David Rosenfelt: ‘Senior dogs taught me what rescue is all about’
Sometimes a dog comes along and changes the direction of your entire life. That happened to mystery novelist David Rosenfelt back in 1992 when he met a sweet, perceptive golden retriever named Tara.
Tara belonged to Debbie Myers, the woman who would become David’s wife. Debbie and David adored Tara so much that they christened her “The Greatest Dog in the History of the World.” After she died, the couple started a dog rescue organization called the Tara Foundation and helped find homes for more than 4,000 dogs that had been facing the end at crowded animal shelters. Many of the hundreds of dogs they’ve brought home to live with them over the years — including some pictured above — have been large, sick and geriatric.
In his book “Lessons from Tara: Life Advice from the World’s Most Brilliant Dog,” David describes just how much senior dogs have taught him about dog rescue. Here is an excerpt:
Our Tara Foundation did not take in old dogs exclusively, not even close.
It was always a tough call; in fact, which dogs to rescue was always the toughest call of all. We would go into any one of the terrible shelters in the Los Angeles area and there would be between one and two hundred dogs worthy of getting the hell out of there and into someone’s loving home.
If we had successfully placed ten that week, then it meant we had ten open spots. The ones we chose would live out their lives happily, and the ones we didn’t would likely be put down in the shelter. It was an awful position to be in.
Age was a factor to consider, but it cut a number of ways. The old ones probably had not had a good life up to that point, considering they were dumped in the ﬁrst place. We wanted to give them some good years; to live the rest of their lives with the love and dignity that they deserved.
But on the other hand, the young ones had probably never experienced any happiness at all, and saving them meant giving them ten or so good years, compared to half that for the seniors. If we were looking to maximize the good years we were providing to dogs in general, then young would be the way to go.
On the third hand was the fact that some young dogs were successfully adopted out of the shelter, but almost never the seniors. People wanted the youthful ones, two years or younger, so leaving them behind was at least not leaving them without any hope.
The fourth hand was that it would take us longer to adopt out the seniors, and since we were limited to twenty-ﬁve dog runs at the vet where we kept them, we either would place fewer dogs, or we’d bring more of them home. And even though Debbie has never seemed able to grasp this concept, we had limited space at home as well.
So basically we disregarded all of these factors in choosing dogs, and went with our gut, or more accurately, with Debbie’s gut. We didn’t set a quota, but my guess is that the seniors wound up comprising about thirty percent of our total. Doing the math, of the four thousand dogs we rescued, maybe twelve hundred were seniors.
And placing them was a challenge. I cannot count how many people would say that they were dog lovers, and to emphasize that fact, would talk about how long and hard they had mourned a pet that had died. They couldn’t adopt an older dog, they would claim, because it would die sooner, and they couldn’t deal with the grief again. It would be too painful.
Growing up in Paterson, we had an expression that suits this situation.
If you truly love dogs, and if you are intent on rescue, then don’t tell me you can’t handle the grief. Because that makes it about you, and rescue is about the dog. Living things die, and if you want to insulate yourself from that fact, then stop visiting your grandmother. Even young dogs have a brief life expectancy compared to humans, so instead of getting a dog, maybe you should get a vase.
There are many reasons to adopt a young dog, or even get a puppy. Maybe you just bond with it, or maybe you live on a beach, or you run a lot in the park, and want a dog who can get the full enjoyment from the surroundings. That is completely ﬁne and understandable and your absolute right. The more good homes for dogs of any age, the better.
I am absolutely not saying that people who adopt seniors are in any way better than those who don’t. Just please don’t base your decision on the fact that the dog is going to die.
So are you.
We’ve probably brought four hundred senior dogs into our home, over the years, as our pets. We didn’t bring them in because we have a particular love of seniors, though we do. We didn’t bring them in because they are smarter, or more obedient, because some are, and some aren’t.
We brought them in because they had nowhere else to go. And when they eventually died, it made us feel good to know that for whatever time they were with us, they were happy, and safe, and loved.
So if you want to feel good, one way would be to get a dog for the dog’s sake, to save a life that deserves saving. A life that has been difficult but doesn’t have to end that way.
Don’t let the deciding factor be which one is going to die quicker.
End of lecture.
Excerpted from “Lessons from Tara: Life Advice from the World’s Most Brilliant Dog” by David Rosenfelt. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press. Copyright 2015 David Rosenfelt.
David and Debbie’s epic story of dog rescue is chronicled in the book “My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts,” written by Laura T. Coffey and with photographs by Lori Fusaro. “My Old Dog” is available at book stores everywhere and at Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.
This blog post first ran on MyOldDogBook.com on July 31, 2015.