Why You Should Adopt a Senior Dog
Or How I Got Stuck With an Older Dog, and It Was the Best Decision of My Life
In my lifetime, I've been fortunate that five dogs have consented to live with me—not an easy feat, if you knew me in real life.
The first dog was a Beagle Terrier mix puppy that was adopted by my family when I was a young girl. Back then I was scared to DEATH of dogs, and my father (a very strict second generation Japanese) felt the only way around that fear was straight through it. Turns out, he was right. After weeks of uncomfortable encounters with my first dog, which involved screaming, running away, some crying, climbing up trees where he couldn't follow (and where there was a surprisingly inconvenient lack of bathrooms), we reached a "truce" that mellowed to acceptance, and finally a deep love that lasted 17 years of his life.
My next two dogs were a package deal that I never expected. I got my three-month old puppy, a Chow mixed with "Sumthing kinda big" (maybe German Shepherd, Yellow Lab, Golden Retriever) at the shelter, and my sisters picked some lopsided-eared, spotty four-month old Aussie Shepherd mix puppy in the "E1" cage. The "E" stood for "Euthanize" and the "1" was, well, you guessed it, he was first on the "hit parade" of dogs scheduled to be terminated that day. So they saved the life of the E1 dog that they ironically named "Lucky," and carted him back to my parents home, while I took my brown Chow mix back to my home with my then husband. Things went along swimmingly for us with our Chow mix that we named Kuma, which means "bear" in Japanese. However, Lucky wasn't fairing well at my parents'. He ran around continuously, wasn't bonding with anyone and, frankly, my parents finally "hit the wall." They said, while pointing at the dog through the glass door in the den, "take him or he's going back." So I took him. Lucky, it turns out, was a "bait" dog used for dog fighting, often held by his ears, and swung out toward aggressive dogs, which is why the cartilage in his ears were so damaged, and why he RAN as if in sheer terror that stopping would mean he'd be killed. Integrating him into my family was not easy, but in time, he and Kuma were bonded for life. Lucky's early experiences with people made him always fearful of strangers, and he manifested that with unpredictable behavior, so I was careful to protect him and others in unfamiliar situations. In return, he was the most loyal, protective dog I'd ever owned and when my son was born, NO ONE could get near him unless Lucky approved. Both Kuma and Lucky lived with me for 13+ happy years.
When I was ready, I adopted my fourth puppy at 12 weeks of age, a Chow-Black Lab mix, from a backyard breeder. Yes, I know what they say about BYBs, but this lady simply wanted to find good homes for the pets, and she was probably more responsible as a dog owner and breeder than others I had met. She kept in touch with me during the first full year of the dog's life, reminding me to get vaccinations, put the pet in training, etc. We named this dog Pokey, and although he was supposed to be my son's dog, and in some ways the dog spent the entirety of his 13 years with us looking for my son's approval, he bonded most closely with my second husband. He was a great dog, smart, loving, and amazing until the end. He died on the same day as my mother-in-law, and I'll always think of them crossing the rainbow bridge together—a thought that warms me greatly.
By now, my son was almost in college, and the idea of not getting another dog, not having to deal with house breaking a pet, or picking up poop in the yard, or dealing with vet bills, or finding pet sitters so you can go on vacation was being bandied about by the family. However, if you live most of your life with dogs, NOT having a dog is a lonely, silent void that can only be tolerated for "so long," and since I generally get my way, it wasn't long before I started looking for another dog.
Having had two Chow mix dogs and knowing that these dogs were sometimes harder to place than others, I went online to look for a Chow puppy to adopt. What I found instead was a video of an "24 hour urgent status" Chow mix dog, about four years old, the website said, that was being housed in an animal control pen in Turlock, California, more than a two hour drive from my house. I called and was told the pet didn't have 24 hours left, he had less than two hours before he was scheduled to be euthanized. So I pulled out my credit card and paid the $40 adoption fee (it was discounted for "back to school") plus a donation of $60 over the phone to cover costs for holding him an additional day, and told them I would be there by noon to meet him.
Before I hung up the phone with the Animal Control office, I asked "so what happens if, tomorrow, when I come by to meet him, the dog and I don't get along?"
"Well, that's simple," she responded, "you can surrender him, and we'll give him another seven days to find another family or maybe even a rescue to take him."
That night, I told the family I had "kinda sorta" adopted a dog. I remember my sales pitch almost exactly, "Hey, it's a Chow dog—we love Chow mixes, right, right? And the BEST part—he's older, but not too old, so no house training and all of that other annoying stuff you have with puppies, like chewing stuff up and endless shots. He's going to be great, and if I don't like him, they said I can surrender him, so if I bring him home, it's because he's a great dog!" Reluctantly, everyone agreed to a new dog, IF he was perfect.
