Animal Tales: New homes for old dogs

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Tyson, a senior Great Dane, yawns as Lisa Perkins pets him. When Perkins learned of him almost a year ago, Tyson had a host of health problems, including a mouth full of abscesses from gum disease. He’d doing much better now thanks to Old Dogs New Digs, a nonprofit group that started a year ago to find homes for old dogs in Maine’s animal shelters. “Even if he has two months left, the enjoyment that I get knowing that life is going to be the best that it can be for him … is what I’m after,” Perkins said.

BRUNSWICK — When Lisa Perkins learned about Tyson, he was in bad shape.

The dog’s mouth was full of abscesses from gum disease. The fur on his back was patchy from a flea allergy. Chronic ear infections caused so much scar tissue build-up that his face was crooked.

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Tyson was 10 or 11 years old, elderly in dog years. But Perkins’ decision to take him home was an easy one.

“Even if he has two months left, the enjoyment that I get knowing that life is going to be the best that it can be for him … is what I’m after,” she said.

Nearly a year later, Tyson’s infections, allergies and ailments have been treated. He acts like a dog half his age.

“He has quite the pep in his step,” Perkins said. “I have to sort of jog to keep up with him when we go for walks. He’s got quite a bounce. He’s had a chance to enjoy life, probably for the first time in years. It would have been really sad if he’d been denied that.”

She and some 40 other volunteers are working to make sure all senior dogs in Maine get the same kind of second chance. 

They’ve formed Old Dogs New Digs, the only nonprofit rescue group in Maine solely dedicated to finding homes for old dogs. 

“It’s a very special group of dogs, and I like the way that it feels to help them, even though it’s hard … We do hospice homes as well, so providing that end of life (care), which is really hard,” said Mandy Fisher, one of Old Dogs New Digs’ founders. “But there’s something rewarding there knowing you gave them that good final chapter, that good life at the end, even if they didn’t have it before that.”

Fisher and Perkins are no strangers to homeless pets. Several years ago, they started the Buddy Up Animal Society, a nonprofit that helps shelter animals, but that group evolved to be overseen by others. By last year, Fisher was fostering dogs on her own — all of them older, all from Maine shelters.  

Her kitchen pantry is covered with their photos, dogs with graying muzzles, cloudy eyes, perked ears.

“It was like one after the other,” said Fisher, who lives in Brunswick. “There were needs more than I could fill. Several shelters were calling and I was like, ‘Which dog should we take? Which one is more needy?'” 

Fisher’s friends and fellow animal lovers took notice. They’d like to foster old dogs, they told her. They’d like to help.

“Let’s make this a thing,” Fisher said.

Within months, Fisher, Perkins and another volunteer, Nicole Boutillier, established Old Dogs New Digs.

Rescue groups usually take ownership of — and financial responsibility for — the animals they serve, but Old Dogs didn’t have the money for that. Senior dogs, especially those who have been neglected, can have high medical bills and the startup had little funding to pay such costs.

Instead, the group tried something more novel: a partnership with animal shelters.

Under the agreement, shelters maintained ownership, paying for each dog’s costs when possible. In return, Old Dogs provided foster homes, getting dogs out of crowded, stressful shelters and into temporary homes where they could be more comfortable. If a shelter couldn’t afford to pay for medical care — say cancer surgery or long-term arthritis medication — Old Dogs would take care or it or find a sponsor who could.      

If a dog was adopted, the new family took ownership from the shelter.

“People (at shelters) were wary at first, but I think the word has been getting out,” Fisher said. “Who wouldn’t rather see an old dog in a home while they wait?

The design worked out so well that the group made it permanent. Old Dogs now partners with more than a dozen shelters across the state and hopes to add more.

Old Dogs only takes those 7 years or older, but it has no other criteria. It has taken dogs who couldn’t be around other animals, a pair of dogs who had to be adopted together, dogs who’d spent their lives chained outside and didn’t know how to live in a family, dogs with terminal diseases.

Most of the group’s dogs come from shelters — some of them brought up from the South by Maine shelters because they would have been euthanized where they were. Sometimes, an owner contacts the group directly. 

Some dogs were left homeless after their elderly owners died or moved to a nursing home. Some were strays. Others, like Tyson, were relinquished by owners who couldn’t afford to care for them. 

