By Bill Marshall
A version of this article was originally written for the Greyhound Rescue West of England newsletter around 2004. It is included here because it is still very much relevant and hopefully may serve as inspiration.
I have often heard it said that the older a dog is, the more difficult it is to rehome. This may well be true since a new owner can be reasonably assured that a young dog has many years ahead of it to look forward to. This is an understandable attitude but for these dogs unfortunate enough to be a little bit older, the prospects of finding a new home may be bleak. However, I have found that rehoming an older dog who has a less than even chance of finding suitable care has its own, very special rewards.
Our latest dog Flynn, is 10 years old, having found his way to the rehoming kennels after his previous owner moved abroad. When we first saw him, it seemed that his immune system had failed, he walked with a limp, his teeth were in a terrible state and his coat was dull and tatty looking. He was faring very badly in the kennel and wrecked his living space on more than one occasion. Quite simply, he was steadily going downhill. It was obvious that this old boy wasn’t long for this world unless something was done. In fact, the vet gave him about a month to live.
GRWE were about to move him to another kennel because of the anticipated need for specialist veterinary care. Due to the circumstances involved in this move, we offered to look after him for a day or two until transport to the other kennel was arranged. This was a major turning point for both us and the dog. Within a few hours of arriving at our home, he appeared to be very comfortable with the surroundings and seemed to get on well with our other three younger dogs, even though we were told that he didn't get on well with other dogs at all. It was then that we had to face the guilt of knowing that we had to let him go in another day’s time just when he was probably beginning to think that he had found a new home.
It is very easy for people to say, “but it’s only a dog”. I pity these people because either they have never experienced the emotional attachment and mutual love that comes with owning a dog or that they lack basic compassion in any form. When we put Flynn to bed that evening, his eyes seemed to say “Thank you” and his entire attitude was one of being grateful. This made things so much harder because we felt very strongly that to let him go would almost be like sending him to his death. Of course, in reality it would not be quite like that but nevertheless, these feelings were very strong since we knew just how depressed he was with this whole kennel idea.
The next morning did nothing to diminish the feelings of the night before. After agonising for several more hours, it was clear that Flynn had to stay. It would have been cruel to move him on yet again. The prospect of high vet bills were an unpleasant aspect to the decision and we dealt with this by convincing ourselves that the satisfaction of being able to give Flynn comfort in his remaining weeks would far outweigh any financial considerations. In our own way, therefore, we made Flynn aware that this was now his home and that he wouldn’t be going anywhere else.
Within a couple of days, Flynn seemed to sense that this was his home now and further, he appeared to be even more grateful. Don’t ask me to explain why we felt this. Most dog owners can sense this kind of thing and are equally at a loss to explain it. I suppose it is a sort of emotional bonding, very real but undefinable. These feelings were reinforced when we decided to make him really feel at home by buying him a new bed. In fact, we bought new beds for all four of our dogs so that no-one felt left out and to give Flynn a sense of belonging to the new pack. This was a very expensive exercise for us but completely echoed the way we felt at that time.
When we took Flynn to our own vet to hear the bad news about the costs of treating his conditions, the vet seemed to think that his walking with a limp was a result of a very old injury and that he certainly was not in any pain. Although nothing could be done, Flynn’s leg didn’t seem to bother him. Because of the way his paw came to rest when standing, his pads were being splayed a little wider than normal. If he got a cut between his pads, it could take longer to heal because of the constant tension on it. In other words, nothing very serious at all and nothing to worry about. The vet was also not convinced that his immune system was beyond repair and Flynn was given the appropriate tablets. He was given a thorough examination and we were also pleased to learn that he had a good, strong heart. An appointment was also made to get his teeth looked at.
After a week or two, it was clear that something was happening with Flynn that we hadn’t expected. His immune system seemed to be fine again, and his coat had lost its scruffy appearance and was beginning to look much better. Because of his new feeding regime (a mixture of hard and soft food), his teeth were beginning to look much cleaner. When we took him along for his dental appointment, we were very pleased to find that nothing needed doing. His teeth were healthy enough and his new diet ensured that they were gradually being cleaned of their own accord.
Flynn is a different dog now from the one that we took in about three months ago. His coat is shiny, he is full of life and is very affectionate. Far from the prospect of him not being far from death’s door, he looks all set to go the full term. In fact, he is thriving. The anticipated large vet bills never materialised and he is a wonderful addition to our “family”. Above all, there is a very personal sense of having been totally responsible for the changes in the dog. This gives one an extreme sense of satisfaction though I do not mean this in a selfish way. This was a dog that had few prospects in life who was given this chance and has never caused us ever to regret the decision. As I tried to explain, he appears to realise this himself and we know he is grateful. This feeling is much, much more intense than one gets with rehoming younger dogs. Whatever happens in the future, Flynn’s few remaining years are going to be happy ones for him. The pleasure one gets from being able to make this possible cannot be put into words.
