Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Old dogs, new digs

Meet a senior rescuing seniors

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Abby (brown) and Titus

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Abby (brown) and Titus

Prepare to get misty-eyed, because today I'm going to share the heartbreaking story of Abby and Titus, a pair of affectionate senior citizens desperately hoping to live out their twilight years together.

It's been a hard road for these devoted seniors, who have battled serious health issues and become inseparable over the past 12 years, including six years when they were forced to live in a hallway.

Their already sad story took a tragic turn last month when the pair found themselves homeless. Fortunately, Judy Smith-Hill, a semi-retired dog groomer who lives in Stony Mountain, came riding to the rescue.

That's because Abby and Titus are two adorable miniature dachshunds and Smith-Hill is the kind-hearted founder of Before the Bridge Senior K9 Rescue, a non-profit organization dedicated to finding homes for elderly dogs that have been surrendered, neglected or abandoned.

While other rescues focus on particular breeds, Before the Bridge is the last hope for dogs like Abby and Titus -- senior canines who end up homeless as they enter what should be their golden years.

Since being launched in August 2012, the rescue has found homes for 48 senior dogs. It has another 12 households in its network of volunteer foster homes waiting for permanent placements.

Smith-Hill got the idea after spending several years fostering dogs for Hull's Haven Border Collie Rescue, a non-profit run by Sally Hull that helps all breeds but has a special focus on border collies.

"I probably fostered 58 or 59 dogs over the years for them," says the part-time groomer who doesn't want her age to appear in a newspaper. ("I'm just a senior rescuing seniors," she insists with a laugh.)

"Sally Hull asked me to take a dog that was a senior, a stray... I knew I wouldn't have her long. In the end, I had her four-and-a-half months.

"When she passed, I was devastated. At that point, the idea was in my head -- these poor senior dogs, nobody really wants them and they have to euthanize them, so someone has to care for them and that's me."

Starting a rescue made no financial sense, but Smith-Hill was driven by her heart, not her head.

"I opened my rescue by cashing in two RSPs," she confesses. "Just $2,000 to have a cushion, a bank account."

Smith-Hill says older dogs can find themselves homeless for a variety of reasons, such as when an owner dies or enters an extended-care facility.

"There's a lot of family breakups and nobody can take the dog because they're moving from a house into an apartment and we don't have enough pet-friendly apartments," she points out. "And some people give up their dogs because they have health issues they can't afford to fix."

Whatever the reason, Smith-Hill says, it's heartbreaking when a loyal dog is parted from a longtime owner.

"These are dogs who have loved their families and then the family circumstances change and they find themselves homeless," she notes. "It's really heartbreaking. My job is to find a home where they'll be loved."

While it's easy to place a puppy, finding homes for older dogs poses unique challenges. Potential owners may be reluctant to take on a pet that might not have much longer to live, or that may have serious and potentially expensive health issues.

But she says older dogs can make the best pets, because they are typically house-trained and beyond the furniture-chewing, bouncing-off-the-wall stages of puppyhood.

"Senior dogs require less exercise," she explains. "They're easier to look after. They're loyal and loving. They're just happy you're home and to have a scratch and a belly rub and lie at your feet."

Smith-Hill tries not to judge anyone who relinquishes an older dog, although it's not always easy.

"One woman gave up a senior dog because she said it just wasn't doing it for her anymore," she recalls. "I don't know what that meant. I later found out she got a puppy."

There have also been pleasant surprises along the way as her group approaches its one-year anniversary.

"My original concept was for seniors to rescue seniors, but what has happened is the younger generation has stepped forward and they're adopting these dogs," she declares. "These are high-powered people who don't want to come home and find their furniture has been eaten by a bored young dog that requires more exercise. It was a surprise, but I understand the reasoning.

"Senior dogs need a helping hand. If they end up in a shelter, they could be euthanized if they're not adopted."

In the case of Abby, 14, and Titus, 12, Smith-Hill, who has two dogs of her own, is serving as a foster mother for the hard-luck wiener dogs.

The dogs spent 12 years living with a woman who now has an eight-year-old son with special needs. When he was two, Smith-Hill says, Abby was accused of lunging at the child, who may not have known how to play with a pet. "Instead of looking for a home, the mother blocked the dogs off in a hallway," she says. "She let them out to go to the washroom, but they weren't allowed to roam free.

"They were kept like that for six years and then she decided to it was time to find them another home and she heard about me."

While it may not be easy, the patron saint of senior dogs is praying for a home where Abby and Titus can live out their final years as a couple.

"They deserve to live out their lives in a home that loves them," she says, her voice choked with emotion. "They're just happy to be alive. I'm going to miss them."

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2013 C5

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