I stepped out of the shelter office and headed toward the parking lot on a cold and overcast January day and was quickly called back by one of the staff members. She said someone had just brought a dog in to surrender but the dog didn’t look right, didn’t look healthy.
The shelter worker asked if I could take a look and offer my opinion and any insight. As I approached the doors to the shelter intake area, there she was, a shuddering, reddish-brown meatball of a dog, tied to the awning post. Several people were somberly standing around her, in a semi-circle, all with expressions of frustration and pity or sorrow.
I could tell right away that the dog was confused and stressed out, perhaps even sad. She was shivering, whether from fear or a chill I could not be sure, likely a combination of both. She was short and stout with a huge, bulging midsection, and to be honest, she looked as much like a potbellied pig as she did a dog. The person surrendering her was still there and was also shivering and looking quite forlorn.
I asked the dog’s name; Missy. I asked her age; probably about 12 years old. I sat on the ground next to the old girl, scooped her into my lap and put my arms around her to get her substantial bum off of the cold damp cement and to help keep her warm. While I don’t normally just cuddle right off of the bat with strange dogs, especially in an environment as stressful as an animal shelter, this was not my first rodeo and I could tell, even though she had the girth of a wine barrel, that she was a lap dog.
I gently prodded her a bit, rubbed her Buddha belly, touched her paws, inspected her gums, and teeth. I of course am not a vet or any kind of medical professional, but the old girl did indeed seem to have some swelling or fluid retention in her abdomen, and her general appearance told me that perhaps she was afflicted with some health issues associated with old age. I mentioned to the surrenderer that Missy could have kidney issues, congestive heart failure, thyroid problems, or perhaps even some sort of cancer. It was clear that she was going to need a full senior vet exam and likely some sort of treatment or special diet.
The guy who brought Missy in said that he understood all of the above and while he really loved her and had been doing his best to take care of her, he had found himself fallen on hard times and had come to the painful realization that he wasn’t going to be able to take care of Missy in the way she deserved. He had taken her in, himself, from another person who could not keep her. He had tried. This man had come to the shelter not to dump and old dog, but rather as a cry for help. He saw the shelter as a safe refuge with resources and hoped Missy could not only get the care she needed, but would actually have a roof over her head. He hoped, ultimately, that while she wasn’t in her prime, someone would fall in love with her sweet demeanor and give her a safe, warm, permanent home.
It was a heartbreaking scene, and as much as I admired this man’s intentions, I knew that his wish would be a tough one. You see, not only was Missy a senior dog and not likely to thrive in the shelter, but also well past her prime, it was unlikely she’d ever get adopted.
As I sat with Missy on the ground in front of the animals shelter, her weight nearly cutting off the blood supply to my legs, I quickly and quietly came to terms with what I knew had to be done.
Missy wasn’t going to step foot into that shelter. She was going with me.
Last month I wrote about teaching old dogs new tricks. This month I would like to tell you about how an old dog has taught me a thing or two. In the two short weeks that she’s been in my life, Missy has taught me to slow down and enjoy the moment, to enjoy meandering walks right in my own neighborhood, no fancy parks necessary, and to pause frequently and take in the view. She’s taught me to be grateful for a warm, dry place to curl up in and snooze on and the kindness of strangers, because anyone who passes could be a new friend (or could be a person with bacon, lol). She’s taught me that aging and slowing down do not mean being out of the game. In fact, she’s shown me that an old girl can pep right up and recapture her youth, if only for a few moments, under the right circumstances. She’s taught me not to dwell on the past, but instead to look bravely into the future while also enjoying what you’ve got, right now, today.
We are still teasing out her medical issues, though we did learn that her big belly is just that: It’s her shape, the shape of a mature woman who loves her food and has mild Cushing’s disease. So I’m not sure how long Missy will be with me, but I do know that taking and elder dog into my home has been as much of a blessing for me as for her. I do know that when the time comes for Missy to say her last goodbyes, she’ll leave knowing comfort, safety, and love. And I know without a doubt that she is going to leave a large potbellied impression on my heart.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, SiriusPup.com, the family business.
Main article photo by: Photo by Kelly Gorman Dunbar