Have you ever had that one dog? You know, a special dog who connected with you in a way none before them had? Thanks to the world of dog people that I occupy, I know that I am not alone in having this special experience.
My special dog got me to start a blog, and jump into social media as a dog advocate ten years ago. She showed me all the ways a dog could enrich your life, and that there is value of living in the present. Caring for and about my dog into and through her senior years, taught me patience and empathy for my aging parents.
With her passing, memories of our days together motivated me to get out of the house and down to Muttville Senior Dog Rescue this year. Each morning I'm there I get a dose of mutt magic, in exchange for doing their laundry, mopping and walks around Rescue Row.
For now, I'm content to care for them and help play matchmaker, but when I look in their eyes, I know that one of these days I will be ready to open my home to another dog. For now, I'm grateful to have this wonderful place in my town that lets me in the door every week, especially as I mark today, the two year anniversary of my dog's passing.
When you spend time with older dogs, it feels like you've been given a free meditation lesson. Hanging with Murphy here in the doggy loft at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, I literally could feel his soothing aura embrace me while I sat next to him on a bed.
Older dogs offer you something special, often intangible.
Dogs enrich our lives in a million different ways, at every age of their life, and ours. When I decided to start volunteering at a senior dog rescue, my goal was to physically help older dogs live the last chapter of their life knowing that they were loved. What I didn't realize until recently is that they are reminding ME that I am still loved. How did that life lesson sneak in here?
Is it the compassion I have for older dogs that inspires me to step up, and to try and make a difference in the quality of their life? I certainly know that when I get discouraged by the news, my mood is lifted after spending a few hours with a wise old face.
Offering a discarded older dog simple affection can be rewarded with a happy expression, like Pepper has in this photo. Have you ever made any dog smile? I get a shot of electricity from it!
Getting involved in the welfare of older dogs in my community is a tonic. It's a reminder that we can do something close to home, that can have a positive tangible impact. When I come home from Muttville Senior Dog Rescue each week, I feel like I've helped add to the positive column, that my actions have cancelled out some of the negativity in the world.
My Emotional Enrichment Program
Ensuring that an older dog will know they are loved during their final chapter is my goal. Every time a Muttville dog is adopted or joins a foster home, I feel so much joy. My life is enriched from the experience, and knowing they will be loved the rest of their life.
Having a senior dog in your life is the best. Mine helped me focus on the important things and to forget about the nonsense, the noisy distractions. Thanks to my dog, I found myself caring more about her wellbeing than any reality show on television. I spent more time searching for savory recipes to make her special dog treats with. She made the distracting noises from our busy city streets fade into the background.
She isn't physically with me now, during this disturbing presidential election season, but guess what? I found a calming environment at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue. These oldsters are exactly the right balance to the outlandish behavior on television and online.
Being with my older dog brought calm, and the rotating crew in the doggy are doing an amazing job at pinch-hitting for her! All I have to do is pop my head over one of the half-doors and say, "Good morning puppies! How did you sleep? Who wants to go for a walk before breakfast?"
The roles dogs play in our lives continues to grow and evolve. Millions of dogs are simple companions and best friends, while thousands serve as guide dogs, therapy dogs, and guard dogs. Their jobs often change over time, but one constant force they retain is their unique ability to positively influence us.
I have experienced the benefits from having dogs in my life at all ages. As a young girl, I felt a kinship with our family dogs. They were easy to understand, and seemed to understand me too. In all honesty, I felt closer to them emotionally than my own human siblings.
I especially remember spending quiet afternoons with Scooter, the patriarch of our crew of dogs. He taught me a lot about being still, and the power of empathy. That is one reason why when I volunteer at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, I love seeing the influence of the older dogs on visiting children.
"You don't seem like a Muttville dog, you are like a little puppy," she whispered.
A wonderful role these older dogs play is that of wise teachers. They are helping us raise compassionate children, often by just being themselves. The kids are learning empathy from their exposure to the world from the eyes of an aging dog.
Many city kids can't have pets. Their time spent quietly petting, or taking care of the senior dogs at Muttville allows them to experience the effect of caring for an elderly parent or grandparent. These dogs helps them see what it means to care about a live animal, rather than a stuffed one.
I've witnessed many moments, like the one above, when a young child reaches out selflessly to give one the senior dogs some gentle affection and appreciation for sharing their time. These dogs in the doggy loft are not caged so they are free to walk away from anyone, even a sweet little girl.
What is so wonderful being around these older dogs is their willingness to open up to the sounds of love.
They don't hold grudges for the turn in their life that caused them to end up at Muttville. Instead, they seem to grab the opportunity to show all of us how to let go, savor the little moments, and enjoy a quiet cuddle.
If you give them a chance, every older dog will give you their all. They are professionals at showing people of all ages what's so special about having an animal companion, and why senior dogs rule.
