Our German shepherd mix, Milo, is the perfect gentleman. He’s never chewed the sneakers our children leave sprawled across the floor, pulled food off the counter or had accidents on the carpet. He doesn’t bark or growl—ever. He lets rambunctious puppies climb on him like he’s playground equipment. On walks through our Potomac neighborhood, he keeps up with our pace like a dog school valedictorian.
We can’t take credit for any of Milo’s admirable traits—he came to us this way. We rescued him as a senior two years ago. He and his buddy Scruffy were foraging along a Virginia highway in late 2017 when they were picked up by animal control. Scruffy, a terrier mix, was about 2 years old at the time and got adopted right away. Milo languished in foster homes until we came along months later. He was estimated to be about 9, based on his teeth and graying muzzle.
Milo’s story isn’t unusual. About 25% of the dogs currently available for adoption at the Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoption Center in Derwood are over 7 years old—the age at which most breeds are considered seniors. According to Maria Anselmo, the center’s community relations manager, older dogs, particularly the larger breeds, can linger for months before finding a permanent home. Puppies often find homes within 24 hours of being listed for adoption.
Luckily for Milo, we weren’t looking for a puppy. As children, my husband and I each lost a young dog that sprinted out an open door and was hit by a car. We agreed early on that we’d rather give an older dog a chance at a good life than risk losing a puppy through tragedy. Plus, we were comfortable with the trade-offs: We’d miss the adorable puppy phase, but be spared the soiled rugs, shredded belongings and exhaustion that come with it.
Our previous rescue dog, Cola, was with us for five years before she died in February 2018. A quirky Lab-hound mix, Cola had been found stray and pregnant in Virginia Beach. Once her puppies were weaned and placed in new homes, she was put up for adoption. Our vet estimated her to be about 6 when we took her in. It took us a few weeks to gain her trust, but she grew to be our loyal protector. Our daughter was 11, and our sons were 9 and 16 when we adopted Cola, and she was gentle with all of them from the start. She led us in a nightly “family howl” until her final days.
When Cola died, we didn’t think we could ever replace her. But within three weeks our daughter began scouring pet adoption websites and found Milo’s photo. We all fell in love with his wolflike face and soulful eyes. We adopted him a week later.
Since the day we brought him home, Milo has been happy to sit close to us and get his head petted and his belly rubbed, and we are happy to oblige. When the front door opens, he waits patiently in the foyer until someone gets his leash. His foster mom didn’t know his history, but we suspect he lost his first “forever” home when he dashed out an open door and couldn’t find his way back. (He hadn’t been microchipped and he’s not a great tracker.) These days, he’s not taking any chances.
It was the calmness of older dogs that first inspired us to go that route for a family pet. Anselmo says people who adopt seniors often do so again and again. And even though older dogs wait longer to find homes than younger ones, they’re almost never returned to the shelter. “Puppies need house-training. They nip and chew the furniture. Even with [young] adult dogs, people will sometimes bring them back and say they have too much energy—they’re too much work,” Anselmo says.
Milo, on the other hand, is never too much work. Even at dinnertime he’s patient with us. If he thinks we’ve waited too long to feed him (he usually gives us a grace period of about a half hour after dark), he places his paw on one of our legs (his version of a tap on the shoulder) and gazes longingly and silently at his empty food bowl. “Don’t worry, Milo,” we say as we get up to fill his bowl. “We’d never, ever forget about you, good boy.”