March 3, 2017; Washington Post
When 11-year-old Elmo the German Shepherd was surrendered to a Los Angeles animal shelter last year, he had a greatest-hits list of ailments that would have been a death sentence in any overcrowded shelter with sparse resources, where even routine medication can be a luxury. Even though Elmo was sporting a large, open wound on his hip, intestinal worms, ear mites, a fungal infection in his feet, and a tumor in his prostate that required surgery, a rescue focused on helping homeless senior German Shepherds find new homes, the Thulani Program, took a chance on Elmo, sensing that he had a lot of life left in his years. That’s where Elmo was when he met Steve Frost, a retired fire captain from Northern California. Frost told the Washington Post that he saw the photo of Elmo and thought that he “looked like hell.” He immediately decided he wanted the dog.
And it appears Frost isn’t alone. Several nonprofits have been working for years to increase the survival rate for homeless older dogs entering the shelter system, and with good results. From providing strategic grants to assist with their diagnosis and care, to upping their social media exposure to potential adopters, from coast to coast nonprofits have been working to change the script on what an “adoptable” dog is.
In 2008, Julie Dudley of North Carolina founded the Grey Muzzle Organization, envisioning a world where no old dog dies alone and afraid. She currently serves on the nonprofit’s advisory board, where she assists in raising the funds for the thousands of dollars in grants that Grey Muzzle awards to shelters all over the country to help them care for and adopt out some of the tougher homeless senior dog cases. The Thulani Program is one of their grantees. In one success story, the Grey Muzzle organization funded a complete neurological assessment on a dog thought to have severe and progressing impairments. With the proper data, the rescue group could determine it was simply an old injury that had healed.
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Some potential dog owners are practical, knowing they don’t have the time and patience for a puppy, while some are driven to give a senior dog the best quality of years, knowing their time together is short. Lisa Lunghofer, executive director of Grey Muzzle, said the organization recently surveyed its grantees, finding many said the situation for older dogs has improved in the past two years and that young people are more open to such adoptions. Nearly all said the main reason people adopt aging dogs is “altruism,” although mellowness and being housebroken were also cited.
Going past older and grey, some shelters are even starting doggie hospice programs, and the public is responding. Russell Ulrey, a Muttville volunteer who started the shelter’s first-ever hospice program, told the Washington Post was initially worried that he wouldn’t find any potential adopters. He was wrong; last year, Muttville adopted out 85 hospice dogs, and Ulrey said demand is higher than supply.
That news wouldn’t surprise Erin O’Sullivan. The founder of the New York-based Susie’s Senior Dogs has seen thousands of matches between would-be adopters and available dogs. She started Susie’s Senior Dogs to bring awareness to overlooked, homeless senior dogs. Using social media, she has convened an online community conversation about the benefits of adopting an older pet as she showcases adoptable dogs across the country. Clearly, it takes a village to move this needle. And if you’re a homeless senior dog, your village is strong and growing every day.—Carrie Collins-Fadell