Fifteen tips to help you adopt an old dog – thanks to Emma Lee for the words
Many people say that there is a lot of information out there about adopting a puppy, but very little about adopting an oldie. Much of what is written about puppies still stands for an old dog, especially an older dog who has been at a refuge for a long time. However, older dogs are often much easier adoptions than puppies, simply because so many of them know the rules already. Plus, they often don’t have the nervous energy of a younger dog. That’s not to say they aren’t set in their ways or escape artists! But you certainly can teach an old dog new tricks, and you may find these tips help you integrate your older dog much more easily.
Prepare yourself beforehand. Make sure you have an area to keep them if you are going to be out. Puppies are not the only dogs who chew, and older dogs can feel very alone if you don’t have other animals. A safe space without anything to be chewed, broken or damaged will not only keep your dog safe, but will keep your possessions safe too. A bed in a dog-proof bathroom can be a great starting place. Bear in mind that crate-training an oldie can be tough, especially if they have been confined in one before or they are fresh out of a refuge. If you intend to crate-train, make sure you have plenty of time to do so and never push it. Kitchens can be a safe option, but they tend to have more things at dog-chewing height even though they are easy to clean if there are accidents. Bathrooms tend to have fewer things to have to move out of the way. Check your outside area is escape-proof. Dogs are surprisingly capable of getting through very small spaces if they want to.
Make sure you have a collar and lead. Collars and leads in refuges are precious commodities and they may not be provided. Also make sure you have some way of transporting the dog safely to your home. A lead attached to a back-seat headrest is a quick solution, though a harness and travel compartment would obviously be preferable. If you are a long way from the refuge, time in some toilet breaks. You may also want to bring someone else with you to keep an eye on them if they aren’t good at car travel. Most older dogs will hop happily into cars, but for some, the only time in their life they will have ever been transported is in arriving at the refuge, and it can be a scary experience for them. An ID tag with your mobile phone number on it is a great idea. Sadly, some dogs escape the moment the car door is opened, or the moment they find a gap in your fence. Paperwork can take a while to update your number and having a collar with a number on it is a simple way to make sure the dog comes back to you as soon as it is picked up.
If you have other dogs, make sure you have read up on successfully integrating a new dog to your family. It isn’t always true that oldies just fit right in. If you have dogs already, they may be interested to see your new visitor and your new visitor may be a little grumpy after their long journey. A careful introduction makes all the difference in setting a tone for good doggie manners. Unfortunately, one time dogs forget their manners is when meeting other dogs. A face-to-face in a narrow entrance hall or corridor is the worst kind of greeting.
Before you pick up your new dog, do a quick check for edible/chewable things in range and anything you wouldn’t want the dog to come into contact with. Old dogs are not going to come into your house and pee everywhere, but prepared is better than trying to chase a dog around who is happily peeing on your sofa. Check you have dog food and a bed, a bowl and toys – old dogs can bond very quickly with you when toys are involved. Though plastic bowls aren’t great for dogs’ hygiene, be aware that metal bowls can be noisy and scary to a timid dog, so metal bowls with a rubber rim are a better option. Also, having a couple of different water bowls will eradicate some of the problems dogs can have with drinking in new places. You may find that your refuge dog is not at all fussy as they have been used to making do with what they have, but many dogs prefer rainwater or fresh water than tap water, so it’s worthwhile having a couple of different options just in case.
Dogs from the refuge, especially those who have been there for a long time, may smell a bit ‘refugey’. Bear in mind the character and confidence of your dog when sizing him up for an immediate bath. Bath time for doggies is not always a happy time. Putting up with the smell for 24 hours will give them a chance to settle and for you to get to know them before you do. If you can, ask a professional to give them a wash and tidy up – they are used to a wide range of dogs and will be able to help you get rid of the last whiffs of refuge odour. Make sure you time in a flea treatment as well. Spot-ons won’t work if washed off and whilst it is a great idea to de-flea before they arrive with you, it can be expensive if you intend to give your new dog a wash the next day.
Pay attention to the first moments in the house. Give your dog a guided tour of doggie areas. You may want to keep them on a lead in the house until you are confident they won’t be tempted to cock a leg. Encourage them to go to the toilet outside in the first few minutes of their arrival. In fact, it’s a lot better to stay outside until they have gone, even if that takes half an hour or so. Be prepared for doggie business that smells more foul than anything you have ever smelt. Dogs in refuges have often been on a varied diet of donated dog food and it can take a few days for stomachs to settle. They may also need a worming tablet.
Try to adopt at a time when you know you have a period of calm in your home, or when you know you will be at home to settle the dog in. Being able to plan your excursions so that you can test your dog when you leave him is great, especially if you can build in progressively longer periods of absence, up to a couple of hours at the end of the first week or so. If you have no time to help them settle, it’s going to be more stressful than if you have time to deal with problems.
