Why You Need a Midlife Dog at Midlife
Sure, Everyone Wants The New, Shiny Baby Puppy. But Experts Say There Are Better Choices
At 49, I shouldn’t have adopted newborns.
Rescue puppies, that is.
And certainly not after spending two decades raising three kids (now 24, 23, and 20) and two different dogs (who have both since passed away). I’d survived a bad marriage and a contentious divorce, sold a suburban Washington, D.C., home, and renovated and moved into a row house in the District. I was finally making time for me. Like 42 percent of Americans (up from 39 percent in 2007, according to Pew Research), I was going to be living alone and was very excited about it.
Yet, I adopted two Great Pyrenees — mix puppies, five weeks apart, each 11 weeks old. (My first two human children are 14-months apart. Hmmm. Do we see a pattern here?)
Of course, I didn’t know when I adopted Tennessee Williams and Hudson River (their formal names) that they were going to be difficult to raise. I’d read Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog, and I’d laughed (and cried when he died), but I hadn’t lived the book. I had never had a dog like Marley, who crashed through screen doors, ate drywall, and got expelled from obedience school. With Tennie and Hudson, I had Marley — times two.
Tennessee (Tennie) is a nervous dog. Having raised a child with anxiety, I understand this about her. She’s not vicious, but actually rather scared when she feels it’s her dogly duty to attack all dogs as well as all passersby on the street, buses, UPS trucks, garbage trucks, cyclists, skateboarders, and police officers on Segways. Hudson has a Hamlet-like obsession with cats: to kill or to cuddle, that seems to be the question! So for Tennie’s sake, to get to the dog park, we take as many of the quiet labyrinthine alleys behind the District’s row houses. The problem: D.C.’s alleys are filled with cats, and they provoke Hudson’s existential question and manic reaction.
For three years, these two animals have been the hardest part of my day, every day. They consume me — the way my children and marriage consumed me. They have raised my level of stress and, undoubtedly, my blood pressure. Tennie and Hudson are frankly so difficult that I imagine had they been adopted by someone less forgiving, they would have been surrendered back to a shelter like four million other dogs who are adopted and returned to shelters each year. Yes… that’s the statistic. And that’s just in the United States. (Worse: Each year 670,000 shelter dogs are euthanized.)
In fairness to Tennessee and Hudson, I was not the right match for them — a D.C.-based, row house–dwelling woman whom they outweigh. My crazy dogs should be living on a farm somewhere far from traffic and noise and alley cats. But I was never going to return T & H, partly because I’m a doer, partly because I judge people (harshly) who give up, and of course, because I love them. I have the same attitude as Marley and Me’s John Grogan, who said in an interview: “We didn’t give up on Marley when it would have been easy to.”
Jodi Andersen, a nationally recognized dog trainer and co-founder of How I Met My Dog, a canine adoption site that uses an eHarmony-like survey/algorithm to make the perfect human match, says I need to lose that attitude. “We need to stop shaming owners who make a mistake and adopt the wrong dog. We don’t always know why a dog has been returned and it’s not always because the surrenderer is ‘bad’.” Sometimes, she says, dogs are returned to shelters because there’s breed discrimination in the neighborhood or a family has inherited a dog they simply can’t keep. “We need to find a solution to the ‘wrong dog getting’,” says Andersen. And shaming is not a solution.
In order to cut in half the “wrong-dog” return rate, Andersen and her co-founders, MaryAnn Zeman and Sharon Mosse, developed the “ComPETibility” algorithm to “increase the odds of a good match,” and she wants all shelters in the country to adopt the 56-question online survey. “How I Met My Dog” was not created to only help puppies (“which usually get scooped right up,” says Andersen) but also to help older dogs — those as young as four years — which have a much more difficult time getting adopted. Anderson says when dogs are returned to shelters for any reason they automatically receive a black mark on their records, even if they did nothing wrong. For owners who can no longer keep a dog, How I Met My Dog also provides a “re-homing” platform.
To make a better match, the survey asks shelters 33 questions and re-homers 46 questions about the dogs in their care. “The system gives the dog a say in who would make the best adopter,” says Andersen. This way the high-energy mutt who doesn’t tire out until she’s gone on a five-mile run followed by a 30-minute romp at the dog park doesn’t get matched with the homebody who likes to binge-watch Netflix. And the human who wants a running buddy won’t end up with a cute lab who simply wants an all-day belly rub on the couch.
The biggest problem for so many of us is that we walk into shelters wanting to adopt a pet but are clueless and ask questions about a dog’s personality of volunteers who don’t have the answers.