I drove to the shelter the very next day and waited with some trepidation to meet a dog whom I'd seen only via a video on a website. The Animal Control officer whose voice I instantly recognized from the day earlier, thanked me for making the long drive, and hurried out of the Animal Control mobile/trailer to get the dog. She soon returned with a big, reddish colored, kinda wolfy-looking dog at the end of a leash. Before I could even get a closer look, he peed on the trash can inside the office.
"Um, he's not housebroken?" I asked.
"Well, you can see he's not," the other Animal Control officer said impatiently.
"So how is he four years old, and NOT housebroken, what is his story?" Things were looking less promising now that I knew the dog was NOT house trained.
I learned from Animal Control that he was found wandering the streets of the City, wearing a collar that was bound so tightly around his neck that they had to cut it off, and underneath, his neck fur was completely missing due to the constant abrasion. He had been treated by a vet, but his behavior would lead them to believe he was kept outside all the time with little human interaction. His teeth showed incredible signs of wear, and he generally did not look good.
I stared at this poor little dog. This was NOT the dog I had pitched to my family. Before I could even say "no, this might not work out," the Animal Control officer snapped a picture of me with the dog, handed me the leash and reassured me that their staff had taken him for a walk so he could make the long drive back. As she escorted me to the door, she told me "you have a great life together! Congratulations!"
And just like that, I was standing outside with a dog... a dog that was nothing like what I had envisioned, and it was far from the "perfect" pet I had described to everyone the night before.
I stood in the parking lot for a long time wondering what to do. Be an ass, turn around and surrender him? Take him home, wish for the best? Take him home, find someone to take him in San Jose? Before I could even answer, the dog looked up at me and smiled... swear to god, he opened his mouth and gave me a grin with his worn down teeth. Option one was definitely out now.
"Well, I guess we're taking a road trip," I told him.
He hopped into my car, and made himself comfortable in the back seat, rolled on his back, throwing four paws into the air, as he made happy noises, and off we went down the road toward San Jose.
He spent most of the two hour trip upside down and asleep, which helped me think of what to do next. The two or three times he sat up to look out the front window, I tried to reassure him with soothing words "You're a good big red dog, aren't you? Red dog... good boy," and when he was satisfied, he went back to sleep.
Suffice it to say, the family was NOT prepared for this dog! A quick trip to the vet to resolve the injured skin around his neck, and we discovered that his age was probably closer to six or seven rather than four years old. By day three, he had peed and POOPED inside the home numerous times, and he was refusing to spend even 10 minutes in a kennel. He tore the door off the first kennel, and twisted the wires of the second kennel so badly, it was unusable. He overturned water dishes, snapped at my son, chewed on shoes, dug holes EVERYWHERE, and had already escaped from the backyard one time before being caught down the street. My fed-up family said "get rid of him!"
I called the people at Chows Plus, the chow rescue group in Northern California, and asked them for help. A nice woman responded with a thorough and lifesaving email. First, she reassured me, THIS was normal for a Chow mix acclimating to a new living arrangement. She gave me tips for making the transition easier ,and she reminded me of things that I had forgotten with puppies that still applied to older dogs to help with the house training. She told me if, after 60 days, things were not significantly better, she'd try to help me find him a foster home, but to try everything she recommended first. 60 days later things WERE better, and three years later, the senior dog we thought we'd never keep, and who we named "Red" is still with us.
So what did Red teach us that would lead me to write this long winded account of adopting a poor, abused senior dog.
The list is long, but it can be synthesized down to just this:
You will never find a more loyal or grateful dog than a senior or older dog. These dogs understand that they were "abandoned" by their owners, and, as such, when you "save" them, they spend the rest of their lives—once they understand you won't leave them too—repaying you for that second chance. I like to call Red, my senior rescue, my "velcro dog" because he loves me so much, he goes wherever I go. He loves everyone in the family, and even his "wolfy" face has calmed to a gentle puppy face now that we've had him for awhile. The experience, while trying at the beginning, has made me committed to making all of my next dogs senior or older rescues, so that these dogs—which are often neglected at shelters—have a second chance.
If you're looking for a pet, are an older person yourself, have an older pet in need of a friend, or you're a professional without the time it takes to train a puppy (and it takes LOTS of time to train a puppy), then consider an older dog for your next pet. Think of me. Think of Red. You'll never find a more loyal friend than an older dog!