Old Dog Haven's Hospice Fosters: Dignity and Care for Homeless Senior Dogs by Judith Piper

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Nora. Photo Courtesy of Old Dog Haven

Old Dog Haven (ODH) is a foster-based rescue in western Washington. Their Final Refuge homes care for the dogs that come to them too sick or fragile to be adopted. For senior dogs in very poor condition, their Death With Dignity program has provided—with help from a grant from The Grey Muzzle Organization—a dignified end of life in a loving home. Contributor Judith Piper is Old Dog Haven's Executive Director.

For most of our more than ten years, Old Dog Haven (ODH) has prioritized the oldest dogs in shelters and the sickest, but especially those very near the end of their lives. Our aim really is giving these dogs a death with dignity—spending at least a few days (or even hours, on occasion) in a home with people who really care and as much comfort as we can give them. As one of our foster parents put it: "We want to be sure there is someone to grieve for them, even when we cannot do more than that."

Most often, the shelters give us enough information to know that the dog isn't going to last long at all, and we do our very best to get them out quickly. Sometimes the dog rallies and we have longer than expected, sometimes we give a shot at medical intervention which may or may not buy some time. Some of the horribly neglected and emaciated dogs are really gut-wrenchingly hard, except that often those are the dogs who most respond to and appreciate the loving care they are offered.

Remy. Photo Courtesy of Old Dog Haven
These are stories of just a few of the dogs who have spent their final weeks or days in an Old Dog Haven foster home:

Remy, a 13-to-14-year-old Rat Terrier mix, came into a busy shelter with a serious cough and difficulty breathing. The staff treated him for kennel cough but feared congesitve heart failure, so asked if Old Dog Haven would help. We went into high gear to get him to a foster as soon he came off of stray hold.

A wonderful foster mom agreed to take him in, knowing that it was unlikely that he would live, but that we would do our best to treat him. Little Remy had a serious pneumonia and spent two days in an emergency clinic, before going back to be cuddled and cared for in his ODH foster home. His foster family made really amazing efforts to help him, staying up all night a couple of times in the emergency clinic. For nearly 10 days, Remy held his own, and despite his illness, he wagged his tail constantly, sniffed around the yard a bit, loved cuddling, and was clearly delighted to be with those who loved him.

However, the pneumonia eventually took over. He made one more trip to the emergency clinic, and his foster family stayed with him around the clock, but the battle had been lost and he struggled too much. We took great comfort in knowing that he had 10 days of loving care, in a family with a 13-year-old boy who played with and cuddled him, with a yard to poke around in when he could manage it, and a patch of sun to bask in. 

Sophia's foster family also knew that she would not have much time with them, but they wanted whatever time to be as comfortable and full of love as possible. Sophia came to Old Dog Haven very sick with congestive heart failure and very stressed; she had been left (at what was supposedly 18 years of age) at a shelter, not knowing what was happening to her.

With medication for her failing heart and severe joint pain, as well as a lot of love and effort to help her eat, she was able to rally enough to enjoy some of the simple pleasures of her new life—like looking out the windows in the arms of her foster mom or exploring her new surroundings. Her mom cherished the time just holding her for hours each day, and she quickly responded. Her eyes began to have a sparkle to them and her stress melted away.

Sophia. Photo Courtesy of Old Dog Haven
Their time with her ended much sooner than they wanted, despite all their efforts and her willingness to fight. Her little body just could no longer carry on.

Her foster mom is thankful for every moment spent with her, and says she is always amazed how these dogs can overcome all they have been through and are still able to let go of that and accept the love they are given. It is heartbreaking to let them go, yet the rewards of being part of their precious lives, even for a short time, leaves a lasting impression that no one can take away.

Nora was a black Labrador Retriever mix, who was found wandering a casino parking lot and was taken to a shelter in horrible shape. She was emaciated, had fleas and overgrown nails and, worst of all, she could not put any weight on her right back leg.
The shelter had x-rays done which showed Nora had bone cancer that leg and it had already spread to her lungs. When Old Dog Haven agreed to take Nora, we knew she didn’t have much time left, but we were determined to give her the best few weeks of her life.

Transport was arranged and Nora went to live with her foster family on their farm. She spent her days hopping on her three good legs and exploring the fields, barking at the goats and pigs and smelling every bush and tree. After eating her home-cooked chicken stew she loved to jump up on the couch and nap the day away.
After three weeks, they decided to say goodbye to Nora before the pain became too much. Even though Nora must have been in pain from the cancer, she lived those last weeks like a spoiled happy dog, resting her head on her ODH mom’s lap and smiling.

Becoming an Old Dog Haven Foster

What Old Dog Haven really needs is more people whose hearts are able to deal with providing a really short-term hospice home and who can get satisfaction from giving these dogs the gift of a death among friends and knowing that they didn't die alone and frightened in a shelter. It's not an easy job but it is so so important — we are saddened to know how many there are who need us. Anyone in western Washington who feels they could do this job should contact [email protected]; we'd love to hear from you. To learn more about fostering for Old Dog Haven, visit: olddoghaven.org/fostering/.

For information about all of the wonderful organizations that Grey Muzzle supports, see Who We Help.

The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.

About the Contributor:  Judith Piper is Executive Director of Old Dog Haven, a nonprofit group in western Washington using a network of foster homes to provide a loving safe home for abandoned senior dogs age 8 and over. At Old Dog Haven, those dogs with a reasonable life-expectancy are adopted out and the rest are cared for in permanent foster homes. In addition, they try to assist owners in finding new homes for their senior dogs through their website and referrals.