It’s not easy to catch up with Judith Piper, founder and executive director of Old Dog Haven (ODH). She reschedules our first interview when one of her charges starts having grand mal seizures and another needs immediate treatment for glaucoma. The following week, she cancels when a tumor sidelines a pup named Pearl.
So, even before meeting the 15 mature dogs on Piper’s five acres north of Seattle, I have a pretty good idea that rescuing homeless seniors is a more-than-full-time vocation. What I’m not prepared for is how Piper—dressed in fleece, sweatpants and sneakers—gives herself fully to the moment. Talking about her work, she betrays no impatience. She introduces each dog: A Spaniel named Byron may have Cushing’s disease, a little black mutt named Jet has flunked out of several adoptions, a yellow Lab named Malik has Horner’s syndrome, a Cocker named Biscuit is “a little bastard” and so on, until I have stroked nearly every graying head.
Inside, the décor is “donated dog bed,” and everyone quickly settles onto a soft surface. Only one dog fails to join in the greetings. Off in the kitchen, a Terrier-mix named Snoop sleeps on a bed. He’s a recent arrival—underweight, with untreated dry-eye, ear problems, and terrible skin and fur. “I think he’s going to be a short-termer,” Piper says sadly. “He’s just not here.” She confides later that cases like Snoop’s, when she can’t provide even a few hours of real contact before death, are the most difficult.
Talking in terms of hours is not your typical rescue timeframe. But Old Dog Haven isn’t typical. It’s one of only a handful of organizations around the country that focuses exclusively on the unique challenges of old dogs. With the help of 148 foster homes and 62 volunteers up and down Western Washington, the three-year-old nonprofit provided placement assistance, assisted living and “Final Refuge” (hospice care) for as many as 400 eight-and-older dogs last year; about 85 percent are Final Refuge dogs.
Although Piper and her husband, Lee, who is a key collaborator in the organization despite a full-time job, always had space for rescue and shelter dogs in the past, it wasn’t until a few years ago that they became aware of the particular plight of old dogs. In 2004, a friend asked them to save an ailing oldster named Liza, who had been dumped at a shelter. In a loving home, Liza rebounded, and though she didn’t live long, she had some happy days. It took only a few more elderly shelter dogs for the Pipers to realize that it wasn’t all that rare for people to abandon an old companion, and to see that in shelters, these dogs were passed over for adoption. At some point, they looked at each other and said, “You know, this is the pits. They can’t be dying like this.”
Piper sold the tack store she’d run for 18 years to dedicate herself to the mission of providing quality of life for old dogs for as long as possible and then letting them go surrounded by friends rather than alone in a concrete cell. In 2005, news stories about her fledgling group drew calls for help from as far away as Florida. “Be careful what you ask for,” Piper says, as the dog in her lap—Alice, a 14-year-old deaf Schnauzer with four teeth—looks on adoringly with her only eye.
“She is an amazing person who has focused on a population that most would rather forget,” says Kathleen Olson, executive director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Humane Society, which operates the busiest shelter in Western Washington. Old Dog Haven rarely takes dogs from owners, although it will post notices on its site for owners who need to rehome old dogs. Mostly, ODH takes in those faring poorly at shelters or on euthanasia shortlists. As many as 75 Pierce County dogs find homes through Old Dog Haven each year.
“It’s hard to think about the hundreds of dogs who would have died in shelters by themselves if it hadn’t been for Judith,” says Ron Kerrigan, a longtime shelter volunteer on Washington’s Whidbey Island. He runs the ODH website (which is key to placement and fostering efforts) and serves on the board. He and his partner live with nine old dogs—including Calypso, who is blind and deaf.