Friday, August 21, 2009

Why the Oldies Are Golden

I learned of the joys of owning an older dog when we adopted Leo. I am often sad for the older dogs who aren’t given a chance, and for the people who miss so much by passing them by.
When I talk to people about adopting dogs, I frequently hear these comments: "I want a dog young enough to bond with me." "I want a puppy so I can teach it before it gets set in its ways." "An older dog won't love me as much as his first owner."

We have found that dogs of all ages respond to love. All four of the basenjis we've been privileged to share our lives with came to us as adults, ranging in age from two weeks shy of his second birthday to thirteen and a half years. All of them bonded with us easily and deeply. Just as with a puppy one might bring home, there are periods of adjustment when the dog gets to know and trust his humans. Everyone learns each other's preferences and personality quirks, and both sides learn the daily routine, the warp and woof of intertwined lives. (OK, there's no woof with basenjis, but there's enough warp to make up for it.)

Our relationship with our first Basenji, Reno, evolved over the years, growing stronger and more multifaceted as time went by. As with any family member, the relationship with your dog in the first week or month is not what it will be in the coming months and years. The bond will grow over time. As you grow together, your lives will become more closely interwoven, and you will become more and more attuned to each other.

Don't hesitate to take an adult dog into your heart and home. Dogs are not like ducks who, upon hatching, imprint on the first creature they see, and then socially bond to that parent figure, giving no one else an opportunity to claim their affections. Mature dogs can be full of love, energy, and joy. There are the tail wags, the paw waves, the moments on a walk when they look at you and you realize they know you belong to them. You look in their eyes and know they love you. Dogs love generously, and the bond they share with their humans is rich and full because they are so grateful for a second chance.

Our nine-year-old basenji girl Dasa came to us when she was four. She was initially shy and worried, but step by step she began to trust and love us. It was very rewarding to see her personality blossom as she realized we are her forever family. She’s affectionate, loving, and sweet natured, and she knows we are hers.

Our little Leo was 13 1/2 when BRAT found him on doggy death row in a nearby pound. He had been abandoned by his first family, but he remained so sweet, trusting, and gentle. We never doubted the love shining from his soft brown eyes.

Many people think of adopting only puppies or very young dogs, but adult dogs have so much to give. Most older dogs are housebroken and somewhat calmer, although with basenjis this degree of calmness might be subtle. Basenjis often do not "grow up" at age two, that magic number that's supposed to usher in the beginning of staid maturity. Basenjis stay active and full of energy, mischief, and playfulness long after some other breeds become more sedate.

When Ivan came to us at age two, we were his fourth home, yet he is miraculously happy, giving -- and demanding -- attention and affection. He very quickly knew he was home. He is sensitive, affectionate, cuddly, and often challenging as Ivan, in typical basenji fashion, has his own agenda.

Adult dogs can be taught any number of things. Puppies have to go through kindergarten, but adult dogs can skip right to obedience. (Our basenjis have gone through basic obedience multiple times, although I have a feeling some of my basenji children were "set in their ways" at birth.) With a basenji, age can be an advantage in obedience class because an adult dog is, comparatively speaking, past the more frenzied puppy stage and might pay attention longer. Again, adult basenjis might stay focused more easily, but that doesn't mean they will decide to do what you want. Older basenjis are generally past the challenges of potty training, and are less likely to chew and be destructive. However, if you really want a calm, obedient dog, age alone is not going to help you. You need something else entirely, maybe a Lab or Basset Hound.

(Revised from a 2004 BRAT column written to honor Leo and golden oldies everywhere.)


  1. We recently adopted a BRAT girl who's just under 6 yrs old. We've had her for nearly a year now - and cannot imagine life without her. She adored my husband from day one, so I felt left out. Then one day - after our trust level grew - she decided that she would be my lap pillow instead of her brother. It was a great awakening and we've been tight ever since. She also came to us with NO obedience traning at all (knew NO commands) and has since passed the Canine Good Citizen test and is a wonderful companion. Older dogs are special in a very good way - and that 'AHA' moment of realizing that you are theirs and they, yours can warm your heart even more than when your 5 month old puppy pees in your shoes. Great article, Peggy.

  2. I currently have the privilege of fostering 10 year old gentleman basenji, Benny. He is the strong, silent type and a complete joy to have as a companion. He is not terribly mischievous, content to nap in a sunny spot until it's time for a walk or to go out in the yard to chase the chippies.

    As he gets more comfortable in my home, he's been letting me know that dish towels hanging from the oven door handle is tacky. He quietly removes them and shreds them to teach me a lesson. Apparently he didn't like the headlines on the newspaper he stole from the counter and which he also shredded. I respect his opinion; everyone is entitled to one.

    When his announcement was posted, I received many repsonses saying, "Thanks, but I'm looking for a much younger dog." Because of his age, no one is really interested in him. But that's OK. I don't mind if this gem of a basenji is here for an extended stay.

    Benny is a very young 10 year old.

  3. Our two BRATS were adopted at ages 11 and 12. They were a bonded pair, but honestly, when they came into our home, they made it theirs.

    Momma Roz was with us for 4 years. Mr. Calvin is still around, and is pushing 18 years this winter.