Suzy, a 12-year-old Lhasa apso, can't see and doesn't like to be held, but loves to sit and listen to the world go by from her special spot tucked into the open kitchen pantry.
Eight-year-old Shih Tzu Cindy, a former puppy-mill dog, arrived severely neglected, covered in bald spots and distended from giving birth to litter after litter of puppies. She demands — and gets — constant attention now.
Mickey the poodle, is spry, if a touch senile. At 19 years old she's outlived two owners.
"And I swear to God, now she's working on the third," Nancy Lever joked.
Sometimes they're around for years, sometimes just for a few weeks. But when a dog arrives at the 43-acre farm on a dead-end road in Winthrop — usually old, often sick or disabled, always unwanted — it gets love and a home for the rest of its life.
"They're old, their system's shutting down. But, you know, it's a great place to live," said Lever, who adopts the dogs with her husband, Stephen Smith. "We're a home of last resort."
The couple began taking in unwanted dogs four years ago. They'd always loved animals, had two large dogs of their own, and decided they could foster a third. They wanted another large dog. Instead, the local animal shelter asked them to take an 8-pound terrier-mix who nipped, hated to be lavished with attention yet couldn't stand to be alone, and fell over when he walked.
Lever and Smith loved him.
"He had such determination and grit," Lever said. "It was so cool."
The couple soon realized they could offer old, sick and special needs dogs what so many people would not or could not: a good life.
Over the years they've taken more than a dozen dogs, mostly through local shelters. One particular favorite was Sweetie, a one-eyed, one-tooth Pekingese brought to the shelter by an older woman who loved him dearly but whose housing only allowed one dog. He was accustomed to being spoon fed and was never housebroken, but Lever said he was a sweetheart and "such a joy."
The couple tries to care for no more than six dogs at a time. Seven, they learned, is just too hard. Their current six include Suzy, Cindy, Mickey and Bisbee, a 9-year-old Australian sheepdog-German shepherd mix who has hip dysplasia. They also have 12-year-old Bubba, who has a heart condition, and 9-year-old Snuffy, who has vision problems. The two Shih Tzus were headed to an animal shelter after their last owner died.
"We said, 'Oh, sure, we'll keep them temporarily.' And that was a year ago," Lever said.
It's a lot of work for the couple. Mickey sometimes pees on the dog beds; Bubba likes to pee on the floor. Suzy, who is blind, has to be carried outside and watched once she's out there. Sometimes there are medications to give and car trips to the vet.
But it's fun, too. The couple has declared their property a no-leash zone, so the dogs can run around the yard, doze under bushes or check out the draft horse and cat that also live on the farm. Every night Lever holds a kind of doggy happy hour with treats.
Smith, who recently retired from his job at a wastewater treatment plant, spends his days with the dogs, sometimes napping with them in the recliner. Lever, a case worker with the state, gets attention from the dogs when she gets home.
To her, that's the best part of having them.
"You come home and they all come running to greet you. You're never lonely. You could walk outdoors and come back five minutes later and it's like it's the highlight of their life," she said.
If not for Lever and Smith, many of their dogs likely would have been euthanized. It's very difficult for animal shelters to find homes for older dogs, especially if they're also sick, disabled or have behavioral problems. Potential adoptive families tend to look for young animals.
Lever would like to see that change.
"The old dogs are so appreciative of anything," she said.
For Lever and Smith, life is not without its heartbreak, though. On average, three of the dogs die each year. Although their dogs go to the vet and get medication when needed, Lever and Smith keep medical intervention to a minimum. They know their animals are old. They know their 43-acre farm is a hospice of sorts. It's hard to say good-bye, but they do.
"They let you know. The dogs, they'll start separating from the others, keeping to themselves. They kind of give you signs," Lever said.
As difficult as it is for Lever and Smith when one of their dogs dies, they don't wait before opening their home to another.
"It's really a labor of love," Lever said.
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