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.
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.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, come see Patricia for yourself and find out what I mean! From the Muttville posting:
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!
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?
Acknowledging, and appreciating, the unique companionship dogs offer humans is what sets us apart, individually and as a community. I also believe how we treat dogs reflects our culture, and our own humanity.
If you see a dog as your baby, than it's likely you'll care for them as a parent. With my dog, we treated her sometimes as a roommate, expecting her to contribute to the household, yet letting it slide when she left behind a mess after dinner.
What if you see dogs as roaming animals? While in Turkey last year, in some places I saw dogs tied up outside with, and without, shelter or water. They roamed city streets, sometimes wary and hesitant around people, while at other times a dog seemed quite comfortable being near strangers.
My experience in Turkey showed me that generally the Turkish people weren't cruel towards dogs, but they also were unlikely to bring a dog into their home as a companion. It was fascinating to observe and think about because, as you can see from the photo above, we Americans couldn't stop ourselves from getting close to the dogs, willing them to engage with us.
A compassionate response to the homeless pet population should include educating people about the joy found in writing the last chapter in the life of a senior dog. It should include supporting seniors for seniors programs, getting more communities to offer pet food pantries, and subsidized veterinary care for low income people.
Any of those would be helpful and constructive, real, ways to save dogs lives because you really care about dogs.
Today, under the category "animal lovers" I was surprised to read this: "People who really care about dogs pass by breeders and pet shops and save lives instead by adopting their best friends from animal shelters."
Simplistic, broad statements like this one are the worst, because they are shame-based. Do you really believe anyone who is shamed into an action has a positive experience? And wouldn't you want the act of bringing a pet into your life to be a positive experience so that it happens more than once?
What is the point of shaming someone into adopting a dog, if your goal is to get them to adopt their best friend?
There are a lot of dogs, and bicycles in San Francisco. I've seen both on BART. When you live in a big urban city, using public transportation makes a lot of sense. You can travel a great distance fast and cheap, but you have to give up personal space and share the bus, train or trolley with others.
I like this part. I enjoy experiencing the sights and sounds of it all, even when it makes me uncomfortable. It's real life. It's also temporary. When I read in the NY Times about dogs riding the subway in New York illegally, I thought about the dogs I've seen here on Muni.
"Aren't you the nice dog..." on the J Church, San Francisco, CA.
If the dog is well-behaved why should it be a problem?
Whether you're lonely, are overwhelmed by the cute dogs dressed in snuggly coats walking down the city street, or maybe it's the dogs dressed as Yoda at the Star Wars premiere, before you jump into pet pool grab a hot chocolate and consider these important questions.
Bringing a dog into your life can change you for the better forever, it did for me. Being prepared before you make the leap will set you both up for success, and if you decide you are ready to add a dog to your life, please adopt one from your local shelter or rescue.
Before you get a dog, ask yourself and your family these 15 questions:
What do I expect from a dog?
So often we have expectations about what we think life will be like with a dog and we set ourselves up for disappointment. Asking yourself this question will help you both in the long run.
When you think about it, we are not so different from dogs. And as I've experienced with my aging parents in the last years of their lives, there are overlapping priorities, behaviors, and desires between older people and older dogs.
November is Senior Dog Adoption Month, and a good time to draw a few dotted lines between what I learned from parents, and my beautiful senior dog.
Why do senior dogs matter?
When you push past transparent efforts to pull on a person's heartstrings, there lies a much bigger issue, and it's serious. Old dogs are still disproportionately found at shelters. Sometimes they end up there simply because their family passed away. Other times they are discarded. I believe if people knew what they were missing they would seek older dogs out. They would care. My experiences have shown that as a dog ages, they enter a precious stage of offering valuable life lessons to us humans.
What sort of life lessons can an old dog teach you?
I'll start with a big one. Compassion. In today's world, politicians and talking heads are telling you on 24x7 news channels that every homeless person is horrible and just waiting to rob you. Yes, crime is real, but no, not every homeless person is bad, just like dogs in shelters are not bad. What is lost under these sensational headlines is the compassion and empathy for homeless people and homeless pets.
Give older dogs a chance to share their wisdom. People of all ages can learn compassion and gain empathy from an old dog. And from my experience, when you take the time to engage at their pace, your days become richer.
Simple needs win.
