaucoma (like Harv), she had a tumor removed from her side, and she had to be put on supplements for onsetting arthritis. Despite the pain from all of her medical issues, this dog is the most loving, sweetest, people- loving animal I’ve ever met. Yes, she may only have a few years left, but I’m determined to make them the best years of her life.

    When I tell people about my old girl, they always say I’m crazy for adopting such an old dog with so many expenses, but once they meet her, they fall in love and the comments change from “why would you adopt her?” to “how could anyone say no to this saggy old lady?”

  10. What a beautiful story. I have a tender spot for older dogs too. I recently fostered a dog in his last month of life after four years in a shelter. It was heartbreaking, but a valuable lesson in life for me.

  11. I just lost my 16 year, 11 month old dog on August 16th. My Dandy girl… I’ve had her since I was five. She was my first rescued animal, found in a ditch. It was so hard losing her, but at the same time it was such a joyful experience for me to care for her for her last 1.5 years after I returned from college. Dandy had so many difficulties by then, but she was always delighted to go outside and follow me anywhere, or relax on a cushion while I brushed her. I know that although she didn’t always get the best care while I was growing up with her, that last year and a half was wonderful and I gave her my best.

    I told everyone I wasn’t ready to have another dog for a while. Dandy was such a big part of my life for so long that I thought I needed to adjust to not having her around, give myself more time to grieve. But about three weeks after letting her go, I was puttering around on Facebook and ran across Alice, a twelve year old girl who had been pulled from a gassing facility in NC. In the picture, she looked smaller – she looked a lot like Dandy in some ways. I had to find out more, so I called the sanctuary that rescued her. They told me about her, we agreed to meet. We went to see her… and she was big! Dandy had been 20 lbs; Alice was 80 lbs. But she was so sweet. Her body was not what I expected, but her personality was delightful. That’s what matters most anyway, right?

    We are fostering Alice now, a long-term foster. She has some fatty tumors that are acting up (they’re getting removed soon). She’s overweight – I think she’s supposed to be 60-65 lbs, and the vet says she was once 120 or so – eep! Now she’s around 75-80 lbs, and getting fitter and trimmer every day. She seems to love living with us, although her separation anxiety remains. We think she’s just been tossed around from home to home so much in the last few months that she’s afraid each new person she meets is going to disappear on her.

    I wasn’t ready for another dog, especially another senior dog. Until I saw Alice, and then I was. This time around, we’re fostering her, so we have a lot of support and don’t have to fear vet bills. We can relax, and she can relax, and I can give her the benefits of what I learned with Dandy. I think it’s the best legacy Dandy could ever have. Alice is actually much healthier than Dandy was, and we may have her several years yet. I look into her eyes every morning and I see how delighted she is to see me, and I think of Dandy, who looked at me the same way with her cloudy, blurry eyes. And then I give Alice a big hug, and out we go for another day’s adventure.

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