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Tails of Seattle: A pets blog

Your local source for news and tips about dogs, cats and other critters, featuring fun videos, reader photos, Q&As and more.

November 16, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Senior dogs: A Q&A with Old Dog Haven founder Judith Piper

Posted by Neena Pellegrini

Old Dog Haven , one of the largest senior-dog rescue organizations in the country, provides homes for dogs age 8 and up who have been abandoned or will become homeless. Judith Piper, pictured below, founded the nonprofit with her husband in 2004 in their Arlington home, and they have since placed hundreds of Western Washington dogs in foster or permanent homes to spend the remainder of their lives as part of a family. She answers questions this week about her organization and the special qualities and needs of aging dogs as part of our series on the health issues facing senior dogs.

judithonphonephoto.jpgQuestion: How many dogs have been part of Old Dog Haven?

Answer: Since 2005, we've taken into our homes 1,434 dogs. We've also worked on finding homes -- very often successfully -- for 1,003 more dogs on behalf of their owners, other rescues or shelters.

Each year we've increased the number of homes and dogs. In 2005, we took in 76 dogs; in 2010, 250 dogs. In 2011 through September, we've taken in 188 dogs. We have 226 today.

Question: What is so special about an old dog?

Answer: Wisdom, grace, stability of personality, calmness of soul.

Question: You've been a business administrator, taught horseback riding and owned a horse-equipment store. Why did you decide Old Dog Haven (ODH) was something you must do?

Answer: I started dog-walking at a shelter and met a woman through horses who did dog rescue. My husband and I took in two dogs at the very end of their lives through this woman. We got a great deal of satisfaction from it and decided that it was needed and that we could do it and therefore we should. We had NO clue where this would lead us!

Question: How consuming is the project?

Answer: The office is my kitchen, but several others are very involved in the effort. I spend at least 12 hours a day, pretty much every day, at this. Even with the help of many wonderful people, it is a never-ending effort.

We are a 501c3 nonprofit corporation with a small volunteer board of directors who all take on major responsibilities. In 2010 we spent 93 percent of our money directly on caring for the dogs, with 82 percent of that on veterinary expenses, including medication. Our vet bills in 2011 are averaging about $40,000 per month.

Question: How much of your work now involves people voluntarily relinquishing their dogs? The owners either are too old to care for the animals or have died or the expense of taking care of the dog has become a burden on the family.

Answer: Of the dogs we've taken in during 2010-2011, 21 percent have been from owners -- that is a big increase from pre-recession years when we seldom took dogs from owners and concentrated on dogs in shelters.

Thumbnail image for judithwdarrylphoto.jpgJudith Piper, right with Duane, has four standing vet appointments in Lake Stevens a week. She thinks Duane is about 10 years old and a Labrador retriever-St. Bernard mix. He was missing more than half his hair when he arrived at the shelter, covered with fleas and with infected eyes. He also has neurologic damage, which limits his control over his hind legs along with likely elbow dysplasia, she says. "He was a very wobbly mess with a pronounced limp when he came to us." Photo by Neena Pellegrini

We are now posting a much larger number of dogs for owners to help them rehome their dog, as well.

Question: How much of your time is spent on fundraising?

Answer: My time isn't spent on fundraising at all. I worry about the dogs and their care, adoptions, intake, choosing and supporting foster parents, etc. We are a small, core group, and our main concern is the dogs.

Last year we had our first auction, and we will repeat that in 2012.

We have just selected a volunteer fundraising coordinator to focus our efforts a bit more, but we depend primarily on donations, with a few small grants and, fortunately, some bequests.

Our donors, who are from all around the country, have been extremely generous and loyal and for that a lot of old dogs are grateful.

Nearly all the volunteers join us after visiting our website or Facebook page or hearing from friends, vets or shelters.

Question: If someone takes an Old Dog Haven dog under its care, what is expected of that person and what can that person expect from Old Dog Haven?

Answer: ODH provides all veterinary care, medications, medically-required supplements and the like for all dogs in foster care. We provide support, make medical decisions and counsel when needed.

