By Dan England
During the more difficult moments, Nikki Templeton’s grandmother still talks to her. It may be when Templeton’s four dogs bark around her bare feet as she stumbles to use the bathroom at 3 a.m., or, when a rare guest arrives to her Loveland mobile home and the cacophony of sharp barks from the short dogs make it hard to hear anything, let alone a hello. Or maybe when the vet finds something else wrong, or she wonders if her bank account will dry up when it already seems like just a trickle.
Templeton devotes her life to this mess because of her grand-mother Jackie, who always told her to treat others as she would want to be treated, which Templeton believes meant other beings, not just other people. That’s how she keeps her cool when people are difficult, or when the dogs swarm a prospective boyfriend, or when she thinks about being stuck in the cold, sharp climate of Colorado when Florida’s warm sun would soothe her creaky joints.
Plus, the seniors are old, and grandmother Jackie was old, too, and though Templeton just saw a loving relative, others saw an outdated device, like a flip phone.
Templeton, 37, runs Izzy’s Place, a senior dog rescue in Fort Collins. She married young and got divorced (and he’s still a supporter and adopter of senior dogs), and she has no children. She makes it clear to any suitor that the dogs come before anything, even, at times, her health. She was recently diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disease that causes chronic pain and fatigue, and she also has the related rheumatoid arthritis, but the dogs still come first. She repairs fiberglass as a job, but even then, the dogs may come first, as she finds herself at the vet a lot, both as the mother to her four canines and in her duties for Izzy’s Place.
Dogs can be wonderful, and senior dogs can be even more so. One of the four, Austin, is calm, well-mannered and loving, just like a submissive husband. Her others aren’t as much, but they will settle down once you’re on the couch and they’re done fighting over your lap, unless, of course, you need to get up, in which case that starts the whole barking process over.
But when the job isn’t fun—and any job leading a pet rescue home isn’t always fun—grandma Jackie’s voice is there. When someone brings in a dog because it sometimes loses control of its bowels, or because they don’t want to brush their dog’s teeth, or because they’d prefer a puppy instead of a dog they’ve had for 12 years, grandma reminds her to look at it as an opportunity for someone else to love a great dog.
Senior dogs are great, and rescue home directors aren’t just saying that to get rid of them. Senior dogs are popular. Yes, people still give them up, and yes, there are many who won’t adopt them, but enough people not only will adopt them but prefer them. Templeton has no problem finding adopters, and other shelters say the same thing.
But they do come with a price tag. Templeton probably spends nearly $1,000 on every dog before she believes it’s ready for adoption. Usually these are dental bills, but other problems include removing tumors, joint problems, back injuries, achy hips or cloudy eyes. There’s also significant upkeep, as seniors may require daily meds, massage and anal gland expression, which you don’t want described here. That’s one reason why she prefers to stay small. She has just eight foster homes, if you include her.
“We probably got 25 dogs last year,” Templeton says. “So that was cool.”
She has a dream of moving somewhere warm, as the cold air here hammers her arthritic joints, but she first needs to find someone as dedicated as her to run Izzy’s. That, she admits, will be a tough find.
Lifelong adjustments, even for just a couple years
Speaking of dating—remember, Temple-ton did discuss her love life a bit—Scott Gee likes to compare adopting a pet to dating.
“A lot of people go into it with good intentions,” says Gee, the new executive director of the Weld County Humane Society. “But you have to make adjustments.”
This seems to be a big reason why more people are attracted to senior pets, especially senior dogs. Many are willing to make some adjustments, but they may not be willing to, say, sacrifice a couch, or the carpet, or the cat, or just a good pair of shoes, and sometimes puppies require those sacrifices. Senior dogs, on the other hand, aren’t as demanding.
“It’s like matchmaking,” says Gee, who continues with the dating comparison. “Some of our clients who are 50 and above, they’re not necessarily looking for active dogs.”
Senior dogs’ personalities are usually set, so you know what you’re getting, and they are usually housebroken and don’t need long walks or hours of play to keep them happy (although they may hog your spare lap). All that appeals to older people.
“What you see is what you get,” Gee says.
Behavior issues, in other words, aren’t usually a reason why owners surrender their dogs. Sometimes they outlive their owners. Sometimes senior owners need to live in a nursing home where pets aren’t allowed. And all these reasons don’t include other problems such as divorce, losing a job or getting sick.
But many times, senior dogs are abandoned because of their health problems, and that’s when others with oversized hearts swoop in, says Brooke Bourgeois, director of operations at Weld’s humane society.
