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Laura T. Coffey

Laura T. Coffey is the author of the bestselling book My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts, and a longtime writer, editor and producer for TODAY.com, the website of NBC’s Today show.

Dog's Life: Humane
Helping a Senior Pooch Will Make You Happy
My Old Dog
Lori Fusaro / “My Old Dog”

Puppies are adorable. I’m talking seriously adorable. How could they not be? They have squishy bellies and too-big paws and goofy, clumsy gaits. And they have puppy breath … don’t forget the puppy breath!

As cute as they are, though, puppies aren’t always the best fit for people with busy lifestyles. That’s because puppies can be furry little hedonists with two big passions: indoor urination and property destruction. Bringing a puppy home is not unlike bringing a baby home—and in some ways, it’s even harder because puppies become mobile so much sooner than human infants.

What if you’d like to skip the chewed shoes and the challenging potty-training regimens and jump ahead to the very best part of enjoying life with a dog? These days, it’s easier than ever to do just that and to feel great about what you’ve done. A senior-dog-rescue movement is spreading across North America and catching on for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that dogs over the age of six or seven tend to be calm, mellow, sweet and loveable, and they’re usually already house-trained.

Yet, as wonderful as animals in this age bracket are, they need help. They often represent the highest-risk population at shelters across the United States, where nearly three million dogs and cats are put down each year.

How can this be? Why is it that the most snuggly, tranquil, ideal companions languish in shelters? For starters, this happens to most senior dogs through no fault of their own. Confronted with financial pressures, illness or another life upheaval, people suddenly may be unable to care for their pets. Then, once older animals land in shelters, they’re often overlooked because people think it will be too sad to bring them home.

But not so fast! In the process of researching and writing the book My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts, I saw firsthand that adopting a senior can be even more rewarding than choosing a younger dog. In fact, it’s likely to go down in history as one of the best things you’ve ever done.

Just ask Lori Fusaro, the photographer for My Old Dog. She once thought it would be too sad to adopt a senior— “I didn’t think my heart could take it,” she explained—until the day she welcomed a sweet-natured 16-year-old named Sunny into her family. Sunny transformed almost immediately from a sad shelter dog to a happy family member, and thrived for more than two and a half years in Lori’s care.

“Sunny showed her love for me every single time I came into the room,” Lori said. “It’s like she knew I rescued her. She freely gave kisses and followed me around everywhere. It’s like these dogs know, and they just want to let you know how grateful they are to you.”

Taking this step doesn’t have to cost as much as you might expect. While it’s true that many older shelter dogs need veterinary care, including dental work, people on a budget can take advantage of a variety of programs that address the issue.

My Old Dog includes a comprehensive resource guide with contact information for senior-dog rescue groups across North America and overseas. These groups spring older dogs from shelters and handle all major veterinary work before putting them up for adoption, allowing people to bring home a dog who is good to go.

What’s more, some organizations, such as Old Dog Haven in Washington and Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary in Tennessee, do something slightly different and quite amazing: They pull older dogs from shelters and take care of any urgent veterinary needs. Then, they place the dogs in permanent foster homes and continue to cover all veterinary costs for the rest of the dogs’ lives. In such situations, people who open their homes to these “final refuge” foster dogs never have to worry about a single vet bill.

“Seniors for Seniors” programs are another wonderful provision offered by many shelters and rescue organizations. These programs match mellow older dogs with older humans, and typically waive adoption fees and cover all initial veterinary and grooming expenses. Many also provide free welcome-home kits with dog bowls, leashes, harnesses, collars, food, medication, dog beds and more.

Even those who adopt senior dogs directly from shelters or rescues without taking advantage of any special program or assistance can keep this cost-saving detail in mind: with older dogs, it often doesn’t make sense to do high-dollar, heroic procedures such as lengthy cancer treatments. Instead, the focus is on helping dogs enjoy a good quality of life, minimizing discomfort and giving them lots of love.

Of course, even if they’re crazy about dogs, not everyone’s circumstances allow them to adopt or foster a senior dog. But that’s okay. There’s still so much you can do to help homeless senior dogs. Shelters and rescue groups always need volunteers for animal care-giving; professional grooming; high-quality photography; marketing; fundraising; and administrative assistance such as filing, paperwork and document design. If you have a special talent, why not throw one of these hardworking groups a bone?

These organizations are, of course, always grateful for financial support to help defray vet bills and other expenses for the animals in their care. You can donate money to specific, local senior dog rescue efforts highlighted in the resource guide in the back of My Old Dog, or you can opt to help to a nationwide program. For instance, the Grey Muzzle Organization does careful background checks and provides grants to effective programs that help older dogs across the United States. Grey Muzzle also donates orthopedic dog beds to shelters to get kenneled seniors off concrete floors. Another group, the White Muzzle Fund, is building an endowment to help support reputable senior-dog rescue organizations for years to come.

Helping a senior dog is such a great thing to do, and there are so many ways to do it. Please consider it. You’ll never, ever regret it.