The foster parents pay for food and most equipment and grooming. They are responsible for getting the dog to all needed appointments and making me aware of any needs. Communication is very important.

If the dog is up for adoption, the foster parent has the last word on placement after we screen and do reference checks; we provide a lot of paperwork and instruction.

Question: How many foster homes/forever homes do you have access to?

Answer: Our foster homes -- both temporary and permanent -- total about 140-145 most of the time these past two years. We add new homes and some drop out; we always are looking for more suitable homes.

judithlittledogphoto.jpgGumDrop, above, is a three-legged Shih-Tzu who lives with Rhonda, also pictured, ODH intake/transport coordinator in Everett. Piper says he was found by someone who thought he was a dead bird. He was taken to a shelter, which contacted ODH after amputating his necrotic, broken leg. Photo by Neena Pellegrini

Question: What is the criteria for a foster home or forever home?

Answer: That depends on the dog. Because we have senior dogs, we usually want the dog to have access to potty breaks at least every six hours, and we are very cautious about small children, but there are exceptions. We insist the dog live primarily indoors and with the family.

Foster homes also need to have time to take the dog for multiple vet appointments as needed, other pets who will accept a new dog, patience with initial accidents and adjustments. Our website has a lot of information for potential foster homes.

Question: How do you keep your volunteers and foster homes inspired?

Answer: The dogs do that for us! It's never a problem. The dogs are wonderful and so rewarding that once you take one in you're likely to be hooked.

Question: How do you judge "quality of life" for the dogs?

Answer: Enjoying enough of the things on their "joy list" to override increasing limits on mobility or activity, plus overriding pain or illness.

Many dogs will keep eating to their last breath; it is really an automatic response. Dogs with cancer frequently lose their appetite, but dogs with organs failing or horrible arthritis or just dwindling away usually keep eating. In other words, just because the dog is still eating and following you around does NOT mean he has good quality of life.

Personally, I watch the dog's face and their attitude because they will give you subtle signs of what's coming. If the dog loses its appetite, doesn't sleep well, withdraws or gets cranky, you are being told clearly that it's time or nearly time. That's presuming, of course, that you've had the vet look carefully for treatable conditions.

Question: What kind of special health issues do you most commonly see?

Answer: Cancer of all kinds; heart, kidney or liver disease; bladder stones; Cushing's disease; Addison's disease; arthritis; degenerative discs in the back; severe dental disease; severe skin/coat conditions caused by neglect; eye conditions such as dry eye and cataracts; and a lot more. Some we can treat, some we can't.

Question: What kinds of problems do owners tend not to be aware of in senior dogs or are easily overlooked?

Answer: Dental disease, eye conditions such as dry eye or cataracts, bladder stones, obesity. All of those are manageable and much less expensive/difficult if dealt with early on.

Sometimes owners assume the dog has "lost its housetraining" or is angry with them or becoming senile, when in truth they have a bladder stone, kidney disease, diabetes or Cushings. It is important to have regular vet checks with some laboratory testing as your dog ages and to look for a physical reason for "misbehavior."

Question: You must have seen cases of extreme heartache and joy.

Answer: We don't know what their lives were like previously, at least usually. We only know that someone let them end in a shelter - often when they were dying - alone.

We've had many dogs who stayed with us for a day or two before we let them go, just long enough to know that someone cared and to get as much food and medication as possible.

The hardest are the medical conditions that seem so unnecessary -- bladder stones allowed to grow for months or years, causing huge pain, before turning the dog over to the shelter, for instance.

The best stories are those who came to us in miserable condition and very withdrawn. We treated the physical issues and provided love and safety and watched the dog blossom. On our "We Remember" page, see Madison; on our "Final Refuge" page, see KJ.

judithdarrylphoto.jpgDuane, right, is healthy now, Piper says, He takes anti-
inflammatories to buy him time before the degeneration in his discs makes him unable to control his hind legs at all, or until the elbow damage becomes too much for him to be comfortable. "We have had a number of dogs in similar condition, and on average they are comfortable for four to eight months," Piper says. "He's staying with me because our situation is ideal for dogs in this condition and because it's hard for foster parents to lose a dog so quickly."