The first night is often the toughest. It’s the time when you realise they hate being alone or they are used to sleeping on someone’s bed, or that they like to take a midnight wander and root through your kitchen garbage. Like humans, a tired dog is much more easy, and a good long walk will often mean you can choose where he falls asleep and then sneak off to where you’re sleeping. An enclosed, safe, warm place is the best solution. Spending a couple of hours sleeping on a couch near them will allow you to be alerted if they aren’t settling or if they are having trouble holding on for a toilet excursion. A good long walk will definitely make beddie-byes less troubling.
Know that the first 24 hours are as stressful for the dog as for you. They may fit right in straight away. Many older dogs arrive at a home and their owners say it is as if they have always been there. However, it is a learning curve and patience is essential. Your dog may have pains or aches, may not like his face being touched or his back end. They may find children or other animals just a little too exuberant. Even your gentle neighbour who just wants to pet your new arrival may be just a little too much. It’s all a learning curve. Your dog will often let you know. Less fuss is infinitely preferable to more fuss, no matter how much they deserve it. Stick to rules you intend to keep. If your dog is welcome on your sofa, that’s okay. If they are only allowed up because they are new, it’s better to keep them off the furniture completely. Give them a couple of other places to lie as well and you’ll find they’ll pick one they’re happy with. Be frugal with bedding – you don’t know if your dog is a chewer yet. Let them know what’s okay and what’s not okay and give them plenty of time without fuss.
Routines are essential to doggie happiness. A regular feeding time, a regular walk and understanding your routines will mean the dog quickly fits in. Regular places to sleep, regular rules and regular behaviours are quickly understood. If you don’t want your dog in the kitchen when you’re cooking, start from the moment you go in the kitchen. Don’t forget the doggie training. It builds bonds with your dog. Refuge dogs often have ‘lost’ their original name so calling them Rover when their original name is long forgotten may be completely meaningless to them. However, they may know lots of commands already and it’s worth reinforcing these. If you have adopted your dog during the summer holidays, be mindful that they may find it distressing to find themselves suddenly alone for five hours a day when you return to work. Phase in any changes gradually and always allow more time than you’d think necessary.
One thing pups and oldies have in common is they love treats – so keep an eye out for all the good behaviours your dog does and give them plenty of treats. They might not understand petting and affection, but there’s not a dog alive who doesn’t understand a chicken treat. Bear in mind that stressed or nervous dogs won’t eat, so if they won’t take a treat, leave them alone or put the treat in their reach and walk away. Always give treats in a ‘hand open’ position, like a tray. You’re less likely to have finger nibbles from dogs who may have sight problems or food issues. If you have other dogs, be very careful to follow guidelines about feeding time. Food, beds and toys are the three big areas dogs fight over and the last thing you want is a scrap in the kitchen because someone has forgotten that it’s not okay to eat the food in someone else’s bowl. Keep an eye on your dog’s weight, too, in the first weeks. Some refuge dogs quickly pile on the pounds and an overweight dog, especially an oldie, is more likely to have difficulties moving about.
On walks, don’t be tempted to let your oldie off the lead until you have perfected their recall in a safe environment and then gradually practised this in the real world. Arthritic old limbs suddenly get very limber when a rabbit shoots across the path. Calling Rover will be utterly meaningless to good old Rex who’s forgotten what you’ve been calling him these last two weeks. Although many dogs are abandoned at a refuge, some are escape artists – yes, even the oldies! – and if they have undiagnosed hearing problems, it can worsen the problem.
In the following weeks, make sure your dog has a vet check. If you are lucky enough to adopt a dog from a refuge where they have support in place from 30 Millions d’Amis for old dogs’ vet treatment, the letter usually arrives within the week. Upon presenting this to the vet, your vet will be able to bill the foundation directly for your dog’s treatment. The funding is only available for treatments over 30€ so they may open a tab for you if treatments are less than this. Be aware you will not be able to use this for worming tablets or flea treatments, or for prescriptions to be picked up at a chemist (for betadine, for example) so ask if your vet stocks the medicine and can dispense it. Your vet will discuss with you what things you can and can’t use the funding for. You cannot use the funding for euthanising the animal and although it is a sad thing to have to do, make sure you have the funds available for euthanasia and cremation. Take note of your dog’s weight and make sure you check it again in a month’s time. Your vet will let you know if any weight loss or weight gain is okay.
Be sensitive with new introductions to friends or family who might want to fuss your dog. It’s better to say “he’ll come to you when he’s ready” than it is to coax your dog to socialise when he doesn’t want to. Your guests will understand.
Know that most oldies have been and seen and done it all. Most of this advice will be quite irrelevant as they will tell you where they want to sleep, what they like to eat and when they need a bit of fuss. Without the energy of a pup, most oldies are chilled out and will easily fit in with your rules. Enjoy getting to know them and what they like and dislike. A rustle of a paper bag with a croissant, a pair of wellies, the sight of a lead … all of these things can elicit a joyful response from a dog with a history.
Most oldies do just settle right in, but a bit of guidance and prevention will make a great difference to how quickly that happens. A couple of hours of preparation, a small amount of money for a collar, lead and ID tag with your phone number on it, a calm introduction to your house and your dog will more than likely find his feet in no time at all.