A couple of months ago, Lara and I adopted an eight-year-old Cocker Spaniel and named him Rufio. Can an older dog really involve less effort and energy than a puppy? And can one integrate as fully into an active family? This is our experience.
Both of us grew up with dogs and have always loved them. Both of us also used to live in New York, where dog ownership was largely impossible (or at least impractical), but now live in LA where there's yards and parks and this thing called "the outdoors". Two years ago, I was given a little puppy by some friends who'd pulled his whole family out of a pound. I didn't think I was ready for a dog, but having one ended up changing my life for the better in some pretty powerful ways.
Now, Wiley and I are about as close as two creatures from different species can be. I don't mind bragging about my dog, but it's also completely true that most people who see us together end up wishing they had one too. And Lara's no different. So, for Christmas this year I drew a little stick figure dog in a card and told her we'd adopt her one for her present.
With travel and busy schedules, that didn't end up happening until late January. Lara and I don't live together yet and her apartment has an 11kg weight limit, so even though we're big dog people, we needed to get a small one. She's a busy lady and doesn't really have the time to invest in training or exercising a puppy — essentially a full-time commitment for the first few weeks — so we knew we wanted an adult dog. And stories of unloved older dogs hit a sweet spot in her heart, so she decided she wanted to adopt one of those.
We started the search by reaching out to friends and independent local rescue organisations like LA's A Purposeful Rescue. People like that do a great job pulling animals out of bad situations and personally placing them with an ideal family. Our list of wants was long though — a little dog that acts like a big one and an older dog who's not so old he can't come out and do stuff with us — and we said no to a lot of little guys who just weren't right for us.
So, we ended up visiting NKLA one Saturday and met a little spaniel with sad eyes and a big personality. Wiley came in to meet him and the two seemed to get along, so we signed the paperwork, paid them $US270 and walked out with a dog that Lara had already decided to name Rufio.
Things went well as far as the car, where I'd left a half-eaten bagel in a door pocket that morning. Rufio jumped in the car, grabbed it, then tried to bite me when I took it away. Lara was a little shocked, as most people would be, but I just explained that all rescue dogs are going to be a little rough around the edges at first and, worst case scenario, both of us are tougher than a 10kg spaniel.
We stopped by our local pet store, Tailwaggers, on the way home and picked up food and a collar and a leash and bowls and a bed and a crate. And Rufio peed and pooped right in the middle of the store. And Lara still hasn't used that damn crate; not once.
Rufio's back story was that he'd spent seven years of his life living with some family who decided they needed to give him up when they had their fourth kid. They did that by dumping him at one of LA's awful high-kill shelters and he was nothing but skin and bones when we got him, so I'm pretty sure he spent most of his life going unloved and neglected. NKLA pulls the more promising dogs off death row and gives them a permanent home and health care, so adopting from them clears room for another dog to be saved, as well as funding their efforts. They'd shaved what had clearly been a matted, filthy coat, neutered him and pulled a few rotten teeth.
An initial vet visit gave us an all-clear with the exception of anal glands that had never been expressed, not once in his life. They graciously handled that and Lara turned down my offer to show her how to do it next time. Guess the groomer's gonna have fun with that. Two months of eating Taste of the Wild, coconut oil and chicken livers has helped him pack on 2kg, so you can no longer see his ribs and spine poking out from under his coat.
The first time we gave him a bone, he had no idea what to do with it. He'd evidently never had one before. He just sat there with it in his mouth, wiggling his little tail stub and acting incredibly proud of his new meaty-tasting thing. I don't think he'd ever seen a ball before either or been given a toy. He loves his purple dinosaur and you've never seen a dog as excited about something as Rufio gets if you start bouncing a tennis ball. And he's pretty cool when Wiley steals all that from him.
The biggest surprise about having a small dog for the first time? They're so low to the ground, they get incredibly dirty easily and often; Rufio's the world's angriest Swiffer.
The two of them certainly aren't best friends. Wiley seems pretty jealous of any attention that Rufio gets and won't abide him sleeping in his (our) bed. Out on off-leash walks, he'll take any opportunity to knock Rufio over or to climb up a steep, narrow part of the trail and not allow Rufio through. But, baring the time I had to extract Rufio from Wiley's jaws on the second night, Wiley at least seems ambivalent about eating him.
Rufio's own food-related aggression has also disappeared. He got a piece of chocolate when Lara dropped it a few nights after bringing him home and tried to kill me when I took it away, but I gave him a little lesson in relative size and that was the last incident. We make a point of petting him, putting our hands around his face and sometimes even taking his food away, all while he's eating and that's been a big help, as has him growing comfortable with living in a new environment where he doesn't need to fight other dogs for his meals and in which food isn't a precious commodity.
Other than that aggression, he seemed to accept us as his new parents pretty much immediately. He follows Lara around like a shadow, tries to sleep on top of my head at night and is never happier than when he's laying under one of our chairs. He was also great off-leash from the start, with no training. He learned his new name without any effort on our part, follows along right behind and comes when he's called if something does carry him a few feet away. Staying that close is a very good thing, I'm not sure Wiley would defend him from the coyotes that have made a profession of eating small dogs in our neighbourhood.
Unfortunately, he also needs that proximity while riding in a car. He tries to get under Lara's feet when she's driving so we had to get a Ruffwear Load-Up Harness that clips him to a seatbelt in the back seat. That's obviously good for his safety in an accident too. And he won't be causing one now.
His first camping trip was a bit of a disaster. He'd already started to become a problem barker, but that definitely became a real issue during our whole mushroom-fuelled, twink burning man adventure in Death Valley. He barked at every person who walked past the entire time, at the other dogs, at the fireworks, at the wild burros, at the wind and I'm pretty sure at himself. As soon as we got him home, we put him in one of those anti-bark collars that sprays citronella in his face. A few days wearing that and he's largely cured.
Being both little and old is a recipe for getting cold easily. So a Ruffwear Climate Changer keeps him warm on cool evenings outside.
Over the last week, we also have discovered some new health issues. A bad smell coming out of his mouth seems to indicate that he has another rotten tooth (it's being pulled tomorrow) and he's been having some sort of allergic reaction to something environmental, manifesting itself in scratch attacks, squeals of pain and some very red eyes. Benadryl's helped to manage it, but he has an appointment with a specialist next week.
So is adopting an older dog worth it? Well, you're asking me that after I just spent all night sitting awake, cradling a cocker spaniel with allergy-induced scratch attacks in my arms and trying to rock him to sleep while I didn't get any. But I'm still going to give you an unqualified "yes". Getting to watch an animal go from neglected and suspicious and just plain sad to enjoying his new life is just incredibly rewarding in a way that's very different from raising a puppy and moulding him in your own image. Just seeing the look in his eyes the first time I handed him a bone and he realised a wonderful thing was all for him made all the biteyness and other problems worth it. He'll never be Wiley, but our lives are still richer for Rufio being a part of them.
And yeah, he's getting a mohawk with his next haircut.