I had never thought about fostering an older dog until I opened an urgent email from English Springer Rescue America. They needed a foster family willing to pick up an emaciated, abandoned springer that had been taken off the streets by the Seattle Animal Shelter. The dog they called Riley was deaf, mostly blind, and probably demented, but was otherwise a sweet and gentle dog who was suffering at the shelter. Immediate action was needed. Could I help?
Tears filled my eyes as I wondered why anyone would abandon an old springer. I asked my husband, “Could we…?” but he, with wise objectivity, reminded me that our old cat—who ruled our household— disliked dogs. “Sorry, no,” I wrote in my email reply.
The next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about Riley. I learned that he was out of the shelter, but his first foster home hadn’t worked out. I returned to my husband, more tears in my eyes, and asked, “Honey, PLEASE?” Thirty minutes later we were off to pick up our new senior dog. (We invented a plan to help the cat.)
Any hesitation about fostering Riley disappeared the moment we spotted him, newly cleaned and puffed up, walking with his other foster Mom. We were completely smitten. Seniors ourselves, we committed to giving him all the care and love we could.
Soon, our lives were molded around the needs of our special friend. We carried him outside to pee, took him on walks, and supported his medical needs. (Thankfully, the English Springer rescue agency footed most of the bills.) We laughed when Riley trotted around with a “happy dog” look and cried when, trying to stand, he couldn’t. Doggie energy filled our house.
Like many other older adults, we were discovering the joys of fostering or adopting an older dog. Dog companionship can be a ticket to happiness and greater longevity. Our dogs invite us to go on walks and meet others. (“What a cute doggie you have.”) They give us a purpose for getting up in the morning—if only to let them out. A wagging tail can brighten the most difficult day.
Senior dogs offer special benefits. Sure, puppies are adorable, but do you really want to schedule your life around Mr. Wee-One’s bladder or hide all of your shoes and belts out of the range of young Miss Chewbacca? Dale Filip, who has adopted 11 senior dogs over the years, puts it bluntly, “Puppies are too much work.”
Filip, who lives alone, appreciates the company his three senior dogs provide. Retired, he can afford the time they require and he doesn’t mind spending a little extra to help his dogs with special needs. Knowing that his dogs won’t end their days in a shelter brings him joy.
Nancy Walkord was still grieving several major life losses when she decided to foster Sage-Marie, a dog needing surgery for whom English Springer Rescue America did major fundraising. Sage-Marie brought Nancy and her husband so much joy that they adopted her. The couple prefers older dogs. “Our dogs are part of the family,” she says. “We don’t want them to outlive us.”
According to Ardeth De Vries, director of Old Dog Haven on Whidbey Island, older dogs are extraordinarily adaptable. “They’ve been through so much and are often very grateful for the second chance for happiness their new owners provide,” she says. De Vries marshals a small army of volunteers, most of them seniors, to foster older dogs no longer deemed adoptable. With support from Old Dog Haven, these dogs live the last stage of their lives surrounded by love and care.
Old Dog Haven is not a facility but a network of homes. Sometimes their old dogs have been abandoned and picked up as strays. Other times, they are referred when their owners die or can no longer support a dog. Foster families know that their new friends may not be around for long. De Vries says, “We would love to have them forever. But as long as the dogs have a good quality of life, we are happy to have them with us. Dogs live in the moment and we are making each moment special.”
Even handicapped dogs can have a good life. “Dogs don’t fret about their physical condition,” De Vries says. “Dogs that are blind learn to see with their hearts—they don’t miss a thing.” Many volunteers at Old Dog Haven report that caring for a dog has given them both a purpose and a new lease on life.
“They give us so much more than they get,” says De Vries, who has adopted many dogs. “We people spend all of our time thinking about the past and looking to the future. Dogs bring us back into the moment.” She jokes, “My life has gone to the dogs.”
Before adopting or fostering a senior dog, remember that taking in any dog represents a commitment of time and resources. Old dogs, as well as young, need to go to the bathroom and get exercise, so make sure you’re mobile enough to take them out. A dog that is mobility-impaired may need special accommodations. But don’t let the medical needs of an older dog scare you away. Organizations like Old Dog Haven (and breed-specific groups including English Springer Rescue America) do extensive fundraising to support the medical needs of dogs fostered by their volunteers.
Nancy Walkord does not look forward to the day she will say goodbye to her senior dogs, but adds, “The time we have together outweighs the pain of loss.” She is reminded of a quote by Helen Keller: “What you have once enjoyed, you can never lose…All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
Sadly, Riley stayed with us only four months. After watching him struggle increasingly with dementia and mobility problems, we made the gut-wrenching decision to have him put to sleep. We took comfort in knowing we had given him the love and care he deserved in his last months of life. While we hoped Riley could have been with us much longer, his passing taught us about facing grief with an open heart, a preparation for life that we all need.
We’re still grieving for Riley, but would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
Sally Fox, owner of Engaging Presence, is a coach and writer who helps individuals develop and craft compelling stories. She writes about following your creative calling after midlife. Find her blog at engagingpresence.com and listen to her podcasts at 3rdActMagazine.com.