Question: How well can senior dogs do with diminished senses?

Answer: Dogs do just fine without hearing, and nearly all do fine without vision. We are continually amazed at how well blind dogs manage and wish adopters would consider them. You need to adjust how you communicate with them but it's very workable.

Question: What advice do you give owners with an older animal who is becoming confused?

Answer: Be patient with the dog, be sure they aren't just losing vision (many people don't notice this; it comes on gradually) and be willing to face the reality.

Question: Do you ever turn dogs away? If so, under what circumstances?

Answer: We hate to do so, but of course we have to. We can take dogs only if there is a suitable foster spot available, and we always have a long waiting list.

Dogs must be in Western Washington, housebroken, spayed or neutered and comfortable living with other dogs.

There are a few breeds we cannot take because we do not have foster homes willing/able to deal with them. We prioritize the shelter dogs and especially the oldest ones or those needing hospice care. If we can help the owner place their dog through our resources, we try to do that.

Question: Which dogs are the easiest to place?

Answer: Dogs that are 8 to 9 years old that get along with other pets; some purebred dogs are easy at any age, such as golden retrievers, Yorkshire terriers and shelties.

Question: Which dogs are the hardest?

Answer: Pitbulls/similar bully breeds, older seniors (12 to 14 years old, we don't try to adopt out dogs older then that), dogs that aren't good with other pets, dogs with expensive medical conditions, blind dogs.

Question: Are there any geographic restrictions on rescues or their placements?

Answer: We take dogs only from Western Washington. We have a few foster homes in other areas but send them dogs from our area. We will consider adoptions to British Columbia, Oregon, Idaho - if they can drive here and drive the dog back. But most are within Washington.

judithfoodphoto.jpgJuidith Piper, right, prepares meals for the dogs that live with her and her husband in their Arlington home. She said she usually has 15 dogs at any given time under her roof. Photo courtesy of Old Dog Haven


Question: How many dogs do you live with?

Answer: My husband and I have 15 dogs pretty much all the time. (We have a kennel license.)

The cast changes frequently as we do very short-term hospice and take dogs who will go on to other foster homes, and take dogs who aren't doing well in another home. They are ALL our pets and members of the family, whether long or short term.

Question: What do they eat?

Answer: We have eight prescription diets and four to five commercial foods in use all the time, because many of ours are old and health-challenged. Five are on bladder-stone-prevention diets right now.

Question: Where do they sleep?

Answer: Wherever they choose, but that means most are in the very crowded bedroom. It's really "cozy." The whole mission of ODH is to let these dogs live the end of their lives in a home, as part of a family. We insist on that, and it makes all of us happy.

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Read our past Q&As:
Veterinary Q&A: More health issues facing aging dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Eye problems in aging dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Halloween treats and pets
Veterinary Q&A: Health issues facing aging dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Why blood work is necessary
Veterinary Q&A: Are prong collars safe for your dog?
Veterinary Q&A: Birth control for pets
Veterinary Q&A: How to find a good vet
Veterinary Q&A: Neutering your dog Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: Neutering your dog Part 1
Veterinary Q&A: Hyperthyroidism in cats
Veterinary Q&A: Incontinence in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Hanging tongue syndrome
Veterinary Q&A: Bad breath in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: How much is too much exercise for my dog? Part 2
Veterinary Q&A: How much exercise does my dog need? Part I
Veterinary Q&A: A killer called bloat
Veterinary Q&A: Initial care for new puppies
Veterinary Q&A: Knee problems in dogs
Veterinary Q&A: Flea-control treatment
Veterinary Q&A: Bearded dragon lizards
Veterinary Q&A: Vaccinations for indoor cats
Veterinary Q&A: Lumps and bumps
Veterinary Q&A: More on aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Aging dogs and arthritis
Veterinary Q&A: Puppy and geriatric exams
Veterinary QA: What dogs can safely chew
Veterinary QA: Why does it cost so much to clean a dog's teeth?
Veterinary QA follow-up: More on cleaning a dog's teeth
Veterinary QA: When to spay or neuter

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Do you have a question about pet health? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local vet in an upcoming post.

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