What are the things that you can learn from your senior canine companion?
It’s an interesting question ambiguously phrased. Does it mean what can we learn about caring for senior dogs through the practice of caring for them or what can we learn about ourselves? In short, the answer is: Both.
One way of learning is watching others and how they act. In this article, we’ll explore how four dogs adopted as seniors taught each other how anyone can start again.
Dogs can have as many different personalities as people
Rusty came to me after I had to put my first senior dog, Boo Boo, to sleep after a bout progressively debilitating hip dysplasia. They were the same in that they were both rescues and both had an anxious look in their eyes when engaged by strangers. That’s where the similarities ended.
Boo Boo was quiet and shy. His choice of friends was limited to dogs that had the same energy as him. Rusty was another story altogether. Rusty was large (90+ lbs German Shepherd/Akita) and wanted to meet everyone in the worst way, emphasizing WORST.
At every interaction with another dog, he would try to charge in to say HI. There was not a lick of subtly or calmness to him. He’d pull and bark like crazy. We were not very popular in the neighborhood in those early days. That said, it didn’t feel like he was angry or fearful of the others, just that he was frustrated because he wasn’t allowed to do things his way.
Old dog meets new trick
I couldn’t afford to let a dog that I had just met just do things his way. He had been in and out of rescues and shelters for years and I had no idea what training he had, so I stopped assuming, and we started with the basics.
After researching this command online and discussing it with several trainers, we identified that “leave it” was the behavior we’d start with.
“Leave it” is a behavior commonly trained to dogs to get them to ignore things. The goal was for us to get to a point where Rusty could ignore dogs and other things that stimulated him to bring him back to the present to a less reactive state. Rusty and I trained for weeks to desensitize him to all things that excited him, first starting with treats and toys and working our way up to walking in the park in sight of other dogs without reacting to them.
Within a month, we were ready. We came close to meeting a couple of dogs and just by saying, “Leave it,” he could not focus on the others around him anxiously. Sometimes he stopped; sometimes, we just walked on, but it was a new world. This exercise showed me how, by progressively working towards a common goal, we could trust one another. For Rusty, the reward was walking more and being close to others in a peaceful setting, which he hadn’t had for years during his rescue life stuck in shelters. Eventually, he met his first friend, a blue heeler. Rusty’s energy was high as they approached, but with a command, he stopped. The heeler checked him out. Rusty looked back at me and I told him it was ok. There was some light play and we went on our way.
Give a dog a job or they’ll find one themselves
Dogs, especially rescue dogs, want to know that they have a place to call home. They want to see that they belong. They want to be engaged, whether that is through some job or just being your companion. Some dogs require a lot of stimulation to keep from getting bored, but if you’re actively engaging with your dogs, you can figure it out.
Rusty, at nine years old when he came to live with me, still had a lot of energy, but not so much that we would sign up for agility events. Rusty wanted simpler things: to go on walks a couple of times each day, be with me, and look out for me and the house. I first realized this on one of our walks when I stopped to tie my shoes. It was mid-morning, so others were out for their morning walks, so we pulled over to the side. That’s when I observed something interesting. Rusty sat down his back to mine and watched the people go by. He was calm. He was neither anxious nor menacing. He was showing me that he had my back.
On another occasion, when a grumpy contractor started banging on my neighbor’s door because they had left him the wrong lock box keys, Rusty barked at him from down the hall to tell him that wasn’t OK. Did I mention that two of Rusty’s doggie buddies lived there? It was terrific and that part of him would always be part of who he was.
The littlest wolf finds his pack
Rusty taught me the importance of putting the time in to gain trust. He had met nearly a couple hundred dogs by this time and we were being asked by perfect strangers how I trained him. It was a great time and even as we’d stop to talk with our neighbors, Rusty always was chill in interacting with others, human and pooch alike. I was away at work all day but knew that Rusty would be happier with a friend to spend the day with when I was away, so we adopted Buddy.
Rusty loved little dogs. We went to the shelter and our initial interactions were AMAZING. They met and Buddy immediately ran around wanting to engage in play. Rusty lay down and wagged his tail while Buddy jumped over him again and again.
It was a perfect fit
… at least until we got to the car.
Buddy barked and cried his head off in the carrier on the ride home. It was then I learned that Buddy was deathly afraid of being in the car. Rusty, frustrated, shook the carrier.
Introducing dogs to one another
An important consideration when introducing dogs to one another is to ensure that each feels safe. For the first month, we accomplished this by only having supervised time together. Buddy had the back half of my house and Rusty had the front part while I was working. When we were home together, we were either out walking or together throughout our place. I spent time with them in the front and back of the house. Eventually, they were able to spend the day together without supervision. It was only after they both showed that they had their places to retreat to when they didn’t want to interact with the other that it became apparent that they could be trusted together. They were never cuddly together, but they enjoyed relaxing in the same room throughout the day.
The barker sings the song of his people
Buddy was a reactive dog. He didn’t like bigger dogs and he didn’t like being picked up without knowing it was coming. I went from people asking how I could show them how I could teach them to walk their dog, as well as Rusty and I walked together, to being known as the dog parent of “The Barker.”
I recognized that Buddy’s anxiety wasn’t so different from Rusty’s in how he displayed it; however, for Buddy (a Westie/Maltese mix), as a little dog, there was fear when it came to being around bigger dogs. I had given him a safe environment with one big dog. However, who knows his life before he came to live with us? It was a puzzle that I was determined to solve for all of us and that’s when Rusty solved it for us.
Watch and learn
On our walks, Buddy started taking cues from Rusty. He’d hang back and let Rusty say hello to his friends first. He also waited while Rusty stood between him and other more excited dogs. And just like that, Buddy and Rusty became a team. If you watch, you could see the two communicating.
Although we had the occasional slip-up, Buddy would go on to be the dog he was meant to be. Happy and content, he would pass this calmness to his brother Chewy, who would come to live with us later.
Living life to its fullest with Chewy
Rusty and Buddy became the stuff of legends in how they both backed each other up but always pushed each other’s boundaries a bit. They were together for a year and a half before we lost Rusty to the symptoms of Cushing’s Disease.
The loss of Rusty affected Buddy more than I could have anticipated, so when I realized that we added a new brother. Chewy joined us a couple of months later.
From the start, Chewy felt right at home. He came in, jumped up on the couch and made like he had always been there. Chewy loved everyone he met. He barked to get other people’s and animals’ attention, but then was the friendliest little guy you’d ever meet, wanting to play with everyone. Buddy’s energy improved just from having a new, high-energy friend around.
Over time, Chewy began to embrace Buddy’s new laid-back manner and evened out a bit in keeping his friendliness but losing the more manic parts of who he was. Initially, not being overly close with Buddy, the two grew closer, leaning on each other for support through Chewy’s diabetes and Buddy’s blindness and eventual deafness. Two perfect souls who started as very similar personalities became their own best companions.
Across all of these pooches and their examples, I think there are plenty of things we (people and dogs alike) can take:
- The best lessons are learned by listening and observing
- Give individuals a chance to shine by giving them a safe place
- Do right by those who do right by you
- Recognize that we’re all in this together
- We all have second (and third and fourth and fifty-ninth) acts in us – When the opportunity to try something new presents itself, give it a go.
- Get out there. Make new connections. Be part of something bigger than yourself to learn what you are truly capable of.
Find more about Jeff’s amazing work at SeniorPooch.com.
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