IN PRAISE OF OLDER DOGS
by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.
There we were - my husband, our four-year-old son and me - sitting on the steps of our local animal shelter at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. We had researched types of dogs that were good with children and decided to adopt a Labrador retriever mix. Apparently so did lots of other families. I called the shelter to see if they had a retriever available for adoption. The shelter lady said retrievers were very popular, and she would add me to their waiting list. She explained how the waiting list worked. When a retriever entered the shelter, she would call several people from the top of the list. The first qualified applicant to show up would get the dog. After several weeks, , the shelter lady called me on a Friday afternoon to say that a Lab/golden retriever mix had been surrendered that morning and would be available the next day. She told me a little about the dog and reminded me of the first come, first served rule. The shelter would open at 9 a.m.
When the shelter lady unlocked the door, we were still the only people waiting. Inside, we met Buffy. He was a handsome, well-mannered dog who’d obviously had a loving home. The woman shared his story. His owner was a retired widower who had terminal cancer. He was no longer able to care for Buffy and surrendered him to the shelter. We fell in love with Buffy immediately. As I stood at the counter filling out the paperwork, I mentioned that I had expected to find more people waiting to adopt Buffy. The woman said, “Well, he’s five years old. Most people want a younger dog.” Imagine - over the hill at five!
That was 25 years ago. Yet a prejudice against adopting dogs five years and older persists. From my own experience finding homes for retired racing greyhounds, adopters want dogs no older than two to three years. How sad to see them pass over so many dogs who would be excellent companions.
Adopting older dogs has many advantages. Older dogs are mature, past the frenetic puppy stage in life. They do not need to teethe on your furniture, shoes or your kids’ toys or fingers. They have bowel and bladder control. They are full grown – no surprises in the size department. Their personalities and temperaments are fully developed. Although the virtues of older dogs are many, why do people turn away?
The two most frequently cited reasons I hear from people who do not want to adopt older dogs are: 1) Older dogs come with problems. There must be something wrong with them if they have been given up for adoption at this age, and 2) Older dogs won’t live as long. I want a young dog who won’t die so soon.
There are no more problems adopting older dogs than with dogs of any age, and probably less. Almost all dogs are surrendered to shelters through no fault of their own. Divorce, illness, moving, new baby, death of the owner, new job are just some of the reasons people surrender their dogs to shelters and rescues. Perhaps the biggest reason is that the original adopters of the dog did not make an appropriate choice for their family and living circumstances in the first place. These are all people problems, not dog problems. In addition, a responsible shelter or rescue will not place any dog, regardless of age, that has a serious problem.
When people say they will only adopt younger dogs, I believe the underlying concern is that they will have to deal with loss and grief too soon and too often with older dogs. In weighing this concern, does the quality of your time with your older adoptee compensate for the earlier loss? For me, I don’t rate the quality of my relationships with my dogs by the number of years we have together. Rather it’s the friendship and unconditional love that dogs of all ages give to us so generously that I regard as the benchmarks of our relationship. The oldest dog I ever adopted was 11 years old when he joined our family. He died when he was 14 years old. Yet, we lived a lifetime in those three years. I loved him as much as any dog who has ever shared my life. Our bond was based on the quality of our relationship, not the quantity of our years together.
Dogs live an average of 10-12 years. There is no guarantee when you adopt any dog that that he will live for 12 years. In adopting an older dog, you are bypassing the puppy and adolescent stages and welcoming a mature body and mind into your home. You have the best years of companionship ahead of you.
When you consider your next dog, judge the dog by how well his personality and needs fit with your family situation - and not by an arbitrary age limit. As adorable as puppies are, most of their lives spent with you will be as adult dogs. When you adopt a mature dog, you know more about who you are bringing into your family than you would with a young dog. The information enables you to make a better choice, greatly increases the chances of a successful adoption and makes the transition into your home much easier.
As we left the shelter, Buffy jumped into the car and sat with his head on my son’s lap. He walked into our house and our family as if he had always been with us. For seven years, he enriched our lives. He was a perfect gentleman, an affectionate companion and a patient playmate for our children. Had we not been open to adopting an older dog, we would have missed out on all those wonderful qualities that Buffy brought to us. May you have the good fortune to bring an older dog into your life.
Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator. She shares her home in Cerrillos with her husband, four rescued dogs (two greyhounds, two corgi/terriers) and three horses.
Photo of Cole and Harry by Renee Schildkraut