Puppies are a bundle of fun, but there's a much older "puppy" who holds a big piece of my heart.
His name is Rocky, and he's a shih-poo (a shih tzu-poodle mix). He joined our family when I was still small (and he was even smaller -- he fit snugly in my cupped hands!), and he quickly became the baby of the house.
Rocky was there for every first day of school, every basketball game, my graduation (high school and college, both), and my first big move away from home. Whenever I visit my family in New England, I always look forward to reuniting with Rocky -- his ecstatic yapping at the top of the stairs, his excited little tap dance, and the funny way he clumsily clambers into my lap for warm nuzzles and wet kisses.
Nowadays, he's slower on walks and more inclined toward afternoon naps than games of fetch, but I think I actually love him even more now than I did when he was a puppy ... if that's possible. Pets -- or rather, our bond with them -- only get better with age.
You could say that Erin O'Sullivan is of a similar mind-set. She's the human behind Susie's Senior Dogs, a group that works to match otherwise overlooked elder dogs with loving human caretakers. Older dogs are so much more than their health hurdles, and Erin works hard to spread the message that there are myriad rewards that come with adopting a senior dog.
"Loving a senior is so easy!" says Erin. "But what I treasure about seniors -- and our senior, Susie, specifically -- is that they give you so much, but need very little in return. They are easily content and simply enjoy human companionship."
We asked Erin about tips to ensure your senior pet's health and happiness -- and the joys that potential adopters have in store.
When does a pet actually become a "senior"?
The age at which a dog becomes a senior depends on the breed. Of course there are exceptions to everything, but in general, smaller dogs tend to have longer life-spans than larger dogs. For example, a small Chihuahua won't reach seniorhood until much older than a large Saint Bernard. Seniorhood might start at 10 years old for the Chihuahua, whereas 5 or 6 years old might designate the start of senior life for the Saint Bernard. When considering a dog for a post on Susie's Senior Dogs, I take into account various factors that will make it hard for them to find a home. Their age is just one of them.
What are the typical behaviors of a senior pet?
Like aging humans, this all depends on each individual animal. Some older pets are very active up until their final days, while other seniors can quickly become slower even earlier on in their adulthood years. No two dogs are alike, of course, but we might generalize that older dogs typically lose their "wild and crazy" puppy behaviors as they age. However, senior dogs can still have a decent amount of energy, and even have excited, puppylike moments, but in a much more controlled manner.
In the many senior dog adoption stories we've read, the most common behavior coming from an older dog who recently found a home is a sense of appreciation and gratitude. They just seem to know that this new human in their life did them a favor -- if you can call it favor, senior dogs are a privilege to care for! -- by bringing him or her home at this stage in life.
How does a senior dog differ from a younger dog? What are the challenges? The joys?
There are different factors that can affect an older dog's energy level, but on the whole, they have a much more calm spirit than their puppy friends. I joke that the term "man's best friend" refers to an old dog. The image that comes to mind is the perfect relationship between a human and a dog -- where we imagine all of the good parts and forget all of the frustrating parts. Old dogs are typically past their young, frustrating puppy days, and they easily fit right into the role of best friend.
One of the top reasons senior dogs have a hard time getting adopted is because people fear having them only for a limited time. To some, this can be considered the "challenge" of senior dogs. However, bonding with a dog, especially an older dog, can happen almost instantly or within a short period of time. Whether we have a dog for 8 months or 8 years or 18 years, we're always going to want more time with them. Eight months can quickly feel like you've been together forever. And 18 years can go by in the blink of an eye. Time becomes blurred, and the attachment is all the same. But the joy that comes from giving an old dog a home is like none other. The feel-good emotion of knowing you gave an old dog a chance who might not otherwise have one is a joyful "high."
Old dogs give back a lot more to us than we might even begin to think we can give them. Another common misconception about adopting an old dog is that they will automatically have health issues. There is no guarantee that any dog is going to be free of health concerns. Even puppies who are adopted from "reputable breeders" are not totally exempt from medical conditions. Plus, there are so many homeless pets in need at the shelter that a person is almost certain to find the right fit dog for her or his lifestyle.
Our 15-year-old dog, Susie, adopted three years ago, has had very minimal health concerns. She does have a heart murmur that we keep an eye on, but this would be no different than if we had adopted her as a puppy. Also, we actively sought out an affordable veterinarian to keep the cost of routine vet visits down -- living in a big city provides many cost-friendly and quality vet care services.
Do you have any special tips for care?
It's important to be knowledgeable on the care of aging pets, but at the same time, it's just as important to not overthink things too much. At the end of the day, for the average old dog in average health, they simply need food, water, and love.
Beyond basic needs, I do believe diet is one of the best places to start. I have learned that keeping your dogs' weight under control as they age can be one of the most crucial elements of keeping them in overall good health. It's so easy to want to feed and give treats all the time, but you can easily treat a dog in various ways that are not food-related. (Don't get me wrong -- I could easily be found guilty of giving Susie too many treats, but I try my best!) Walks and active attention are very important as well, even if they are short and slow increments. Think of humans: The more active we stay as we age, both physically and mentally, the better it can be for our overall quality of life.
Above all, what do you think someone should know in taking care of a senior pet?
Adopting a senior dog is just one of those decisions you just have to make. Just go for it! And if or when a new experience arises, you will find a way to figure it out if you have the faith that you can.
It's pretty much like anything in life. We can sit and worry about something for the longest time that may or may not happen, but if it does, the actual event we worried about has a way of coming to pass or being figured out, and life continues. I mean this with the lightest of heart and with the simple hope that someone will be encouraged to adopt an older dog.