An old dog gets a second chance

October 24, 2012  

Oak Hill’s Canine Center for Training and Behavior gave Xena a free evaluation and discounted classes (which she proudly graduated from) to help her adjust to her new life.

by Ann Fowler

Xena had only hours to live. The old dog sat shivering and scared at the Town Lake Animal Center (TLAC) on that frigid January day, a dog nobody wanted. What had she done to incur a death sentence? It was not what she did, it came down to what she was: an old, large-breed dog requiring too many weeks of medical care to become presentable to potential adopters.

The city of Austin does what it can for homeless pets with limited funds. On New Year’s Day, animal control officers investigated the report of a neglected dog in a resident’s backyard. Recent temperatures had dipped into the teens, and the 9-year-old German Shepherd mix was missing much of her hair due to non-contagious mange. It would be easily cured with medicine. The owner was told to get the dog medical help or give her up.

Did he know she had little chance of finding a new home at her age? Did he care? He handed her over to the animal control officer.

At the shelter, the dog was given a Bordetella vaccine. Three days later she was on the city’s doggy death row.

In fiscal year 2008, Austin euthanized nearly 10,000 pets, giving it a 45 percent euthanasia rate. In October 2008, a new rescue organization, Austin Pets Alive! (APA!), pulled 65 pets from the city’s death row. By the end of that fiscal year, APA! had rescued  1,783 animals, decreasing the city’s euthanasia rate to 31 percent. At that point Austin was working to become a “no-kill” city.

APA! does not accept pets from the public. Instead, it works as the last chance lifeline for local shelters like the Austin Animal Center (formerly TLAC). Ironically, APA! now works out of the Town Lake facility since the city moved its animal center to the east part of town.

In January 2010, the city euthanized 316 animals. Xena was one of the lucky ones. She was one of 185 plucked from death row by APA! A woman named “Andy” said, “I picked her up from TLAC originally; she was frightened but so anxious to make a connection with someone.”

That wish for a connection may have saved her life.

APA! looks at every animal on the euthanasia list to save those that deserve a second chance. At any given time, approximately 25 percent of the dogs rescued by APA! are in the “senior” category. For larger dogs that age could be 5. Smaller dogs might be seniors at the age of 9. Older dogs become homeless for a variety of reasons: a change in the home environment (new baby, allergies), death of the owner, a change in schedule leaving no time for the dog. Or, like Xena, neglect or abuse.

APA! makes videos of each pet so that potential adopters can review them online. The video for Xena showed a dog devoid of spirit or energy. She was lying in the APA! yard, a blanket keeping her warm. She briefly lifted her head, presumably in response to someone talking to her, but she could not hold it up for more than a few seconds. The photos posted of her showed a dog smiling despite missing fur over much of her body.

Who could possibly love this dog? Who would take a chance on adopting an older dog?

APA! has faith in the people of Austin. For each pet they take in, they believe a forever home is right around the corner. While many folks come to the facility looking for a puppy, there are those who want a companion without the time and energy required in training a puppy. Some don’t know what they want, but make a connection at the facility—sometimes with a senior or special needs dog.

And so it was with my sister and I. We went to the APA! facility on January 22, 2010, looking for one thing: a sweet old gal who needs a break. This was in tribute to our 16-year-old dog who died six months earlier.

We had been shown a couple of six-year-old dogs, both sweet and energetic, but they didn’t seem to be the right fit. The staffer listened to us talk about our previous dog, and that we were good with old dogs.

The day was sunny, with many of the dogs enjoying the day in their outdoor pens. The staffer asked if we might be interested in an older dog, one still taking medication for a variety of temporary illnesses. One who looked funny right now due to a lack of fur, but much of it had grown back in the three weeks at APA! And so we met Xena.

She still needed several weeks of medication. The staff was hopeful that all her fur would return. She was thin and painfully shy, walking up to staffers sitting in the yard with her head so far down it seemed impossible that she could even see who she was approaching.

Summer Huggins, one of those staffers, said, “There was a group of us sitting out in the yard and talking the day that you and your sister were walking Xena, and I for one was hoping we were seeing magic happen when y’all were spending time with her.”

It soon became clear to us that not only was this dog neglected (no fur, 10 pounds underweight), but she had been abused as well. For months if we touched her when she was not expecting it, she would yelp and run into the next room. She would not let us touch her ears, her feet or her belly. She is fearful of water coming out of a hose.

We do not know who was cruel to this dog, or why, but we are happy to provide a safe harbor for this sweet old gal’s final years. We have given her ample time to feel comfortable and safe with us, to trust us.

Milestones for us are unique to this dog: the day she let us approach and pet her while she was lying down, the day she let us hold her paw to remove a thorn, the day she passed up food on the street (a slice of pizza) without feeling the compulsion to grab and eat it.

We were not abandoned after the adoption. APA! checked in to see that we were all adjusting well. PetSmart gave us a discount for basic training. Oak Hill’s Canine Center for Training and Behavior gave Xena a free evaluation and discounted classes to help her adjust to her new life.

