Benefits of Owning a Senior Pet

Older dogs might not fill a home with happy chaos as energetic puppies do, but these senior pets still enrich our lives in so many ways.

Adjustments Make for a Happy Senior Dog
Panda, a 15-year-old beagle, was just a 7-week-old puppy when owner Cathy Perry Glass brought her home. “To me, she is like my first teddy bear, which is still cherished after so many years,” says Glass. “Like my bear, Panda has aged over the years. Her once-svelte beagle figure now has myriad lumps and bumps. We communicate through sign language and touch, but to me, she is more beautiful than ever.”

Just as life with a new puppy takes adjusting, you and your senior dog will fare better if you make accommodations, says Glass. “Living with a senior dog can be a joy. Making a few changes as your dog ages can keep you both happy,” she says. For example, Glass uses a pet stroller to take Panda on outings. Teaching Panda signs helps Glass continue to communicate with her. She is vigilant about taking Panda for regular veterinary checkups. Owners of senior dogs need to stay on top of age-related health conditions, says Glass.

Pay attention and you’ll find benefits to living with an older dog. “Older dogs focus well and can learn new things,” says Glass. Panda still loves a good snuggle and scratch under the chin.

Still Sharing the Love
Linda A. Kerns’ 12-year-old Shetland sheepdog, Stormer, still accompanies her everywhere she goes. “He comes to work with me every day and rests in his bed next to my desk,” says Kerns, who maintains a law practice in Philadelphia.

Stormer serves as both inspiration and support to those around him. “I am a divorce lawyer, and Stormer earns his keep by greeting clients and providing everyone he meets with loyalty and love, something that a divorce client desperately needs,” says Kerns.

You might be surprised to find many senior dogs still bring energy to everyday life. “Even though he is in his golden years, he still acts with the enthusiasm of a puppy.”

Learning From a Senior Dog
Magic, a golden retriever mix, turns 16 on March 15. “He’s not as spry or as sharp as he was, but he’s still the great teacher he has always been, just different lessons now,” explains owner Debra Atlas, an environmental journalist based in Northern California.

As a young dog, Magic would sneak toys in and lay them beside her chair as Atlas worked. “When I was ready to take a break, I’d move and suddenly see it. The lesson was: There’s always time to play!” says Atlas. Now, it is her turn to remind Magic about playing. “When I say ‘playtime’ and bring out a toy, he suddenly lights up with joy,” she says. As Magic has grown older, he has become more affectionate.

“As he’s become old this year, I’ve realized how much he’s taught me over the years and how important those lessons have been to the quality of my life, my inner strength and to my ability to give and receive love,” says Atlas.

Saving Seniors
David Hendrickson, CEO and founder of skateboard company Hendrick Boards, believes in the value of older dogs so much that he works to aid their adoption. His company supports adoption programs such as those that match senior dogs with senior citizens.

“To me, it is all about providing a senior dog with love and companionship during their last beautiful lives,” says Hendrickson. “It is all about giving them love and being loved in incredible ways back.”

Volunteers Who Make a Difference for Dogs

Across the country, volunteers work to improve the lives of dogs in need. No job is too big or too small. Dog lovers staff adoption fairs, nurture dogs in their homes and scoop poop at animal shelter kennels. They do it for love rather than recognition, and they make a difference, one four-legged friend at a time. Here are the stories of just a few.

A Friendly Face
One afternoon each week, retiree Kay Bauer stops by the Tri-City Animal Shelter in Fremont, Calif. She knows how to feed the dogs and cats at the shelter. She can also prepare kennels with bedding and clean cages, should the need arise. However, the teenaged volunteers usually take on those tasks, so that leaves Bauer with a happy chore.

“What I mainly do is just socialize with the dogs,” says Bauer. “I always think the dogs will want to just get out and run and play in a larger space than their kennels, but really all they want to do is sit by you and be petted and given some human attention.” Bauer says that while the animals are cared for, they are still in need of a little extra TLC.

For the Love of Labs
Nancy Riggle can’t resist the enthusiasm of Labrador puppies. Riggle and her husband have fostered more than 50 dogs in the last three years through their work with Atlanta Lab Rescue. While Riggle serves on the board for the organization and helps organize fundraisers, her love for working with rescued dogs is evident.

“It has been an amazing experience,” says Riggle, who owns two 7-year-old black Labs. “We like the younger dogs with more energy. When they come to us, they are so sweet and just want to be loved.”

What Riggle particularly enjoys is meeting adoptive families and seeing how much the dogs she has fostered love their new owners. “We keep in touch with many of our adoptive families. That is the only way we are able to give up the sweet puppies,” she says.

