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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.
After making a career out of taking in dogs no one else would adopt (including more than a few “psychos”), Kerrigan’s switch to ODH’s Final Haven dogs has required a change of mindset. “We do it to give them a place to die in a loving home,” he says. “We don’t do it to have pets.”
On the other end of the Old Dog Haven volunteer spectrum is Lisa Black. She has two traditional rescues, plus a Final Refuge Pointer named Betty and an elderly mystery-mix foster named Lucy (for whom she finds a new home within days). Black lives and breathes the faith that these can be the best years of a dog’s life.
“They are easy,” Black says. “They’re usually housebroken. They don’t chew your stuff. If you want to take them for a walk, they’re ready to go. But if you want to hang out at home, they’re happy to do that too.”
Piper’s phone rings frequently, and during my visit, she lets the machine take messages. But when her cell phone sounds, she answers it. A new dog has been diagnosed with a grade-4 heart murmur. As the main contact for more than 130 dogs in ODH care, she is a seasoned sounding board and fairly expert on geriatric health.
“The great thing about Judith is that she has so much practical hands-on experience,” says Julie Nowicki, who volunteered for ODH before launching a national senior dog advocacy group, The Grey Muzzle Organization, in May 2008. Because Piper is so immersed, she is often a better judge of an old dog’s condition than many vets, according to Nowicki.
“By the time we get them, it can be years and years of neglect,” Piper says. Sometimes their guardians were too old to manage. Other times, aging pets’ special needs (and accidents) overwhelm their people both financially and emotionally. Unlike shelters, which vary greatly in the information they gather, ODH makes sure their dogs receive thorough checkups, blood and urine analyses, dental exams and treatment, and sometimes ophthalmology exams. The group has even financed open-heart surgery and eyelid lifts. Piper has a standing veterinary appointment every day of the week, and the organization’s bills can run $20,000 a month.
One-eyed Alice switches to my lap as talk turns to the future. Piper admits that the 18-hour days are catching up with her. Even as her organization has accomplished so much so quickly, she sees problems for old dogs exacerbated by the recession.
“Right now is a disaster,” Piper says. “I’m getting calls about every two hours from people wanting to surrender their dogs. At least half to two-thirds of those are, ‘I lost my house. I lost my job. I can’t keep my dog.’ It’s really hard—I get these people who are just hysterical, and I don’t have any more batteries in my magic wand.”
She has learned to say no. She has also had to counsel some people that euthanizing an old dog in the company of loving familiars is far kinder than dumping him at a shelter, where he will most likely be put down alone after days or weeks of stress and discomfort.
After a couple of weeks, I e-mail Judith to check up on poor old Snoop. I’m expecting the worst. “He’s actually doing better!” she replies. “Getting much brighter ... started eating everything in sight last week … seems to be enjoying himself … and gives tiny little kisses and tail wags every so often.”
It looks like there’s still a little power in her wand after all.
Illustration by Yvetta Fedorova