by Karen B. London, PhD
Let’s face it: we all love puppies. Young dogs tend to be adopted from shelters and rescue groups quickly, while senior dogs take longer. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, senior dogs have an adoption rate of 25 percent, while younger dogs, including puppies, have a 60 percent adoption rate.
This means far too many great dogs are passed over simply because they are older. That’s a loss not only for those dogs but also for potential adopters.
Understanding Senior Dogs
Senior dogs tend to be different from younger dogs in a number of ways. For one, senior dogs are calmer, more relaxed, and sleep more than younger dogs, which means pet parents of senior dogs also get to sleep more (which is reason enough for most people to consider senior dogs a blessing). Older dogs are still playful but generally spend less time playing than puppies, who seem to spend every waking moment playing. Senior dogs are generally less interested in novel experiences, running around, and exploring and are more interested in (and even grateful for) the little pleasures, such as a scratch behind the ear, a good spot in the car, a snooze in a sunny spot, and time together doing anything — or nothing at all. On the other hand, senior dogs may require patience as they move slowly or take a long time to lie down, rise, or come to you.
At What Age is a Dog Considered a Senior?
A dog is considered a senior when they are at least 75 percent of the way to their expected lifespan. The actual age that qualifies this stage is different for different types of dogs. Some breeds that live an especially long time may not become seniors until they are 12 years old, while others may enter the senior zone much sooner, even as early as age five. Smaller dogs generally live longer than larger dogs, so it is typical for large dogs to be considered seniors years before their smaller buddies are. Many shelters and rescues, however, consider any dog who is seven years or older to be a senior.
Benefits of Adopting a Senior Dog
There are plenty of benefits to adopting a senior dog. Here are just a few:
You Know What You’re Getting
You don’t have to wonder how a senior dog’s personality will develop; they already are who they are! They may take a few days, weeks, or months to settle in, so you may see their behavior change as they become comfortable in their new home, but that’s true for a dog of any age. Knowing what you see is what you get when adopting a dog is wonderful. You can adopt the dog you connect with upon meeting them without worrying about who they will become in the future.
They Have Fewer Exercise or Activity Needs
It’s a lot of work to exercise dogs, whether that means going on walks, playing games of fetch, taking them running, or any other high-octane activity. Older dogs still need to get out and have adventures, but those experiences don’t need to be nearly as long or as intense, which can feel a lot more manageable for many potential adopters. Senior dogs are content to hang out relaxing for more hours each day than younger dogs, which tends to make them a little easier to integrate into our lives. They are also not constantly looking for something to do or getting into trouble because they’re bored.
You Get To Skip Destructive Puppy Stages
Whether puppies are chewing on your furniture, shoes, or hands, it’s not the most fun experience. If you are adopting a senior dog, those destructive puppy stages are in the past. Somebody else had to deal with the damage, but you can enjoy the company of a dog who knows better what to do with their teeth.
You’ll Be Saving a Life
As much as we wish it weren’t true, there is not always enough space in shelters for every dog, and far too often, shelters have to make tough choices about which dogs to save. Sadly, older dogs’ age is often a strike against them simply because they are not as frequently adopted. That means that if you adopt a senior dog, you may very well be saving that dog’s life. It’s hard to think of a better, more compelling reason to choose a senior dog than that.
Many senior dogs are available.
Because many people are only interested in adopting puppies, there’s sometimes a lot of competition for these youngsters. If you want to adopt a senior dog, you can usually have your pick of dogs. That means you can be choosy about characteristics that matter to you, including the dog’s size, color, breed, intelligence, playfulness, or any other trait.
Lower adoption fees.
Many shelters offer discounted adoption fees for senior dogs. The savings may be minimal, but they still leave more money for high-quality dog food or a cozy dog bed for your new best friend!
They May Already Be Trained
Senior dogs usually have some training, so you don’t have to teach them everything. It’s a real pleasure to adopt a dog who already knows that the bathroom is outside rather than inside, is comfortable walking on a leash, knows how to sit, knows their name, and perhaps has many other skills. Of course, all dogs will likely need some training when they come into a new environment, and not all senior dogs have been previously trained, but it’s more common for senior dogs to already have some training than it is among younger dogs.
Challenges of Adopting a Senior Dog
Dogs offer great joy at every age and stage but also present some trials. Puppies need constant supervision to keep them and your house safe, and adolescents are famous for their destructive chewing and tendency to ignore us. While senior dogs are well past these developmental issues, they, too, come with predictable challenges.
They May Have Some Baggage or Bad Habits
It’s often said that senior dogs come with excess baggage or bad habits, and that may be true for some seniors, but age is not always a good predictor of behavioral challenges. Many senior dogs are available because their previous owners lost patience with them, worried about providing health care, found themselves homeless or under serious financial stress, or the previous pet parent has died.
Mobility Might Be An Issue
Senior pets may have mobility issues due to stiffness in their joints, loss of muscle, or other natural aging processes. This lack of mobility can make it hard for senior dogs to navigate stairs or get in and out of the car.
They Likely Have Some Health Problems
Health problems are more likely to occur in senior dogs than in any other age group. Medical problems may mean fewer options for activities, a significant time commitment to get the necessary care, and can be expensive. Because of their age, senior dogs are also more likely to have dental issues, which, in addition to being expensive to treat, can warrant pet parents being more cautious with their dog’s toys and chews so they don’t damage their teeth.
You Won’t Have As Much Time With Them
The biggest challenge of adopting a senior dog is coping with the knowledge that we have less time to enjoy together. Of course, there are no guarantees about lifespan for any dog of any age, but with senior dogs, we can be more certain that our time with them is limited. The upside to this, though, is that it makes each moment together precious, and that’s a special and glorious way to live.
