“We were expecting to adopt a very young dog, maybe not a puppy but no more than about a year old,” says Anne Simpson, a professor of English literature in the Los Angeles area. “And we were hoping to find a cocker spaniel because my husband had had really good experiences” with that breed, she adds.
But a young dog was not who stole their hearts. “We were at the shelter, and Sam was in this cage with another dog, and he just looked so soulful. He hadn’t been groomed in months and months and months — you could tell he was a cocker spaniel, but he was a ball of fur.
“We asked to have him brought out so we could just sit with him and see what he was like. He was just very sweet, sort of melancholy. We were told he was five, although they didn’t know for sure. We sort of hesitated because we knew that would mean our time with him would be shorter. The other thing we hesitated about was that he was such a mess because of his hair.” Dr. Simpson and her husband, Ben Patnoi, were concerned that he might have had fleas or been infested with something else, and they didn’t want to contaminate their apartment.
“It was a Saturday afternoon, and we weren’t sure we could find a groomer” before taking him home, she explains. “There we were in the San Fernando Valley calling millions of groomers trying to get an appointment. We were sort of on the fence because of this issue. Then the woman at the shelter said, ‘Of course you’re going to take him home even if you can’t get a groomer today, aren’t you?’
“So we said the hell with it — we’ll take him home even if he has fleas.
“As we were leaving, the woman said that was his last day, whereupon Ben and I both burst into tears. They were very careful not to tell us that while we were making the decision.
“I got in the back seat of the car with him while Ben drove. He immediately put his head on my chest. I was completely in love.”
Dr. Simpson and Mr. Patnoi’s experience was not unusual. People often find that an older dog, when adopted, seems to know somehow that his new owners gave him a home when no one else would. Many people form a close bond in short order with their older adopted dog precisely because the pet shows them a depth of affection that a younger animal might not yet have to give. There are also a number of other reasons adopting an older dog rather than a puppy might be the way to go.
Older dogs have been socialized and so already know what it means to be part of a “pack.” That was certainly the case with Sam. He intuited the rhythms of the Simpson-Patnoi household immediately and fell right into line. “He was extremely good around other dogs and almost never barked around anybody,” Dr. Simpson says. “He would just hang out with us. Whichever one of us was out of the apartment, he would always sit by the front door waiting for that person to come home.”
Older dogs don’t have to be toilet trained, with a walk at midnight and another one at four in the morning. In fact, they make great first pets because you learn to take care of a dog without having to teach him not to chew the furniture, urinate on the rug, chase the cat, and otherwise wreak havoc. He has calmed down and acclimated to life in a human family by the time he comes to you.
The personality of an older dog is not a mystery. With a puppy, you can do temperament testing as young as seven weeks to see what his personality might be like as he grows to adulthood, but there are no surefire bets. With a mature dog, on the other hand, what you see is what you get. Sam continued to evidence his “slightly melancholy quality sometimes,” Dr. Simpson said, just like he did when the couple first saw him in his cage. “We used to worry about that. Was he missing the people he had been with? Was it that he hadn’t been taken care of very well before we found him? He never played. He would never chase a ball or anything like that, although if you gave him a blanket, he would tug on it. And there was a long hallway outside our apartment door, and when you turned the corner there was another long hallway — we’d let him off the leash and he’d go racing down the hall, then turn the corner and go racing down the other hall. There were these people who’d leave out a little treat for him. Then he’d come racing back.”
If you like a particular breed, it’s easier to find one that’s not a puppy. Those who love, say, a cocker spaniel’s “old soul” eyes can probably find an adult dog of that breed with the help of a breed rescue club — without having to shell out more than $1,000.
Adopting a mature dog means helping to reach the larger goal of making the U.S. a no-kill nation. Many dogs who are put down in shelters, like Sam almost was, are older ones because people often go for younger pets. Adopting an older dog comes with a better chance of truly saving a life. Furthermore, as stated by the Senior Dogs Project (srdogs.com), “by adopting an older dog, we can make a statement about compassion and the value of life at all ages….And, of course, just as a puppy has his whole life ahead of him, so does an older dog have the rest of his life in front of him. You can give that older dog the best years of his life.”
Anne Simpson and Ben Patnoi certainly did that for Sam, who had been found on the street one hot July day before being taken to the shelter. And he gave them some of their best times, too. “He was just the best dog ever,” Dr. Simpson says. “He had an incredibly sweet disposition.” Dr. Simpson and Mr. Patnoi now have two terriers that they adopted at the age of 9 months and 1 years, and they’ve now had both of those dogs longer than the 9 years they had Sam, who died almost 15 years ago. But Sam, Dr. Simpson says, “was my true love. I adore Sophie and Jackson [their current dogs], but it’s not the same. I don’t know how to explain it. They will live in my heart forever, but there is nothing like him.
“I don’t believe in Heaven,” she says, “but nevertheless, when I imagine myself on my death bed, I imagine that the thing that’s going to be consoling me is that after I die, I will see Sam.”