On Fostering the Senior Dog
By Fran Lynghaug
She was 14 when we first saw her. She had just come from the vet for a checkup and wasn’t going to be returned to her home. Her owner was in the hospital and was not expected to live and the follow-up home she had been staying at wasn’t working out. She needed a more permanent place where she could enjoy her last days, so my husband and I offered to foster this frumpy little Cocker Spaniel.
Penny was confused as she rode in the car of a stranger, a rep from the Cocker Spaniel Resources program who was delivering her to a rendezvous point where my husband and I were to meet to take her home. Her nose had a thick crust and her coat was unkempt and matted. She had many lumps on her skin and warts all over that looked like wood ticks. She was deaf and nearsighted and had an arthritic limp, but she had soft brown eyes and a willing personality. I couldn’t wait to give her a bath and brush her out.
Penny was our first foster dog. We are seniors and it was important for us to take a senior dog like us because we didn’t want one that would outlive us. We would worry too much. I know how her original owner must have felt when she went in the hospital and had to give up Penny.
Penny slowly adjusted to us and we noticed she would stare at the door like she was waiting for her owner to return. She wasn’t like other dogs we had. She didn’t like to be picked up or snuggled. It amazed us that she didn’t like to be petted, as if it was a strange thing to do. But we found her itchy spots and once she learned to enjoy being scratched, she consented to being petted.
She probably had a little dementia. Sometimes she would go outside and just look around as if to say, “Now why did I come out here?” We had to adjust to her deafness and we taught her a hand signal to come to us. We had to be close so she could see it, but she never left our sides. However her deafness prevented her from reacting to thunder or the vacuum or the hairdryer after her bath like other dogs we had in the past. We still talked to her and she would look seriously at our faces, trying to figure out what the heck we were saying.
Her arthritis made her gimpy and she couldn’t navigate a flight of stairs. We had to be careful how we picked her up. She would sit and wait for me at the top of the basement stairs when I went down there, looking for me, though she couldn’t see more than a foot or two. Penny was our shadow, following us from room to room, sometimes underfoot because if we moved too fast she had difficulty following us. She limped along and it would have been tough not to have compassion on her and admire her loyalty.
She was weak in her back and every day she would fall, mostly when she had to go potty and take half a step down to get outside. She tried so hard not to fall but when she did, she shook it off and tried again. Our hearts went out to her for her courage.
She barked when she wanted to go outside and again when she wanted to come in. Most of the time she was quiet and calm. She never jumped on furniture or people. She never chewed or dug holes or destroyed anything if we were gone too long like younger dogs might do. We could take her on vacation and she was dependable to be quiet in a hotel room and not be a fuss. She learned to ignore our cranky cat that was as old as she was and who was not happy about the new family member. When Teeter would try to stare down Penny, Penny would turn away and not confront her.
She didn’t like long walks because she couldn’t keep up, but that was OK because we don’t like long walks either. She did keep us company when we worked in the yard. We kept an eye on her in case she wandered too far while sniffing for an unforeseen gopher.
She slept a lot but so do we. Oftentimes, we would have to wake her when we came home because she slept so soundly, but if there was a stranger in the house, she was a mighty watch dog! (Or so she thought.)
Over the years she struggled with painful arthritis and stomach issues and recently started whining softly or whimpering when she had to get up for any reason, but through it all she was patient and tolerated many attempts to relieve her suffering. We had a thick cushion with another bed on top for her comfort, but she preferred to sleep on the floor wherever we were at. When she wagged her stump of a tail, we knew she was having a good day. She was a funny little clown when she tried to express her joy.
We had to put her down today. It was heartbreaking and some would ask why we fostered such an old dog with so many issues only to lose her in a few years. But it was gratifying to make the last years of a senior dog pleasant ones. Life is so much richer if we love something that is helpless. It touches our hearts and gives us an uncomplicated depth to our lives. It’s difficult to explain, but as God said after He created animals and charged Man to care for them, “It’s very good.” It’s what we are naturally made to do and it is so fulfilling. It’s what being human is all about.
As I held Penny in my arms for the last time and cried, my only thought was that here was one dog who had a full happy retirement and I don’t regret loving her to the end. I would do it again because there are so many other dogs in need, just like Penny.
Fran Lynghaug is co-author of “Dennis Brouse on Horse Training,” author of “The Official Horse Breeds Standards Guide” and “Horses of Distinction. ” Learn more on her website: www.equestrian-horses.com