This old dog has learned to sit, to lie down, to turn in a circle. And we discovered this old dog loves to swim.

When Canine Center trainers noticed she didn’t react when her name was called, we gave her a new one: GiGi (for Good Girl).

We have found no bad habits that would lead anyone to abuse this dog. She is indeed a sweet old gal. As we watch this old dog snoozing in the living room, safe and happy, it gives us a sense of joy that I think only comes with rescuing a senior or special needs dog. I highly recommend it.

Finding homes for grey muzzles

It is still October, and October is Adopt a Shelter Dog month. Groups across the country and across the world are working to make sure older pets are not overlooked. Locally, Austin Pets Alive! are among groups rescuing dogs of all ages, including seniors. Others make seniors a priority.

The label of senior can depend on the size of the dog. Larger breeds can become seniors at the age of 5. Smaller breeds might not be seniors until the age of 9.


Muttville (

Located in San Francisco, Muttville was started by Sherri Franklin, who told the Gazette, “After volunteering at animal shelter for years, I watched and my heart ached for the older dogs that came into the shelter, many coming from homes where someone had passed away and others given up due to their age. Most of them giving up hope and getting passed over for adoption while the younger dogs got adopted. I knew something had to be done. I started by taking home one dog at time, cleaning them up and finding them homes. Then I started Muttville, Senior Dog Rescue.”

Muttville creates better lives for senior dogs through rescue, foster, adoption and hospice. In five years, nearly 1,500 dogs have gotten what Franklin calls “a second chance at love.”

Franklin added, “Senior dogs do not belong in shelters, they deserve a warm loving place to spend the rest of their lives. They are so easy and so willing to give themselves over to a loving home, too. What I hear from our adopters is that they will only adopt seniors from now on. Many of our adopters have adopted from us more than once! Once you have spent time with an older dog, it’s hard to go back to a puppy ever again!”


Senior Dog Haven & Hospice (

Having just formed this past June, this organization serves Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey and has already rescued 23 dogs. The four founders each have 10 to 15 years of experience in senior rescue.

Co-founder Diane Mercure said, “Senior dogs should not be in crowded, loud, cold, cement shelters. We saw their need and wanted to help. There are numerous benefits to adopting a senior: they are already housetrained, they are past the chewing phase, they don’t require a lot of exercise and they are calm and laid-back. They know they have been saved — you can see the relief and gratitude in their eyes. There’s nothing more rewarding then seeing them curled up and sleeping contently on a soft bed.”

The group sees to it that senior dogs that are terminally ill or too frail to adopt will spend their final days in experienced and loving foster homes.


The Oldies Club (

Senior pet rescue is not only a concern here in America. Britain has an organization founded in 2005 called The Oldies Club. The group has rehomed 514 dogs. Co-founder Amy Jones said the inspiration came from an Internet chat forum. She told the Gazette, “The initial inspiration behind the idea was a 13-year-old collie we called Ted. Ted was blind in one eye and was terrified in the noisy, stark pound environment. He had to stay in kennels as a stray for 7 days but when no owner came forward to claim him, steps were taken to get Ted into a domestic situation immediately. Once in a foster home Ted thrived, the skinny dull-coated nervous boy became a healthy, active and rejuvenated character and became a star of the Internet.”

His story generated not only support and sympathy but many offers of a loving home. Thanks to Ted, hundreds of older dogs have found forever homes.


Grey Muzzle (

Grey Muzzle does not find homes for senior pets; it provides funding for organizations that do. The funds are raised through public donations and distributed annually through grants after careful evaluation.

Gaynor Fries told the Gazette that Grey Muzzle provided a grant to Central Texas Dachshund Rescue to support four Dachshunds in hospice care. A grant to the Permanent Foster Program of the Golden Retriever Rescue of North Texas helps dogs whose medical issues make adoption impossible.


The Canine Center for Training and Behavior (

Once a senior has found a new home, training can be important in helping the rescue adjust to her new life. Shari Elkins of The Canine Center for Training and Behavior (TCCTB) evaluates all rescues, senior or not. Of one older rescue she said, “She wanted to make contact with people, she just didn’t know how. She was not afraid of people themselves, she was afraid of the interaction. I honor dog’s space and communication, moving slowly in a way that promotes trust. Gigi was then able to trust that I was not there to hurt her.”

Although they see rescues nearly every day, Elkins said they don’t see enough. She said, “I hope every newly adopted dog starts training in the first few weeks. Bonding and forming a working, happy relationship is key to relaxed, well-mannered dog and that training starts on Day 1. Using reward-based training methods makes this a fun and enjoyable outing rather than a dreaded task.”

Elkins said dogs don’t need to have behavior problems to benefit from training. Many of TCCTB’s classes center around fun and sports, like agility, tracking and air scenting. She added, “Early training means less work over the long term to create a balanced dog who can adapt to life’s challenges. I often say, ‘Even good children get to go to school to learn and play. Good dogs come to training as well’.”

Senior pets – whether in Austin, across the state or across the globe – are finding more and more people reaching out to see that they get a second chance at successfully finding a forever home.





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