So should one consider taking on an older dog in preference to younger, fitter specimens? Absolutely. The down side, of course, is that you will not have the dog for as long as you would perhaps like but these old folks seem to be able to compensate their owners in ways which younger dogs simply don’t know about. The few months or years you may have will quickly become very special knowing that it is you who made it possible. Again, this sounds selfish but it is a very good reason to be selfish. The emotional rewards are so much higher. One look into Flynn’s eyes tells all. Something also tells me that other, older greyhounds would provide a similar story.
Please consider rehoming an older dog with the same thought as you would give to the younger ones. Despite initial appearances, an increased amount of care or expensive vet bills may not be necessary. Given the normal amounts of love and attention, the old dog that you look at today is probably going to be very different to the dog he or she will turn out to be, and in the nicest possible way. They are old enough and smart enough to return love and affection in a very special way and believe me, this has to be experienced and simply cannot be described.
Postscript 1: Updated September, 2007
Although a little bit whiter in the face now, old Flynn is still very much with us. He spends most of his days loafing around on the sofa and has become very set in his ways. Yet, every time we think that he is finally on the decline, he bounces about like a dog half his age, has taken to ‘speaking’ in that wonderful solitary ‘woof’ tones that are basically advising us that a trip to the field is long overdue. He still runs around in the field although at his own pace, snouting everything and continues to invoke utter terror on the local rabbit population.
Flynn had a toe amputated about a year ago. This seemed to improve his limp considerably. We should have had this procedure done a long time ago since it has so obvioulsy helped him. The only real medical concern we have had to face was when he starting to get extremely distressed, especially when going to the toilet. It all happened very quickly and I remember lying with him in the middle of the night as he lay panting rapidly. These things always seem to happen in the middle of the night. I felt so helpless. I honestly thought that this was the end. Anyway, the vet said that it was nothing more than infected anal glands and he would be fine. That is the news that I like to hear, and so it was that after a few hours, you would not have known that there had been any crises at all. Just to be sure, we had his blood tested but everything was fine.
So, Flynn has turned out to be a super old dog who justs blends in with the rest of our pack. He has his habits such as requiring an hour with ‘mum’ on the bed before retiring for the night and in fact, if you break this routine, he does not let you forget it.
Overall, Flynn has been less trouble and has had less vet bills than any of our other dogs. Strangely enough, he also seems to become fitter and more active with each passing year. You would be tempted to think that he is actually getting younger, not older. Of course, this is just an illusion but overall, it is very very satisfying to look back knowing that Flynn’s last years are most probably the best days of his life, where he never wants for anything and receives all the love and affection he needs. He is 15 now, and I do hope that he still has a lot of time ahead of him.
I hope that the above story serves as an inspiration to everyone who is considering taking on an older dog. Things may not be as they seem, and by taking a dog from a kennel or temporary foster home into your home then by applying the usual love and attention, you may see a pleasant transformation that you couldn’t even imagine at the beginning. One thing is for certain, you will quickly get the feeling that the dog is earning your affection. This makes it all so worthwhile…
Old Flynn eventually passed away peacefully welll into his 16th year. Of course, his loss was (and still is) deeply felt but it was also satisying to know that he had a full life. From what seemed like a situation where we were just trying to make him as comfortable as we could for his final few weeks, we got six extra years of healthy and trouble-free companionship from him. I still believe that this was made possible simply by extending love to him, including him in all dog-related activities and making him feel like he really belonged. Thinking back, it was actually quite distressing to see that, in the beginning, we even had to teach him how to play with a toy. But he soon learned and in no time at all, furry objects were being thrown around the room as he learned the meaning of fun.
Above all though, Flynn gave us a different perspective on owning a greyhound. He provided a situation which showed that even the older dogs have as much, if not more, to offer than some of the younger ones. Even more than that, he imparted in us the feeling that he really loved his new family and not once did we ever have cause to regret our decision to keep him.
The experience with Flynn also taught us to be unconcerned as to the age of any dog who we choose to rehome. Similarly, it has given us a particular fondness for black dogs, who unfortunately are incomprehensibly overlooked by some potential owners. Although we were financially better off back in these days too, the expected expenses regarding Flynn's healthcare never materialised. What actually transpired after we adopted him turned out almost to be the opposite of all expectations. Overall, it was an extremely rewarding experience indeed.
So, who would want an old dog? I firmly believe that most potential owners who expect their pets to love them would not only be highly delighted with what these older folks have to offer but would also experience a new and very pleasant perspective on just what it means to own a greyhound.
I raise a glass to dear old Flynn, who gave so much and asked for so little.