In the past year, Old Dogs has taken in 90 dogs. It currently has 21, including Fisher’s foster dog. Ellie.

A mixed breed who might be part corgi, might be part shiba inu, Ellie is compact but fluffy. She was found in Lincoln County with a microchip from Japan. The local shelter figured she was loved — maybe a military family moved with her to Maine and she wandered off — but it couldn’t find her former owners.

Fisher believes Ellie is older than 14, maybe much older. Like elderly humans with dementia, she likes to pace, circling the living room coffee table when she’s anxious or excited. She can’t climb onto the couch, so her plush bed is on the floor next to floor-to-ceiling windows that let in the sun. Her food and water dishes are elevated so she doesn’t have to bend to eat or drink.

She seems to smile when Fisher scoops her up and cuddles her.

Ellie was supposed to stay with Fisher’s family in Brunswick just until she found an adoptive family, but she had a stroke soon after arriving. It quickly became clear that she needed more care than most families could give and she probably shouldn’t be moved to a new home. Fisher immediately committed to being Ellie’s last family and caring for her for good, until her quality of life diminishes. 

It’s not an uncommon situation at Old Dogs. Fisher calls it “fospice,” foster care meets hospice. 

“I can’t stand the thought of an old dog in a shelter, in one of those kennels,” Fisher said.

“Wasting their last golden years in that kind of environment,” Perkins added.

While some dogs stay with their foster home forever, either because it becomes hospice or because their foster parents decide to adopt, many of Old Dogs’ old dogs are adopted by people looking specifically for a senior canine.

Joanne Perry, of Harpswell, recently spotted a yellow Lab mix on Old Dogs’ Petfinder page while looking for a companion for Cooper, her 12-year-old chocolate Lab. A puppy had proven to be a poor match — too energetic and annoying to her old Lab — but she thought Shelly, a dog closer to Cooper’s age, might be perfect. 

She was right. 

“I just felt like she was at a point in her life where she didn’t have a great home and she deserves one. We were so happy to give her one,” Perry said. “She turned out to be a great fit for our family. We couldn’t be more happy.” 

It’s not only been good for Cooper, who got a sometimes-playmate, but also for Shelly, who is now on arthritis medication and has taken to flopping on her back and rolling around in the seaweed when the family visits the beach.

“The Humane Society thought she was around 14,” Perry said. “She doesn’t look that old to me. She looks maybe 8-ish.

“When she first came to us she looked old because she wasn’t moving and she was sleeping all the time,” she said. “Now that she’s perked up, she seems a lot younger.”

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at ltice@sunjournal.com.

Mandy Fisher hugs Ellie, an elderly dog that had been found in Lincoln County and brought to an animal shelter. Fisher is providing “fospice,” or foster care-turned-hospice, though Old Dogs New Digs, the nonprofit group she helped start a year ago  to find homes for old dogs in Maine’s animal shelters.

Mandy Fisher’s cat, Washington, greets Tyson, a great Dane mix adopted by Lisa Perkins, a one of the founders of Old Dogs New Digs. Tyson was 10 or 11 years old and suffering from several health problems when Perkins learned about him almost a year ago. He’s greatly improved.

“He has quite the pep in his step. I have to sort of jog to keep up with him when we go for walks. He’s got quite a bounce. He’s had a chance to enjoy life, probably for the first time in years,” Perkins said. “It would have been really sad if he’d been denied that.”

Mandy Fisher, one of the founders of Old Dogs New Digs, holds her own senior dog, 9-year-old Daisy. The nonprofit group was started a year ago to find homes for old dogs in Maine’s animal shelters.

Mandy Fisher says hello to Tyson while Lisa Perkins holds his leash. Tyson was one Old Dogs New Digs’ first test cases.  

A bowl of photos on Mandy Fisher’s table showcase some of the dogs who have been placed into homes with the help from Old Dogs, New Digs.

Shelly, a senior yellow Lab mix, was recently adopted by Joanne Perry and her family in Harpswell. They were looking for a companion for Cooper, their 12-year-old chocolate Lab, and found a match in a dog close to Cooper’s age. “I just felt like she was at a point in her life where she didn’t have a great home and she deserves one,” Perry said. “We were so happy to give her one.” 

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