Preparing to Adopt a Senior Dog
Preparation is wise before adopting any dog. Making arrangements before adopting a dog makes the transition more likely for everyone to go smoothly. When adopting a senior dog, there are a few particularly important items to add to your to-do list.
Contact Your Local Veterinarian
Senior dogs may need more medical care than younger dogs, so scheduling a thorough exam soon is wise. Pro tip — unless the dog urgently needs care, schedule this for a couple of weeks after the adoption. The veterinary experience may be less stressful for your new friend once they are used to their new home and feel they can trust you.
Choose High-Quality Food
Good food is associated with enhanced health, and senior dogs can benefit from good nutrition in lots of ways, including better digestion, less stiffness, and perhaps more restorative sleep.
Purchase Comfortable, Supportive Beds
Beds that offer support and have a soft, fuzzy surface can improve a senior dog’s quality of life. If you can purchase beds of different sizes or types, your new dog will let you know which one is most pleasing to them. If you plan to have them sleep in your bed (Is there anything more delicious?), make sure they have one or more steps available to get in and out of bed so they don’t have to jump. Not all senior dogs can jump, and even those who can jump may cause themselves pain if they do try to leap up on the bed to be with you.
Have Cleaning Supplies Available
Sometimes having a dog means having to clean up a mess, so it’s good to have towels and an enzymatic cleaner on hand.
Finding the Right Senior Dog for You
No matter what age dog you are seeking, it’s best to choose a dog who fits your preferences and lifestyle and with whom you can connect. Finding the right senior dog for you is about finding that match in this particular age range.
One of the best pieces of advice about choosing the right dog for you — and this applies to senior dogs and those of other ages — is to base your choice on a dog’s behavior rather than their looks. This can be easy to say but hard to do — but it’s critically important. Your dog’s behavior is far more likely to affect your relationship than their looks. Choose a dog who is a good match for you, and you will fall in love with their appearance. However, loving a dog’s appearance does not make them the right dog for you. It’s especially important not to choose a dog just because they resemble the dog who was previously the love of your life. The black spot over their eye, the pink heart on their nose, or their comically oversized ears are not the key factors that made your relationship with that dog so incredible, so don’t assume another dog with similar traits will be as good for you as that dog was.
There are other practical factors to consider, too. One is grooming. Some dogs must be brushed daily, which is difficult for those who don’t even regularly brush their hair to commit to.
If you relish silence, a dog who barks a lot because they are alarmed, enthusiastic, or simply loves to chime in no matter the occasion is not the best choice. The same applies if your partner is driven insane by barking or if you live in an apartment building.
If you want to pick up your dog or have them sit in your lap, a 15-pound dog has advantages over a 115-pound dog. If you want a dog to sleep in your bed with you, adopting one small enough to share the space makes sense. And yes, I know that even the smallest dogs seem to take over the whole bed, but it’s still easier to claim a bit of space for yourself when the dog is not as big as you are.
Ultimately, you should consider an individual dog rather than a type of dog. Sure, retrievers are famous for loving the water and playing fetch, but some show disdain for both. Pay attention to who the dog in front of you actually is rather than who you expect them to be.
And notice if a dog is paying attention to you as well. Don’t be concerned if a dog is distracted when they first meet you (they’ll probably sniff around and explore the area), but it’s a great sign if they express an interest in you within a few minutes. A dog who brings you a toy, accepts your offer to play, wants to be near you, or happily welcomes petting or other physical contact is being sociable. Most of us want a sociable dog, but we don’t always consciously choose a dog based on them demonstrating sociability.
Senior Dog Adoption FAQ’s
You may have questions about what to expect when adopting a senior dog. Always consult your vet about any specific concerns about your dog, but here are some basic FAQs to get you started.
Is Adopting a Senior Dog a Good Idea?
Adopting a senior dog is not a good idea; it’s a great idea! So many senior dogs need homes, and you can have your pick of them, potentially saving their life and making your own better.
What Should I Know Before Adopting a Senior Dog?
It’s important to know that every dog is an individual, so simply knowing they are a senior dog doesn’t tell you all you need to know about them. Get to know them for who they are and choose the next love of your life based on all they have to offer beyond just the number of years they have been alive.
What Are the Problems with Adopting an Older Dog?
Adopting an older dog probably means you won’t have as much time with them as you would with a younger dog, although that’s not true in every case.
When Is a Dog Considered a Senior?
A dog is considered a senior when they are in the last quarter of their expected lifespan, although that period can vary based on a dog’s size and breed. Many shelters and rescues consider any dog who’s at least seven years old to be a senior dog.
Can You Train an Older Dog?
You can absolutely train a dog of any age! Anyone who suggests you can’t teach an old dog new tricks or any other skill, for that matter, is just plain wrong.
Final Thoughts on Adopting a Senior Dog
There is an unfounded but common concern that it will be hard to bond with a dog on the older side, but that’s simply not true. Biologically speaking, people and dogs are unusual because of our ability to establish deep relationships at any age. Senior dogs and their pet parents fall deeply in love, sometimes at first sight and sometimes over days, weeks, and months.
We all deserve to welcome a dog into our homes and hearts who will make us happy and enhance our lives. Often, the right dog for that goal is a senior dog, and the joys of adopting a senior dog are many.
If you need to place a senior dog, post them on Adopt a Pet’s Rehoming site. If more people know about how wonderful it can be to adopt a senior dog, it will become more likely that each of them will find their way to a loving home.
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.