The older you get the less stuff you care about. Easy walks and laid back days are in order. You are at an age when you value quietude, and a warm soft bed. Savoring quality over quantity is how my dog lived her final years. She showed me every day the value of slowing down and being in the moment. Spending quiet time with her helped me be more present with my mother. I was more attuned to how my mother was feeling, and when she needed to rest.
Shorter visits, earlier nights and smaller meals make up your day. Routines become more important as we age. I loved how my senior dog knew exactly when she wanted to go for a walk each afternoon, and I loved how my dad went to the same restaurant every Thursday. They both reveled in their favorite routes. I think my mom verbalized what my dog could not about preferring smaller more frequent meals.
We humans are not so different from dogs. All of these points I bring up are things I experienced with my own senior dog, and both my parents in the last years of their lives. As I move through middle age I'm already seeing my needs and desires shifting, along the same patterns. Being around them increased my empathy a thousand-fold for life as a senior.
Man and dog are social creatures who age, and most don't want to do it alone. People and dogs respond equally to affection and compassion. We all appreciate kindness.
The positive influence from caring about, and for, older dogs is something you don't want to miss! Pass it on!
Where I lived growing up, some girls were horse crazy, some obsessed with dolls, while I was nuts about dogs. Certifiable! I have my mother to thank for the early exposure to all things dog. As an animal lover since childhood, she would take her allowance to spend on riding and grooming horses on the outskirts of Seattle every chance she got. In 1969, after her youngest child began kindergarten, my mother became a dog trainer. She focused all her free time on dog training, showing our family dogs, and other dog-related activities for almost thirty years.
My mom recently passed away. Among the things she left behind for me was a scrapbook filled with images from her entire career as a dog trainer in Monterey County. It's impressive! She not only put her heart into her work with her students, but she also stood up in public, writing several letters to the local newspaper about important issues such as dog bite prevention and puppy socialization.
I remember her teaching evening obedience classes, but with a child's memory. Looking through this scrapbook, I realize now how much she really loved teaching, and how serious she was about setting the dogs up for success. She gave frequent homework assignments, and even used our dogs for demonstrations. She told me how her last dog, Magi, was practically raised in her classes. I never made the connection before but now I see that their special bond is why she understood so well my own closeness with my dog Cleo.
It continues to amaze me the positive influence a dog can have on our life. Knowing how Cleo helped me manage my introverted nature, I can appreciate how dogs helped my mother's similar tendencies. No wonder she was never in a hurry to remarry when she had such a wonderful animal companion. As a doberman, I bet Magi also made mom feel protected at night.
I didn't realize it back then but my mother tried to instill in me, and in her students, the notion that dogs will give fearlessly to you. When you have a dog she taught, it's your responsibility to provide them with a safe and loving environment, and to respect their doggy nature.
Thanks mom! I'm grateful to my mother for the early exposure to dogs. At an impressionable age, I learned not only how to be responsible for a dog but I also got a chance to experience the power of the human dog bond. That is a gift to any child, but especially so for an introverted one.
When did you discover your love, or special connection to dogs? Did you have a parent who recognized the positive influence of dogs early on?
I wonder how many people are surprised by the positive influence a shelter dog can have on them. It's Adopt A Shelter Dog Month and since my dog Cleo was adopted from our local shelter, the San Francisco SPCA, I thought I would share what the biggest challenge was and how she changed me.
Biggest challenge to choosing adoption of a shelter dog? Fear
For me, probably the biggest challenge of adopting a shelter dog was the fear. I was fearful of the unknown. You have to trust that the people running the animal center, the shelter, and the humane society are making sure the big dogs they offer for adoption aren't going to rip your face off while you sleep. Okay, that is a joke, but it kind of did cross my mind on our first night together because we chose to adopt a big Shepherd-Husky.
But you know what, I learned later on that being afraid is okay because I didn't let it stop me from acting. I am beyond thrilled that I chose to adopt a shelter dog. Look at us together!
How did adopting a shelter dog change me?
Choosing to not let my initial fear stop me from adopting Cleo, taught me about the power of trust. I learned how to trust my gut. I learned how to trust my relationship with my dog. I built on my history of love for dogs as a child, and forged a wonderful bond with this girl. Our life together and its many experiences changed how I viewed rescue dogs forever.
When we're ready, I will most certainly adopt a shelter dog again. And again. And again.