Groups such as Atlanta Lab Rescue need all sorts of assistance, even if fostering isn’t for you. If an organization can’t figure out how to fit you in at first, please don’t give up, says Riggle. “While we work to get people involved quickly, we work full-time jobs also. Keep trying.”

Finding the Right Role
Monica King realizes that not everyone can commit long hours to volunteer work. Since she works full-time, she spends about 15 hours a week serving as vice president and director of volunteers for German Shepherd Dog Rescue Group of Georgia. The organization has placed more than 200 German shepherds since King co-founded the group seven years ago.

King’s inspiration came when she visited a shelter with a family member who was adopting a dog. She was dismayed to see a bright-eyed, fit German shepherd in the shelter. “I couldn’t believe such a great dog was in the shelter,” she says. King values every effort the group’s volunteers make, no matter how small. “The more people we have help, the more dogs we can save,” she says.

It’s important to know that any contribution you make -- whether it’s writing a check, editing a newsletter or fostering a dog -- will be welcomed by organizations working with dogs in your community. “If you can volunteer a couple of hours a week, that’s more than enough,” says King. “Any time you have available is helpful.”

Photo: German Shepherd Dog Rescue Group of Georgia.

Best Dog Breeds for a Busy Schedule

All dogs require a certain level of commitment. It’s important to consider whether or not you can meet the needs of any dog, regardless of the breed.

It sounds like you are good on at least three points. You live alone, so you won’t need to worry about consulting with other roommates. You are working, so hopefully you can afford the food, medical care, licensing and other things a dog requires. The ASPCA estimates that the annual cost of owning a dog runs between $580 and $1,000. Of course that can go even higher, depending on variables such as the size of the dog.

Dogs that are low-maintenance in terms of grooming would ease up your already busy schedule. They are also recommended for people who suffer from pet allergies, since these dogs tend to shed less. According to Steve Duno, author of the book Be the Dog: Secrets of the Natural Dog Owner, such dogs could include the following breeds: boxers, pugs, greyhounds, whippets, pointers and beagles. Terriers and poodles don’t shed much, but they do require regular haircuts.

The personality of the dog is key, however. Some breeds, like the Maltese, crave near-constant human companionship. That can be a good thing for owners who desire the trusted, reliable company of a devoted dog. In your case, unless someone else can step in to help care for your pet during the day, such an affectionate dog might become depressed while you are away working. Any dog, though, would appreciate daily exercise from a dog walker or another helper, so you might factor that into your scenario.

If you’re open to dogs other than purebreds, I recommend adopting a mixed breed from a shelter. It’s just been my experience that mixed breeds tend to be easygoing, often having a good balance of characteristics. Each individual dog is different, so you can spend a bit of time getting to know the personality of the individual dogs and speaking with the shelter staff about your needs.

Senior Black Homeless Dogs in Crisis

For all dogs in shelters, the statistics are dismal. According to The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), 6 to 8 million dogs and cats enter shelters each year, with 3 to 4 million of those euthanized. Although some puppies are killed, younger animals most often steal the show at adoption events as adult dogs quietly sit alone. “Older animals, animals with special medical or behavioral needs, and the more plain and nondescript animals are more difficult to adopt than puppies and kittens,” says Inga Fricke, director of Sheltering and Pet Care Issues for the HSUS.

She further says that larger animals also tend to be more difficult to adopt than smaller dogs in part because of the “cuteness” factor, but also because many Americans tend to live in urban areas and perceive smaller dogs to be a better fit.

San Francisco SPCA spokeswoman Jennifer Lu says that her organization also has trouble finding homes for special-needs dogs, even if those needs are minimal. “Any factor adding a layer of responsibility may change the commitment level, with people concerned about the financial commitment,” explains Lu.

Black, Senior Dogs Are Often Overlooked
Stephen Musso, executive vice president of the ASPCA, says many shelters report that large, black dogs are often not adopted. Some shelters even have a name for the problem: “Big black dog syndrome.” Even if a black adult dog is in perfect health and has a sweet nature, it may still remain in a shelter.

One reason is simply that black dogs are more common, perhaps because this color is just genetically more dominant among canines. Old stereotypes may also be to blame, with “Beware of Dog” signs often showing big, menacing black dogs. Books and movies, such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Harry Potter series, tend to present such dogs in a menacing light. The biggest reason may simply have to do with how well the dogs photograph. In this social media age, people often surf the Net before visiting shelters. Professional photographers aren’t always available to snap the most flattering shots of scared homeless canines, so some dogs disappear into dark backgrounds and poor lighting.

