When making one old dog’s life better is enough

There is tremendous satisfaction in seeing an old dog respond to kindness when he’s rarely experienced that in his life.

When you sign up to foster dogs for adoption, it’s a bit like Forrest Gump’s infamous box of chocolates — you never know quite what you’re gonna get.

Right now, my wife and I are hosting two such creatures. One is a six-month-old shepherd puppy who wakes up far too early, has boundless energy, and clearly needs a job. The other is an elderly pit bull who is effectively deaf — especially when he wants to be — and who is very much set in his ways. Average them out and you’d have a calm, mature dog; but that’s not how these things work.

Alice, our regular dog, gamely puts up with this constant stream of interlopers passing through the house, though she’s quick to explain to them in no uncertain terms their inferior position in the domestic hierarchy. The shepherd puppy learned early on to respect Alice’s personal space, though he still insists on testing it occasionally (with entirely predictable consequences). The old pit, wise with experience, knows not to bother her.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a little pit bull named Petey who’d been picked up as a stray, and who slowly blossomed in a home that gave him comfort and love. Petey was adopted by a wonderful couple from Seattle, and at the time we told them that they had unlimited dog-sitting privileges. So it was that in June when they went away for a week, Petey came back to us. He walked through the door, sniffed a hello at Alice, then settled himself in his favorite chair as if he’d never left.

As chance would have it, the old pit we have now came with the same name.

This Petey has obviously had a hard life, though as usual, we know only the barest of details, supplemented by some physical clues. Our vet, Teri Byrd from Four Paws, estimates that he’s at least 10, maybe older. He has some broken teeth, likely evidence that he was chained up.

The organization that rescued him reported that his previous owner had apparently decided that he didn’t want an old dog anymore, and so gave him to a man who was homeless. For Petey, who is old and rather arthritic, life on the street was very difficult. The woman who manages the rescue outfit, knowing the soft spot we have for older dogs, guilted us into taking him in, and we’re glad she did.

Petey probably wouldn’t win any beauty contests. He has a large block of a head that may derive from some mastiff or bulldog heritage, pendulous jowls, and eyes that are different colors (one is a pretty blue). He snores. But he’s a sweet boy who just wants to be with people — despite the fact that people in the past have clearly not been good to him.

Dogs that have come from difficult circumstances — which many rescues have — take a while to open up, but when they do it’s very gratifying. We’ve had Petey for a month or so now, and every day we see a little more life in him. He wags his tail more, and despite his age, he happily saunters along with the often sizeable pack of local dogs that my wife seems to accumulate whenever she goes for a walk.

We doubt he had any real exercise in his previous existence, and he’s slowly getting a little fitter every day – though he’s never going to accompany anyone on a hike into the mountains. He’s a gentle soul who loves being petted and made a fuss of, and when we get down to his level he rewards us with large, sloppy kisses.

We thought we’d found the perfect home for him, but unfortunately, it turns out that Petey is decidedly not a fan of cats, which nixed that option. He’d be a terrific dog for someone older who just wanted a loving companion to hang out with, snoring with his big head tucked in next to you on the couch.

Perhaps we’ll end up stuck with Petey; but if we do, that’s okay. There is tremendous satisfaction in seeing an old dog respond to kindness when he’s rarely experienced that in his life. These days, our philosophy is pretty simple: the world is seriously messed up, and there’s nothing we can do to fix that. But if we can make one dog’s life better … well, most days, that’s good enough.

Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island. Petey is available for adoption (to a home without cats); please email desertislandbookworm@gmail.com for details.