Why Adopting Senior Dogs Is The Best
By Katya Lidsky
You know that feeling you get when you go into a vintage store and the racks are packed with clothes? You don’t know if anything will work for you, but then you pick a few dresses because you like the patterns, because there’s something about the fabric, because they’re unique, and so you try them on? And voila! One of the dresses fits you perfectly, like it was made for you. Perhaps there is a wedding coming up or a big party and now you know what you’ll be wearing, what you’ll be dancing in, and it’s adorable. Nothing on it needs to be altered, there are no stains or broken zippers, but more than that it’s as if the dress was waiting for you all these years later. It’s as if this dress had to belong to someone else first because that was its journey, that’s why it has the vibe it has, that’s why it’s now perfect for you. It had to wait for the right time to find you, and you had to wait for the right time to try this on, and now you can’t imagine anything else you’d rather wear. There is nothing new you could ever buy that would suit you like this dress. If you’d come on another day, at another time, maybe it wouldn’t have been here, but you came today and you’re ready for this color, this style, this authentic life.
This is what it feels like to adopt a senior dog.
I am not saying, I would never say, that dogs are like dresses, mere things. They are, of course, sentient beings, alive, full of feelings and personality and individuality. But I am saying that taking in a senior dog is like finding someone you didn’t know you were looking for. Beyond breed or color, age or size, it’s the heart of them that will unfurl from a kennel to reach you. And so adopting a senior is saying yes to a feeling in the gut that pulls to you, and it’s trusting that feeling, trusting that it is a good thing.
In my home, in my family, we take in old dogs. Here are some of the best lessons we’ve learned from our rotating door of elderly dogs:
- I have found that it is a supreme act of love to honor this stage of a creature’s life. This is a phase where in order to survive and thrive, a dog can’t afford the luxury of wasting time or energy on the small stuff. In my experience, senior dogs come with a level of forgiveness that is in and of itself a Buddhist-monk-level lesson, a living, breathing lesson that creates a more generous mindset in me as it waddles throughout my house. As a family, fostering and adopting senior dogs has given us something to do as an act of service and it brings us closer together. My kids help me feed the dogs, walk them, make their beds.
- Are there times when it is difficult? When the dog presents challenges? Yes, of course. That is a natural part of it. There is always the first night or two when anxiety peaks and bedtime is filled with whining or howling as the new dog cries out: Where am I? Who am I supposed to be here? My husband doesn’t love it, but we breathe through it, we know that it will pass, and we sympathize with this being a scary, unknown time for our new senior friend. This is where we cultivate and grow our compassion. What a gift it is then, to feel and choose empathy. To build it like a muscle. Maybe it’s the only muscle we really need to build.
- Is it possible to teach an old dog new tricks? Of course! I think one of the biggest misconceptions about shelter dogs is the idea that once a dog has associations and habits they’ve practiced, that we have to just deal with them. That we’re stuck with them. But that is not true. Dogs are way cooler than that! They may have had associations and habits wherever they were before your home, but once they come into your home, you have the opportunity to prevent undesired habits and associations from being established, as if this old dog is brand new to the world. Because this is your world, and they’ve never been in it before, and they do not know the language, the customs, the vibe. And so you get a clean slate, a chance to tailor your associations, reinforce behaviors you prefer. You get the opportunity to show them how you’d like them to behave through your yes’s (without needing to focus on the no’s), and that’s why I always suggest erroring on the side of keeping it simple. Privileges are way easier to give later than they are to undo.
- If we keep this in mind, we won’t need to control our oldies through force. Because when we use coercion, what we’re really doing is teaching our dogs to avoid us, to opt out of life, to do things behind our back, or to push back. I’m not suggesting that punishment caused all the problems in the world, but when we buy into positive reinforcement, we do bond faster with our dogs and encourage them to work with us on developing a positive environment. This is how we can influence our old dogs while keeping them as our friends. What is amazing to me is how even the seniors who may have been punished, who may have been through a lot, they adjust anew. They pivot. They adapt. And it inspires me. Senior dogs inspire me. I hope to someday be as flexible to the changes in life as they are.
- They’re super cute. Like super, super cute. Moving pillows, that is the speed I need in my world. Me, who moves fast and always has a running list of things to do. Seniors teach me how to slow down, how to honor space for rest, and how precious it is for a body to need to rest and receive it. Old dogs are over the puppy stuff like chewing, nipping, and not knowing where to pee. They embody an energy of taking it easy, which is something I need modeled for me time and time again, preferably in the form of a smiley snout and wagging tail.
- Lastly, for the chance to make peace with giving another being peace as an act of supreme love, I value seniors the most. The very end is pure. The very end is honest. The very end makes me stronger. To be there, to offer dignity to a dog as they are escorted out of this world, it’s a lift in my center to hold that for somebody else with my eyes wide open. Death is nothing to make light of and I understand that many people hesitate to take in a senior dog because of this very point. But going closer to it, leaning in where it’s uncomfortable, has brought me more insight than almost anything else in my life. The nature of it, the sensation of standing in a goodbye, it is an honor to extend kindness to an animal when their time comes.
Nobody is perfect. Not even me. Not even you. Allowing an old dog to be who they are and accepting them for it, has each and every time brought out the best in the dog. I watch them bloom, my whole family does, and we benefit from the shift in atmosphere that happens when a new being comes into our space. We choose to look at them as additions, as beloveds, as examples, as messengers even. And we’ve never regretted it.
We feel great, my family, for taking in old dogs. So imagine me here in my vintage dress extending a hand to you, inviting you to come dance with me. Don’t sit this one out, don’t miss out, let yourself go. Because the music is wonderful, there is harmony, there is excitement. Twirl, enjoy it, and be free. You’re in the dress you were born to wear and you’ve never looked so beautiful.
Although we don’t specialize in vintage clothes around here, our hope is that when you put on anything Mutt Dog, you feel that good too, knowing the kind of person you are for loving a dog. Knowing we’re those people too.
Katya Lidsky is a writer, Life Coach for Dog People, and the co-host of The Animal That Changed You podcast. She lives in Austin with her human and furry family as well as an endlessly rotating cast of foster pets. www.katyalidsky.com