Does your community have a program where young kids can experience what it means to care for and about older dogs? How about older pets in general?
When I look at an old dog staring out of the window at the doggy loft, I see someone who understands loyalty. The older dog has experienced what it feels like to be a part of a team. They know what it means to be able to depend on someone. I sense they are feeling the loss and it breaks my heart. My compassionate response is to give that old dog all the love and affection they can tolerate, to show them that they weren't wrong to trust us. I feel compelled to step up and show them their loyalty is valued, even more than love.
Mandy is an old dog at Muttville who understands loyalty. I took her out for a walk one morning and her focus wasn't on peeing, it was finding a certain someone or their car. We race-walked down the street pausing at every, single, parked car. She determinedly sniffed each door and tire before moving down the row. I asked her repeatedly to please go potty, because it was nicer for us all if she did her business outside, rather than in the doggy loft among the other dogs. She ignored me. She had priorities.
I don't know many cocker spaniels but I do recognize loyalty, and what it means to be part of a team.
When I spend time with old dogs I always seem to come away with a new wisdom or reminded of a forgotten lesson. Recently I sat with a big old girl named Bridgett. Her quiet watchful gaze followed me around the room until I stopped mopping and came over. She had fit her large shepherd body onto a piece of AstroTurf along the far wall. I couldn't tell if she missed laying on grass or wanted a little private space.
Since her eyes were open I decided to go visit. I'm so glad I did. Bridgett lifted her sugar face up and calmly gazed at me. I took that as a green-light and sat down on the floor. We chatted.
When you look at an old dog, what do you see? Do your eyes go straight to any obvious deformities or unusual features, the grey muzzle, or white whiskers?
Is your focus on what they look like, or who they are? When I see an old dog my impression is built from the ground, up.
Starting at their feet, I'm checking out their mood and posture. Does their body language tell me that they want my company, touch, or attention? My first impression begins with their attitude. Like older people, old dogs don't have time to waste on stuff they are not in the mood for, and will not pretend.
If they prefer a nap to a walk, you know.
When my dog got into her old age years, I noticed. I listened to her creaky joints when she would get up from a nap. She would step out or off of one of her beds, then slowly stretch her long Husky Shepherd legs out behind her, until her toes flared. My eyes went wide in surprise, the first time I heard her joints make small popping noises like my toes do sometimes.
I had more firsts with her the next several years. Looking back now, I'm seeing her movement into old age through changes in my own body. Previously I had seen my 80 year old mother in my dog's aging process, now I see myself.
Volunteering at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue every week brings me in close contact with old dogs. All of my desire to help them get another chance at love and affection with a new family is satisfied by the end of my shift.
This week I had the unexpected additional pleasure of spending time with Patricia, a shepherd with the looks and personality of my heart dog who passed away almost two years ago.
Instead of feeling sad about my loss, or reminded of the hole she left behind, I felt joy. I felt gratitude for having some time with another dog who enjoyed my company so much she dozed off on my feet, and stuck close to me every chance she got. I even got a very sweet smile reminiscent of my angel girl. Her soft eyes and fur are an elixir and soothing balm to noises in the world.
Puppies are very cute, but I don't want one. Never have. Even when we had a litter of puppies during my childhood, they were sweet creatures but they couldn't hold my attention like our adult dogs. The older dogs kept my interest because I wanted so much to understand them better. I craved their respect and trust. The puppies were sweet blobs of unformed clay, while the adults were sharp intelligent animals.
Fast forward a few decades, and my Shepherd Husky refreshed my memory of why old dogs matter, and how they positively influence your life.
Now, volunteering at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, the mutts are sharing many reasons why we should care about them, and for them, more than ever.
During a vacation last year across Turkey, I had the chance to see stray dogs for the first time. They displayed their own unique way of hanging out, and engaging with people. The spaniel in this photo was an intact male who seemed to enjoy checking out various groups of tourists exploring the ancient Anatolian ruins of Perge.
Compared to other groups of foreigners, I think he was encouraged by our body language to get very close. I certainly welcomed him, even petting him for a few minutes. He decided on his own to lie in the shade with us, and listen to our guide talk about the baths for about ten minutes.
After returning to San Francisco, I realized that I had witnessed what it must have been like for dogs thousands of years ago. These stray dogs displayed a desire to be near people, even if the people showed little desire to have them close by.
This spaniel wasn't unusual, the stray dogs at the many UNESCO sites we visited sensed that we were people who responded positively to their overtures. Neither side was threatening. How they chose to engage varied. Some came in close for physical affection, while others were content at lying near us in a relaxed and trusting manner.
As a dog lover, watching how other tourists and visitors responded to the roaming dogs, one can appreciate why these dogs had to be cautious around people. I saw some tourists and locals reacting badly to a dog's presence near their shop or just walking down the street.
It was obvious the dogs were trying to survive in a place where they weren't always abused, just mostly ignored or tolerated.