Turning the Tide
Groups across the country are trying to increase the rate of adoptions for all dogs, especially those that need the extra boost. Fricke shares that the HSUS has joined together with Maddie’s Fund and the Ad Council to create the first-ever public advertising campaign to promote adoption: The Shelter Pet Project. Wyoming-based Black Dog Animal Rescue and other organizations are also building awareness while finding dogs homes.

There’s good reason to pay attention. As Fricke says, such frequently overlooked dogs often make better pets. “Older animals, for example, are beyond the annoying chewing stage, are typically fully trained and are much more ‘What you see is what you get’ than younger animals who have not fully developed their personalities yet,” says Fricke.

Christina Alvarez, executive director of Hopalong & Second Chance Animal Rescue in Oakland, Calif., adds that such dogs also tend to be:

  • Potty-trained
  • Reserved and well-behaved
  • Adapted to home life
  • Appreciative of love and care
  • Eager to bond with supportive owners

Lu, who has adopted three adult dogs, advises that anyone who desires a new pet “should go in with an open heart and open eyes. Rather than sticking to predetermined characteristics, make a love connection.”

Fricke agrees: “We would love for people to bear in mind that most pets wind up in shelters through no fault of their own -- not because they have problems, but simply because their owners had personal problems, such as they needed to move, had a new baby, etc. They are wonderful, family-ready pets who only need to be given an opportunity to show how wonderful they are.”

Social Media Boosts Dog Adoption Efforts

Scrolling down the Facebook wall of Let’s Adopt! (USA) is a virtual stroll down doggie death row. The posts are a last-ditch effort to save shelter dogs that are scheduled to be euthanized. But they’re also a prime example of how social media is transforming the process of rescuing and adopting animals.

“We started as a simple Facebook group in order to find homes for my rescues,” says Let’s Adopt! founder Viktor Larkhill. “Less than four years later, the group has expanded into a truly global network, with growing communities not only in Turkey (where it started), but also in Indonesia, Bulgaria, Germany, France, USA, Canada and Australia. All of this, and in such a short period of time, would have been impossible without social media in general and Facebook in particular.”

Social Petworking
Let’s Adopt! is a national effort; however, since animal rescue is usually a local phenomenon, most other social “petworks” are local. For instance, Urgent PART 2 on Facebook and Twitter only posts info about dogs in New York City shelters.

“I get the euth list every night from Animal Care & Control (AC&C) and post it on Facebook,” says Kay Smith, a New York City animal activist who runs the page. She started using social media after she discovered AC&C put out a daily list of animals to be euthanized within 24 hours. There were so many dogs on the list (she estimates the daily average to be 15 to 20) that she felt overwhelmed by her inability to save them all. So she just posted the list to Facebook, and a movement was born.

Smith also agrees that social media has taken her efforts to a level she never could have achieved offline. She and Larkhill attribute this to a handful of areas where social media gives them a boost:

  • Speed With the click of a button, Smith can post the entire to-be-destroyed list to her network.
  • Specificity With a picture and a bio for every dog, they’re more than an idea of a dog in a shelter; they’re personalized, with faces and stories to tell.
  • Amplification Says Smith: “I post the list, and if somebody with 500 friends clicks to share it, all those other people see it. And if four of those people click ‘Share,’ it could go to 2,000 more people, and it just snowballs.”
  • Convenience Going to the shelter is an event, but logging on to Facebook or Twitter to window-shop is a cinch. Smith wonders if it can sometimes be too easy and lead to owners who aren’t ready for a rescue dog. But Larkhill says the Net can also help those matters thanks to one community.
  • Community Social networks can help rescuers better get to know the people they’re playing matchmaker for. “It has enabled us to build an unprecedented level of trust with our community,” says Larkhill. “By looking at someone’s profile, we can tell a lot about someone. Used correctly, Facebook provides us a deep insight into people’s personality.”

Online Dog Rescue/Adoption Resources
Other national projects that have a social media presence include The Shelter Pet Project, Pets911 and Adopt-a-Pet.com. Aside from Twitter and Facebook feeds, they also have searchable websites that are a pet-seeker’s answer to online dating.

Beyond that, Smith suggests looking for local activists and organizations in your city and recommends always going to the shelter to visit dogs before making a commitment. If you’re not able to adopt, you can still get involved. Find out if your local shelter has a social media presence or if someone advocates for the dogs there. If not, start your own Facebook page for them. “I believe the potential has only just begun to be tapped,” says Larkhill. “As the level of connections increases, the power of the network increases.”