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The Special Bond of Older Dogs and Older Owners

Money-saving 'Seniors for Seniors' pet adoption programs are gaining popularity


When Barbara Castleman and her husband visited an animal shelter in Albuquerque, N.M., several years ago, they were surprised to find a purebred toy Australian shepherd available for adoption. While it would have cost them thousands of dollars to purchase such a dog from a breeder, 10-year-old Stella’s pet adoption fee was only $40 because she was a “senior” — and Castleman received an additional $10 discount because she herself was over 50.

“Best of all, before taking her home, the shelter vet asked if they could give her a free dental exam, saving us hundreds of dollars. Imagine, for what we’d spend on lunch out, we’ve gotten years of unconditional love and companionship,” Castleman said.

Stories like these are popping up around the country as shelters and rescue organizations implement so-called “Seniors for Seniors” programs. The idea is simple: discount or waive adoption fees for older adults who want to adopt pets aged 7 and up. Some organizations even cover medical bills for vaccinations, surgeries and dental care prior to adoption. In addition to the financial incentives, senior dogs can make ideal companions because they are typically housetrained and need less exercise than puppies.

Supporting Senior Pet Adoptions

Lisa Lunghofer, executive director of The Grey Muzzle Organization, a nonprofit that awards grants to rescue groups to support senior pet adoptions, said that in a recent survey of grant recipients, two-thirds of respondents noted that older adults are the most open to adopting senior dogs.

“Seniors for Seniors programs are such an exciting trend because they are making a life-changing, and often a life-saving, difference for both older dogs and older people,” she said.

Ashley Zeh, associate director of communications for Lollypop Farm, Humane Society of Greater Rochester in Fairport, N.Y., said that although November is the ASPCA’s Adopt a Senior Pet Month, her organization has offered a Seniors for Seniors program year-round for a long time. The open-admission shelter, whose staff cares for over 10,000 animals each year, waives the adoption fees for pets aged 6 and older for people aged 60 and older who are adopting them. The dogs and cats are spayed/neutered, vaccinated, de-wormed, microchipped and given dental care. In 2016, Lollypop Farm re-homed over 200 pets through the program.

“Senior [pets] have so much to offer, but they have hard competition with those cute little kitties and puppies. So we just provide a little extra incentive,” said Zeh.

Because those personalities have already developed, potential adopters can know what to expect from each animal and find an ideal fit for their home.

“If they want to snuggle up on the couch or if they want to go on a six-mile walk, they’re not going to change their minds anytime soon,” Zeh said. “It’s really looking at the individual animal and your lifestyle and making the right choice for both of you.”

Benefits of an Older Dog

Cheryl Rakich, founder and president of Almost Home Dog Rescue of Ohio, said her nonprofit rescues collies, shelties and mixes from high-kill shelters in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Through the nonprofit’s Senior to Senior Foster Homes program, people aged 55 and up can become “permanent fosters” for dogs aged 7 and up. To remove financial barriers, the organization covers all costs associated with the care of the dogs, including food, treats, monthly heartworm and flea medication, three trips to a professional groomer each year and veterinary expenses.

While some potential adopters worry it would be “too sad” to adopt an older dog, Rakich, a 63-year-old with a beloved 14-year-old sheltie, suggests looking at the bigger picture.

“Step outside of your comfort zone and just look into the eyes of this dog and realize that you are going to benefit deeply by giving this a chance,” she said.

Laura T. Coffey, author of the bestselling book My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts, agrees. During research, she interviewed over 100 people from across the country about adopting senior dogs and didn’t meet a single person who regretted their decision.

“They all said they would do it again,” Coffey said. “People get hooked on it. It’s such a meaningful thing to do, because you know you’re making such a difference in the life of an animal who otherwise may have run out of options.”

The Bonds of Companionship

Some rescue organizations focus not only on senior pet adoptions, but on retention programs to help older owners keep their pets in their homes.

Laura Oliver, president and medical director of Lionel’s Legacy Senior Dog Rescue in San Diego, Calif., said her nonprofit’s “Keeping Pets Home” program helps older people with financial difficulties by covering veterinary costs for their pets. (A complementary program, “Always Home,” pledges to take in pets who ultimately outlive their owners; one current human participant is 104 and enjoying the company of a mixed-breed dog named Layla.)

“There are situations that require a little more effort and work on our end, but to be able to give them that companionship is just incredible,” Oliver said. “It’s like a gift back to us.”

Tomzie Greer, 54, said she started paying for her dog Starlett’s medication instead of her own before reaching out to Lionel’s Legacy. She was overjoyed when the organization paid for her “baby’s” heart surgery. Starlett has since passed away, and Greer is determined to adopt a senior dog when she can.

“With puppies, you have to be on your toes,” she said. “The older ones are more seasoned, like I am.”

Ultimately, Seniors for Seniors programs celebrate the special bond between people and pets.

Mellinda Phillips, 68, said she and her husband adopted Abby, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever, through the Seniors for Seniors program at La Plata County Humane Society in Durango, Colo., earlier this year. Now Abby joins them on road trips and “helps” with upkeep on their farm.

“Abby felt like family immediately. It was as though we have had her since she was a pup,” Phillips said. “We are so happy we found such a wonderful companion.”

By Jen Reeder
Award winning journalist Jen Reeder is president of the Dog Writers Association of America. She shares her home office with two senior dogs, Rio and Peach.

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