Those owners who are happy to take in dogs and cats for an animal’s sunset years have changed the way people think about senior pets. Senior pets still make up only 20 percent of the shelter’s population, so it’s hard to fill the demand for them, and there is a demand, even for those who know they can’t adopt another dog but want to help. Just the other day, the shelter got a note from someone who left money to pay for the adoption and care of two random senior dogs. Temple-ton also has donors who she can call to pay for expensive care.
“When I first started, an older cat with a heart murmur would be euthanized,” Bourgeois says, who has worked in shelters for a decade, including many years in the rough pet world of New Orleans. “But I saw a cat that had plenty of life left, and many others are now seeing that too. Just because an animal is 13—if they have life people want to help those animals. People go crazy over them. And if they have issues, like they’re missing an eye, or a leg, or teeth, even better. People love the underdog.”
Still, the tradeoff is Templeton’s home, at times, seems like a M.A.S.H. unit. One small black dog she calls Chicken Nugget came in a “hot mess” after living near rail-road tracks in Loveland and eluding animal control officers for eight weeks before they finally got her and brought her to Temple-ton because they knew she would care for her. It took eight surgeries to correct her and Templeton planned to foster her, but instead, she adopted her. She, like many in the rescue world, calls her a “foster failure.” She has two of those.
Her oldest, a dog she’s had for 14 years, has so many health problems that her vet wonders what’s keeping him alive. The answer appears to be his bossy spunkiness, as he will bark the loudest for a free lap (but also is the most willing to take in foster dogs and show them around, proving that all personalities are complicated).
Templeton knows health issues are a reason for some hesitation to take in a senior dog, and so she makes concessions that many other rescue organizations won’t, including paying for complications from known health problems even months after they’re adopted.
Weld County’s shelter hopes to start a so-called Fospice program, where owners agree to take pets for the last few months of their lives. There are people willing to do that, even if it means bawling their eyes out for a week after they die.
“They almost feel as if it’s their calling,” Bourgeois says. “They want to provide as much comfort and peace as they can. There were people we could call at my old shelter. They knew that was their purpose in life. I think people will eat this up.”
The shelter, in fact, believes the program to be a “good opportunity,” Gee says, to get the word out about other misunderstood dogs and possibly get them adopted, the way an opener for The Rolling Stones may get discovered.
But many senior cases are not that drastic. “Usually, they just need some dental work, and then they’re like a new man,” she says.
Some veterinarians specialize in advanced care for seniors. West Ridge Animal Hospital in Greeley offers care for chronic problems and pain associated with senior dogs, including a treadmill in warm water, massage and other treatments designed to add life to a pet.
Owners can help add years aswell by simply brushing their dogs’ teeth and making sure they get exercise and watch their weight.
Not all people discard their pets after they reach a certain age. One such patient is 17 and has had three back surgeries. But the dog’s tail still wagged when a stranger walked in the room.
“There’s so many things we can do,” says Rebecca Hubert, who owns the hospital with her hus-band, Colin Combs. “We typically get years more life, and they are happy years. I know this sounds funny, but I feel like they appreciate it more too.”
That seems to be true of Hubert, a10-year-old pit bull Amy Giffin and her husband, Dave Kerr, adopted from the Weld County Humane Society just a few months ago.
They went to see him at the shelter after their elderly Great Dane, Cecil, died after they adopted him four years ago. Giffin, of Westminster, grew up in Greeley and her parents still live there and gave her a call after spotting Hubert on the shelter’s website. Her folks knew Giffin wanted another senior dog.
“I was immediately in love,” Giffin says.
Her other two dogs were as well, and she brought him home. She has had a heart for seniors since she was 18, when she worked at the shelter and watched in dismay as workers there put down senior dog after senior dog.
“They were all very good dogs,” says Giffin, now 38. “I have always said I would give them homes when I could.”
They can now, even with three kids and two dogs, since they have a home and big hearts. Hubert has ear infections, and she gives him glucosamine for his arthri-tis, but he’s happy and healthy otherwise. She is prepared for the inevitable, but she doesn’t have to think about that for now.
“Right now, I’m sitting on the couch,” she says, “and he’s draped over me.”
Tips To Adopting And Owning A Senior Dog:
Many rescue organizations will help defray the costs of known issues, but make sure you trust the shelter to reveal all the health problems before you adopt.
Senior dogs will most likely need extra care, and some of that care will be expensive. Make sure you understand that and have the ability to meet the demands before you adopt.
Vets may be able to alleviate some of the discomforts of old age, and other times, simpler solutions such as dental work or exercise can add happy years to a dog’s life.
If you see a senior you want to adopt, act quickly, as they are popular.