The ComPETability algorithm gets at who we are as people. Rather than asking questions about previous pet ownership, it asks about how we approach life. For example, “When working on a specific task (e.g. cleaning the house, cooking dinner, paying the bills, etc.), I am more comfortable a) Focusing on the task from start to finish, b) Multitasking and getting a bit of each one done. If I had to choose, I would rather a) Be invited to a party, b) Plan and host a party, c) Neither, I don’t like parties.”
I took the survey (answering “B” to both of these questions) and was matched with 85 dogs. Like me, they are all midlifers. “Older dogs in need of a family are dealing with transition and loss, just like a 40- or 50-something person,” says Andersen, who believes that midlife dogs and midlife humans are a natural match. She’s got a good elevator pitch to steer midlifers toward older dogs and away from puppies: “If you’re 50 and you have a group of friends who are 20, it would be novel to hang out with them — but only for a while. Your interests and ability to keep up with them would be vastly different.” Pet ownership is about similar compatibility. “Think about it — the older you get the less you want to do things that you don’t want to do.” In other words, why would you move in with an animal that’s forcing you out of your comfort zone?
“Midlife dogs have had their hearts broken,” says Andersen. “When they get re-adopted each one knows and understands that it’s being saved by its adopter. It’s a bond like no other.”
“The payoff is huge … An adult dog bestows his love if you’re worthy,” says Karen Hewitt, 56, from Ventura, California, who two years ago adopted a three-year-old Great Pyrenees named Captain. “It was the best choice ever … he has the same energy level as me.” Hewitt admits she had concerns about an adult rescue but she knew she couldn’t go through housebreaking and training again. “I think Captain was waiting to be moved [to another shelter] again … The first time he stuck his head out the [car] window and enjoyed the ride I cried because he finally was acting like a dog, not a shell of a dog.”
Christine Cochran Taylor, 50, from Birmingham, Alabama, says she adopted six-year-old Chase from an animal shelter; he had been returned “because the father of the owner didn’t want him around anymore.” Chase is Taylor’s first midlife dog, too. “He [is] so very calm … He fits right into my lifestyle. My daughter had gone on to college and I was alone … He is my heart dog.”
These women discovered something that I hadn’t understood — that a midlife dog, like a 50-year-old friend, is someone with whom to take a nice walk and then sit with on the couch while enjoying a glass of wine. Instead, Tennessee and Hudson have been knocking over my glass of wine. “For a puppy, like a child, everything is new, exciting. Every new moment is cause for celebration,” says Andersen. “A falling leaf needs to be wondered at, chased, stomped on, maybe barked at. While a midlife dog still requires the responsibilities of shelter and food, it requires ‘less.’ It needs exercise, but less; supervision, but less. A midlife dog is saying, ‘I’ve been through it all already, I don’t need to prove anything to you or to the pack or to anyone. I’ve been-there-done-that. I just want to hang with you’.”
I asked Andersen why she thought that I, like so many other midlifers, went for the fresh new, chubby puppy. Was it ageism? “I don’t know if it’s so much prejudice as it is fear. When adopting an older dog we think about mortality. It’s not that people doubt the dog’s personality, it’s not that they want a dog they can mold; it’s that they are afraid of the pain of loss.” And they are afraid that older dogs come with a higher medical price tag, which is actually a fallacy. According to a Kiplinger report, “9 Costs Every Dog Owner Should Budget for,” a dog’s first year is the guaranteed most expensive, with costs ranging from $710 to $8,730. After puppydom, the cost of raising a dog usually decreases to $310 – $7,100 per year. The cost of an older dog depends entirely on that particular dog’s health.
So, what about women looking for a baby again? Is that unwise?
I called Hannah Starobin, a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in New York City and co-host of Twisting The Plot, a new website and podcast for 50-plus women. “It’s about the unconditional love of a baby,” Starobin says. It’s also about resuming the role we are familiar with: “caretaker.” “A lot of us care-take our partners, husbands, ailing parents,” Starobin explains. “It’s a role we do well.” Caretaking fills a void. “Instead of turning inward on ourselves, we look forward to someone else to take care of. It’s not a lack of imagination. It’s not taking time for imagination.”
Margaret Jones Davis of Creative Dog Training chalks it up to a do-over of sorts. “A lot of older adults look for ‘replacement kids’,” she writes in her blog about midlife puppy-adopters.
Ok, so the pups will grow up and in less than a year, when I’m 53, I’ll finally have the midlife dogs I should have adopted. And if I still need a baby-fix, I’ll get it from my human children who will hopefully deliver me my grandchildren someday. But note to those children: I’m in no hurry; I’m still on “me time.”