Hold on to your heart: the rewards of adopting older and senior dogs

(A version of this article first published in Pawsitively Pets magazine.)*

Tess Crossen was sure she’d “get roped in by a puppy or a younger dog” when she began volunteering at Centre County PAWS, a non-euthanasia organization dedicated to the promotion of animal welfare and safety. When she met Maggie, a fourteen-year-old shepherd mix, everything changed.

At the time, Maggie was being fostered by another woman whose own dog, according to Tess, was declining. “I was so taken in by Maggie, and so I brought her home,” she said.

Over the next few months, she watched Maggie transform from a frightened and cautious dog into one who would race with her Yorkshire terrier and chase the occasional critter. “She got to scare a chipmunk,” Tess said. “There was no way she was going to catch that chipmunk—she only got about three steps out. She scared that chipmunk into the woods and was very pleased with herself.”

Five months after Tess brought her home, Maggie passed away as the result of a tumor found during a routine surgery. But in those five months, something shifted in Tess. She would go on to foster more older dogs.

Next came Pam, a hound mix who was later adopted. There was Bluma, Snoopy, Sugar, Lassie—the list goes on to currently include Kia, a twelve-year-old lab, husky mix with terminal cancer.

Though it’s been determined that surgery would be too invasive for Kia, Tess takes her to the public showings at PAWS each Sunday from noon to 2:00 p.m. “There are a lot of people out there now who like to adopt dogs and do bucket lists with them,” she said. “It’s good for her to get out.” And if Kia doesn’t find another living situation, Tess said, “As long as she needs a home, she has a home.”

Some people fear the heartache of taking in animals that may not have long to live would be too much to bear. “I keep doing this, really, in honor of Maggie,” Tess said. “Rejuvenating her life rejuvenated mine, somehow. Seeing her go from a confused dog to wagging her tail when I approached her changed me and my perspective.

Tess had been going through a difficult time in her own life. “With an older dog, it is such a fast track that it put me on a faster track,” she said. “I was going through such a tough time, and her recovery contributed to mine.”

Prior to PAWS, Maggie had spent most of her life in a basement and had been “horribly neglected,” according to Tess. “Knowing she would even give another human being a chance after the way she was treated—I just felt humbled and honored, and I really forgot my sorrow a lot when she was around,” said Tess. “She did more for me than I could have ever done for her.”

Lori Burns already had two dogs when a friend told her about Clancy—a black and tan collie mix available for adoption at one of the SPCAs near her hometown of State College, Pennsylvania. “Clancy has big black dog syndrome,” she said. “They told me at the shelter that a lot of black dogs get passed over, and everyone wants a puppy.”

Clancy was two years old, and when Lori discovered that the shelter did euthanize, she made the decision to adopt. That was 12 years ago. “He’s my heart dog,” she said. “I just can’t picture one (dog) not having a loving home. We gave him 12 years that he might not have had.”

According to Fabré Sanders, co-chair and founding board member of Little Paws Dachshund Rescue, older dogs are euthanized more often in shelters than their younger counterparts. Fabré works with shelters and rescue organizations along the east coast to find foster and forever homes for dachshunds and dachshund mixes of all ages.

In the two years she’s held the position, she’s noticed some trends. “Older dogs are often overlooked at shelters and rescues. They tend to wait longer to find a family. I think it’s also harder on them to be in a temporary situation,” she said, emphasizing the importance of fostering when it comes to older dogs.

In her experience, seniors are not the most difficult age range to adopt out. “There tends to be a subset of people, myself included, who want the seniors. There is a lot of interest in puppies when we get them. The hardest dogs for us to adopt,” she said, “are ages five through nine.”

According to Fabré, many people believe older animals that have been turned in to a shelter are sick or otherwise damaged. “That’s usually not the case,” she said, adding that many of these animals come from owners who can no longer care for them for health or financial reasons. “A lot of them still have a lot of life and vigor, and a lot of love still to give,” she said.

In her mind, fostering and adopting older animals are selfless acts. “It’s so unbelievably rewarding to put that animal before you, knowing that each day is so special to them. You don’t know how much time they have left. I actually think you’re giving them the best period of their life.”

Fabré speaks from experience. “I started off like most people where I said I never want to adopt an older dog because I don’t want to lose them so quickly.” Her husband had a different perspective. “He wanted to have the reward of caring for dogs who had had a rough life and giving them wonderful memories,” she said. “He convinced me to try it.”

Since then, Fabré and her husband have taken in five dachshund and dachshund mixes close to or over the age of 10, which is considered to be “senior” for the dachshund breed. She doesn’t see herself adopting a young dog any time soon, if ever again.

“There’s something about an older dog’s eyes that gets me,” she said. “They look at you with such appreciation, and I think they know that they’re loved and what it means to be loved. Some of these dogs have never been in a situation where they’ve been loved and pampered, and when you get to do that for a dog, it’s a really rewarding thing.”

Having owned animals of all ages, Tess believes there are more benefits to considering an alternative to a puppy. “Older dogs are easier. They are house trained, calm, grateful. I didn’t expect gratitude, but I see it.”

Lori said, “I think people go for the cute, cuddly puppy or kittens, but then, in a matter of weeks, they’re getting into that awkward, gangly stage. You forget about the sleepless nights and the chewing and ruined carpets,” she added. “You can’t get hung up on age.”

A common conception is that younger dogs bond differently with children than older dogs, and “that is absolutely a myth,” said Fabré. “We’ve adopted lots of younger and older dogs out to families, and I don’t see a difference in how they bond. Being pack animals, dogs are always looking for packs, and they will bond with you no matter what their age.”

For Tess, the puppy remains regardless of age. “I’m so glad I saw Maggie chase that chipmunk. It sounds like such a small thing, but she just was so happy. When the puppy in them comes out and you see the kind of puppy they could have been, that’s a reward in itself.”

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*As of August 2015, Pawsitively Pets has been combined with Good News magazine, a publication of Bear Country Radio.

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