“He’s so wrinkly and wiggly!” two school girls squealed recently as they fawned over my something-year-old American Bulldog while we were out for a walk. Fenway, who has a gnarly scar across his forehead and a limp from a hit-and-run in his drifter days, was a year-long shelter resident before we found each other and is not often the center of attention like, say, our neighbor’s impossibly cute 8-week-old beagle. But unlike that little beagle, Fenway isn’t inclined to urinate on my hardwood floors or chew my furniture, so I am happy to have him be the center of my attention.
Too often, people are quick to write off adult dogs when searching for a new pet, but the benefits of skipping the puppy phase are numerous, and it can be fulfilling to give an older dog the best years of his or her life, says Lisa Marvin, a specialist at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center.
November is Adopt a Senior Pet Month. Here are some reasons why you might want to consider doing just that.
An older dog can learn new tricks
There are many concerns and prejudices around adopting adult dogs, but one of the most prominent is that they will exhibit fear and aggression. A puppy is often seen as a clean slate; however, Lanee Nee, an animal behavior manager at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, said that fear-based aggression tends to show up around 12 months of age, is often passed on through genetics, and can happen even when an animal is raised in a stable, loving home. A benefit of adopting an adult dog is the same reason many people refrain: an adult dog is a known quantity, said Dr. Terri Bright, director of the MSPCA-Angell’s behavior services department. “Any behaviors they have inherited will have already been shown, such as a tendency toward fearful behavior or an ability to play well with other dogs — or not.”
Full-time workers, city dwellers, and busy households may all benefit from skipping the puppy stage. “Raising puppies properly takes a lot of time and hard work, while most adult and senior dogs have more established personalities, manageable energy levels, and may have mastered basic commands," Marvin said. “When adopting an adult dog, potential adopters actually benefit from having more information about that dog’s behavior, and they have more opportunities to speak with behavior professionals at the shelter to find a dog that best matches their lifestyle.”
Marcia Peters of Jamaica Plain chose to adopt older dogs because of her own age, and urges others to consider their own circumstances. “We adopted two dogs, 12 and 6, because we’re old and shouldn’t have pets who’ll outlive us. . . . I think it’s very important, actually. Old people get pulled over by big dogs who see squirrels. Old people die and their pets wind up languishing in shelters."
Knowing the dog’s demeanor is especially significant if you have children or other pets in the home. Marvin said, “When adopting [an adult or senior dog] from a shelter, you have the opportunity to learn more about the dog you are considering bringing home, including how they would get along with children. Many shelters have animal behavior counselors you can speak with to determine which dog would be a good fit for your household.”
It’s worth noting that a dog with a more established personality is just as trainable and eager to learn. “There is a misconception that adult dogs are harder to train, or come with behavior issues left behind from previous owners," Marvin said. "[But] these dogs are perfectly capable of learning, and the more consistent you are about working regularly with your dog, the easier it is to help them learn, no matter their age. Adult dogs have often already mastered house-training and basic commands, so you can spend more time snuggling and less time cleaning up.”
Setting your pooch up for success
It’s tempting to bring your new companion everywhere when you first bring him home, but you might be unknowingly setting your dog up for failure. Bright advises on how to ease the transition: "I think the settling-in period should be a very quiet and predictable time for an adult dog, who often has been though types of trauma. . . . Imagine — the dog has no idea where it is and how it wound up there and is getting used to the myriad of smells, sights, and sounds it is surrounded by. But new owners are so excited, they try and take the dog everywhere, such as family gatherings, breweries, and dog parks, when the dog is in a state of possible fear and anxiety. When that happens, the dog might be forced to use a growl to try and keep scary people or dogs away. This upsets the new owners terribly. Had they simply let the dog settle in for three or four weeks, then introduced them to the world very carefully and quietly, the adjustment might be smoother.”
Bright provides practical solutions for avoiding this situation. “Plan your dog’s day out as if they were a 2-year-old child; rather than wait for problems, prevent problems by arranging the environment so the dog can easily learn how to win your attention and a treat or play session.”
Nee and Martin agree that it’s best to start small to avoid overwhelming your new friend. Let your pet become comfortable with one or two rooms and gradually expand house privileges as you get to know each other. Nee advises just chilling out and considering your dog’s point of view: There’s a whole lot of new stuff going on.
Adult dogs are a known quantity. Use that to your advantage.
You can find the perfect canine companion in a mature dog. “People get a puppy thinking they can shape that puppy into the perfect dog, but then life and genetics intervene. The adult dog can be the perfect companion, and if one takes a good amount of time to meet and spend time with many dogs, they can find the new best friend that matches their lifestyle,” Bright said.
Nee suggests asking two questions to determine whether a dog is a good fit for your family: How has the animal has reacted to the different people they’ve met? And what has the dog acted like on walks and away from other dogs?
Marvin advises, "The best way to make a good choice when adopting a dog is to base that choice on the individual dog’s personality and behavior, rather than looking for a specific breed.”
The Animal Rescue League of Boston offers a pet behavior helpline to the community. Entirely free of charge, they are here to help with behavior questions for anyone in need. (617) 226-5666 or email@example.com.
If you’re considering adopting an older dog from a rescue organization or animal shelter, Petfinder.com is a terrific resource. The site shows animals available for adoption from all sorts of organizations, and is easily searchable based on your location and desired size, age, breed, or gender. You can also search animals based on whether they would be good with children and other pets in your household. If you aren’t ready to commit to adopting a pet, the website can also help you find volunteer opportunities in your area.
Elle Caruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.