About Senior Adoptions

 Animal shelters' long-in-the-tooth hounds come with built-in benefits

                                        ~  Eileen Mitchell
 Old dogs, like old shoes, are comfortable. They might be a bit out of shape and a little worn around the edges, but they fit well.

                                     ~  Bonnie Wilcox

When Pepe, a chocolate toy poodle, was abandoned at a Berkeley pet emergency clinic, his chances for adoption appeared slim. Dapper though he was, Pepe's teeth were so decayed they had to be pulled. Not that being toothless stopped him from enjoying his new life after his transfer to the Oakland SPCA. He still ran in circles whenever he saw his leash, went on playful puppy-runs in the shelter's exercise yard, and liked to give big, wet sloppy kisses to anyone who put their face next to his. The funny little dog that enjoyed smacking his toothless gums endeared himself to plenty of prospective guardians eager to adopt the impish poodle.

Until they learned his age. Pepe was 12. Then they would say no thanks and pick a younger dog.

And such is the plight of senior dogs.

"At some shelters, older dogs are usually scheduled for almost immediate euthanasia," says Teri Goodman, who operates the Senior Dogs Project, a Web site that facilitates the care and adoption of senior dogs. "The space is needed for younger, more appealing, adoptable dogs."

Goodman was inspired to start the Senior Dogs Project after adopting Misty, a 10-year-old golden retriever. "We had Misty for four wonderful years. She motivated me to get the message out about the benefits of senior dogs."

Benefits? Well, dogs in their golden years (8 and over) are usually housebroken, meaning no chewed-up slippers or "puddles of surprise" to await you. Senior dogs are already accustomed to living with others, so they tend to acclimate to new homes easier. And forget about those midnight disruptions for which puppies are so famous. Senior dogs let you sleep throughout the night because they don't experience separation anxiety or nocturnal bathroom urges like their younger counterparts do.

Senior dogs are also great matches for families seeking their first dog. As Nann Dawn, shelter manager of the Oakland SPCA points out, "If the dog likes the kids immediately, this is a great beginning. And if you're a couch potato, a senior dog will be a good companion ready to join you on the sofa and watch TV."

"Animal Planet,'' of course.

Earlier this year the East Bay SPCA started the Silver Muzzle Club to promote the adoption of senior dogs and cats. "When I look at a puppy,'' Dawn says, "I always wonder, 'Will you make it to adulthood? Be good with kids or other dogs? Be easy to housebreak?' There are so many unknowns."

Not so of senior dogs, she insists. "There are very few guarantees in this world, but with senior dogs you know what you're getting. There's a lot to be said for having an established personality. When I look at an older dog my questions are, 'How long will I have you? How will I lose you?' Will we have enough time together?"

Ah, but to a loving guardian is there ever enough time? It's a cruel twist of fate that our devoted dogs, which often make up the best part of our lives, sadly occupy the briefest amount of time. Larger breeds tend to have shorter life spans, while smaller breeds can often resemble canine Dick Clarks.

Dawn says most dogs begin mellowing around age 8. "This is when we most fondly remember the dog at his best. If a dog has successfully made it this long as someone's companion, then he must have been a good dog in both temperament and health."

OK. But if Fido is such a great dog, how'd he end up in a shelter? Sometimes the dog is simply the victim of someone else's unfortunate circumstance. Guardians die or relocate. Some experience a drop in income that makes the expense of a pet unaffordable.

"He's been a good dog," Dawn sighs. "He's done everything he was supposed to do, and suddenly he finds himself homeless."

When senior dogs are placed for adoption they are first thoroughly reviewed by the SPCA's in-house vet and must pass a temperament test. Dogs over 8 also undergo blood work to identify potential health issues. The SPCA then follows the vet's recommendations, so adopters can be confident that their new dog is in the best of health.

Not to say there aren't some realities to contend with when adopting a senior dog. Your time together will be shorter than if you'd adopted a puppy. There are also the usual health issues that accompany aging, so regular vet visits are a must. Forget "weekend warrior" gigs, which can be tough on aging hips and joints. Instead, your dog is better off with regular, moderate exercise, which you may secretly find a relief. Now you have a great excuse to skip that 5-mile jog around the reservoir.

As for Pepe the toothless poodle? The little charmer is living out his retirement years with a family who recognizes that love knows no boundaries. Including age.

The family believes what Dawn sums up so well. "I hope the day never comes that someone tells me there's nothing else for me to learn and I can't have any more relationships or be loved just because I'm old. Honoring the older dogs in our world is as important as honoring anyone that is older.''