I did not see pet dogs, but at a rural cultural and educational center, there was a puppy and an older deaf Beagle being cared for as part of their property. They lived outside in dog houses, or freely wandered the property. They were definitely members of the group who ran the premises, interacting freely with them. They were not chained up.
Experiencing dogs who belong to a place rather than a person was a first for me. Having that experience set inside ancient communities made it easier to image the evolution of dogs over thousands of years.
How (and when) dogs become members of our family definitely depends on culture and country.
This trip showed me firsthand that dogs are incredibly adaptable creatures! But from my perspective, once you've experienced the joy and companionship of a dog, anything less is unacceptable.
- Sharon Castellanos
Have you experienced dogs who belong more to a place than a person?
You would expect a big dog to move through your house like a bull in a china shop. I've been around noisy, gregarious Labradors who thunder from the kitchen to the yard, back through the sliding glass door until crashing onto a couch. Why? Because someone they knew drove up the driveway.
On the flip side, I grew up with Dobermans who could be light on their feet, if they wanted to. As a teenager I played a few games of hide and seek with Zorro, and lost not to his incredible sniffer but his stealth. He actually snuck around the couch from the opposite side before I heard or saw him.
After reading a new Scientific American post, "Who's Better at Sneaking Around: Dogs or Teenagers?" by Julie Hecht (@Dogspies), I got to thinking about my big Shepherd Husky girl.
Over the course of our life together, her physical presence was always large than life, but could also be quite silent. At young adult, our return home was greeted by her racing up to poke us in the stomach, followed by her jetting down the hallway to jump on our bed so hard the mattress and bedding slid two feet. She'd proceed to gallop back to the living room until her body hit the couch hard enough for it to slam into the windowsill.
She did this particular greeting for about three years, long enough that we were shocked when she ever so quietly took a piece of cheese off a plate. In front of us.
Until that moment I didn't think our dog knew the word subtle.
Our 85 lb. Shepherd Husky pawed, poked, bumped and jumped her way through the day. That afternoon when she flowed smoothly by the coffee table with the cheese and crackers on it, nipped the cheddar slice, and tiptoed her way into another room like a jewel thief, I was shocked!
I also couldn't stop laughing, at myself. Boy, did she just show me what it means to "assume" wrongly about a dog. Later that night, we added another nickname for her, kitten feet.
~ Sharon Castellanos
Is your dog a cat burglar or a stomp the yard type?
The joy I find in being around dogs is immense. We speak the same language. Their way of processing life around them is a wonder to behold, and the old dogs in particular inspire me. I love watching them problem-solve. That is one reason I went to Muttville Senior Dog Rescue last weekend to become a hands-on volunteer.
If you are new to Grouchy Puppy or my dog blog, you may not know that I live in San Francisco and have been involved with Muttville for many years. I discovered them when I was looking for a local animal nonprofit who stood out in their focus, and results. With my own dog at the time a beautiful senior dog, I was hooked by Sherri's commitment, and impressed by her success finding old dogs homes. Six years later, Muttville is a model for rescues across the country!
Why become a volunteer now?
Dogs need manners. All dogs need to understand basic commands for their own safety, whether they live in the city or country. Our front door faced the street. One of the first commands we taught our new dog was "wait", to prevent her from dashing out after another dog, or the man in brown into the busy avenue and possibly a car.
I believe strongly in reward-based training. It was clear from the start our dog responded to positivity more than aggression or dominance. Her strong desire to be with us, and her obvious delight when she pleased us was mutually rewarding.
"It is more parsimonious to interpret dogs’ behaviour as if they were simply trying to maintain access to essential resources, perhaps the most important being, uniquely for this species, access to one or more human attachment figures."
As my friend Debbie Jacobs (FearfulDogs.com) reminds us regularly, dog training is a unregulated industry. Therefore, I was glad to read the Psychology Today article, "Dominance" in Dogs-Again, by John Bradshaw, Ph.D.
In addition to the wonderful quote above, Dr. Bradshaw explains clearly why, in my view, we do a great disservice to dogs, writing:
“So it is suggested that Dominance Theory, when applied to dog training, may serve as a self-reinforcing hypothesis: by using physical force, the owner elicits an aggressive response from the dog, which in turn is interpreted as a sign of dominance; alpha-rolls and other forms of physical confrontation may actually increase the risk of an aggressive responses from the dog”.
The dogs of today don't need to be dominated to learn how to be a wonderful companion. At a minimum, dogs want companionship, even the street dogs of Turkey I met wanted access to humans in a comfortable format.
Teaching a dog basic manners doesn't have to be through aggressive techniques. We can do better. Positive reward-based training allows you to show a dog why it's worth it to listen and learn from you. It worked for us.
- Sharon Castellanos
What about you, do you trust the accuracy of Dr. Bradshaw's canine science?