Why I Opened a “Retirement Home” for Senior Golden Retrievers

You can never have too many Golden Retrievers in your life, even if they're not all yours.

I’ve fostered dogs of all ages for decades, and it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. But two years ago, I decided to focus solely on seniors and puppies. My daughter, June, had just turned three, and I was worried an active canine youngster might knock her down. I grew up with Goldens and have always been partial to the breed. After all, they’re sweet and smart, and they’re one of the few breeds with a sense of humor. I love everything about them. The “retirement village” name actually started as a joke for my home, although it’s true, as I’ve had up to five seniors here at a time! That said, I prefer three to four so everybody can get plenty of attention, and right now, I actually have just one senior, nine-year-old Dixie.

My fosters come from local rescues

Most of the Goldens I foster are with the non-profit rescue Adopt a Golden Knoxville. They pull the dogs from shelters and also take “owner surrenders.” A family might need to surrender a dog for a variety of reasons, such as a job change, financial hardship, or death. Some really are fosters, meaning that they stay with me until we find them a home. This can take anywhere from two weeks to eight months. Others I adopt, and they stay with me until the end. For instance, I adopted Dixie in October 2019, so she’ll live out her remaining days here.

Every dog has his or her own bed

While they’re here, all of the dogs live in my home. Each one has a dog bed and a place in the house they’re most comfortable. For example, Dexter, who was blind and deaf, preferred to stay in the kitchen and living room because he had learned where everything was and navigated the area well. Meanwhile, Hooper always liked to sleep on the cold tile in my bathroom, and Max always slept in my bed.

Finding homes for senior dogs is rarely an issue

golden retriever retirement homeCourtesy Sommerville Harris CulbertsonAlthough many of the dogs have health issues and disabilities associated with age (in 2019, for example, we had three dogs who were blind and deaf), we’ve never been unable to find a home for a dog healthy enough to need one. When it seems like they might not have much time left, we don’t pursue an adopter, and instead, they stay with me or other volunteers for whatever time they have left. If the dog isn’t in discomfort, we allow them to spend whatever time they have in a loving home. Some might just have a week or so, which we still think is something, but others surprise all of us and stick around for years.

I also foster puppies and their moms

I currently also have nine puppies (eight boys and one girl) and their mom, Lucy, whom I’m fostering for another rescue. As of September, I’ve fostered three mothers and 25 puppies this year. They have a pretty fancy setup in my garage, which is basically a maternity ward and preschool classroom. I keep my seniors away from the pups when they’re with their mothers because I’ve found it stresses the mom to have other dogs around. However, if I have orphaned puppies or the mother is no longer caring for them, I’ll introduce one of my seniors to help socialize them. My Goldens Max and Dexter were amazing with this and a huge help to scared puppies, which is why they were called Uncle Max and Uncle Dexter.

It’s a family affair

With nine puppies, the day is occupied with cleaning, feeding, playing, and napping. But I have my daughter to help, and she loves it. It’s something we do together, and having the puppies this year has been a blessing with the uncertainty of the coronavirus and quarantining. She’s more knowledgeable about dogs than most adults I know, and she loves to help me do everything from washing their blankets and bottle-feeding to reading our older ones a story before bed. I’m very proud of her.

Burnout is the biggest challenge

golden retrieverCourtesy Sommerville Harris CulbertsonIt can get overwhelming with the workload and the emotional toll of working with dogs that are at the end of their lives, so sometimes I need to take a break. That’s what I’m doing now, as this year was tough. We lost three dogs in a 13-month period, and that was hard on us, so we’re taking a little time before we take in another senior and have been focusing more on fostering pregnant dogs and puppies to give our hearts time to heal. Attitude is important, too. You have to accept that you can’t save every dog, but helping just one dog is something, and it matters.

Fostering is an incredible gift to give to a dog

Being a foster is an amazing gift to a needy dog. Being in a shelter setting can be terrifying for any dog, but it’s particularly hard for seniors who just don’t understand why they’re there. Additionally, it allows rescues to learn so much more about dogs, like where they like to sleep or if they might try to steal food from the counter, than a shelter would be able to learn.

I have also found that being a foster is an amazing gift for people, as well. There’s little heartbreak in adopting senior dogs. I’ve never heard of anybody adopting a senior, having that dog pass away, and then saying they regretted every second of it. This demographic of dog is the most overlooked, but their only “crime” is growing old—something none of us can help.

You don’t have to foster to help dogs in need

If you can’t foster, that’s OK. It’s not for everybody. But if you still want to help, volunteer or donate to a rescue or shelter in your area. That is also incredibly important. Because Adopt a Golden Knoxville is a non-profit, we rely solely on donations. Many of the dogs we take in have extensive medical needs, but even the healthy ones need basic medical care like vaccines and spaying/neutering. We simply can’t save these dogs if we don’t have the funds to care for them, so we’re always in need of donations, which you can do through our website. If you want to help the seniors in particular, specify where you would like your donation to go, like “seniors at retirement village.”

And, of course, adopt a senior dog if you can. Seniors are generally quiet and calm, which is great for young children like my daughter, who can play tea party or read them a book while they sit happily. It’s the perfect introduction for small children to learn how to interact and be kind to animals. And I know my daughter would pick a senior to snuggle with her for movie night over a puppy who won’t stop jumping on her. That, however, is just one of the many reasons you should consider adopting an older dog.