The Grey Muzzle Foundation

By Suzanne Jalot
Nov/Dec 2008

**This is an online extra!  Excerpts from this interview are found in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Dog Living Magazine and the complete transcript is below.

There’s a special place in my heart for old dogs.  Maybe it’s because my own dog, Ollie, is getting greyer every day.  Or maybe it’s because it breaks my heart to see older dogs get passed over time and time again in the shelter.  I recently came across a group that is looking out for these older dogs called “The Grey Muzzle Organization.”  It’s founder, Julie Nowicki, was kind enough to speak with me about this wonderful group.

Tell me a little about Grey Muzzle Organization.
Grey Muzzle helps senior dogs who have been abandoned. We’re a little different – we’re not a rescue. We raise funds through public donations, and we distribute that money to shelters, rescues, and sanctuaries for special programs that help old dogs. We provide money for programs like hospice care, senior dog adoption, medical screening, etc. We support a wide range of organizations, all over the U.S., as long as the money goes to senior dogs. For example, we are paying the medical costs for a little Bijon left homeless at a shelter, so she can live in a fantastic small in-home sanctuary in Maryland. And we just made a grant to the largest shelter in Washington state, so that the older dogs can all have cots and beds in their kennels.

Why did you decide to create an organization like this?
Well, first and foremost, I have real soft spot for old dogs! But what really got me going on the idea of Grey Muzzle, was I spent 2 years volunteering for OldDog Haven, a rescue organization in Western Washington that helps senior dogs. I got involved in a lot of aspects – I fostered over a dozen dogs in two years. I also helped with fundraising, transportation, an e-newsletter – I really learned a lot from this experience. It made me realize how huge the need is – many old dogs were turned away every day because we just didn’t have a place for them. Every one that you can save gets you incredibly motivated, but for every one that you can help, there’s many more that are left behind. Many of those end up dying in a shelter – it’s heartbreaking. And, most areas of the country don’t even have one organization like OldDog Haven, so old dogs have no options, no chance at all.

Why is it necessary to have an organization like this?
People sometimes ask why we don’t help dogs of all ages, and cats, don’t all animals deserve help? Absolutely, I wish I had the money and resources to help every single one! But the fact is, old dogs are often passed by. There are lots of local organizations helping animals of all ages – your local Humane Society or SPCA. But the adopters come in and go right to the puppies. Some shelters euthanize dogs over a certain age automatically, just assuming they won’t be adopted. So old dogs need a champion, and that’s our mission.

Why is it so important to care about these older dogs?
It boils down to the two things I discuss below….they have much to give back to people, and they have much to teach us. And of course, old dogs have given their whole lives to people. They deserve to spend their last months or years, or weeks, knowing they are loved.

What do you say to people who think this is a waste of time?
Well, if you want to look at it from a purely human standpoint, old dogs have a lot to give. We believe they have great potential for helping people. Multiple research studies have backed up the healing power of dogs for people. And a puppy is certainly not ideal for everyone. An older dog makes a great friend, for example, for an elderly person who needs a calm companion. When Grey Muzzle was first starting, I got a call from an elderly woman who told me her old dog is what keeps her going – gives her something to care for now that the kids are gone.

Why do you think people choose to get rid of their senior dogs rather than take care of them?
One of the values of Grey Muzzle is that “old dogs have much to teach us about patience, respect, responsibility, and loyalty.” I think it comes down to a lack of those things in some people and cultures. Basically, it goes back to our disposable culture – let’s just throw it out and start again (like, get a puppy) when it’s not easy any more. What worries me is, what are we teaching the next generation? That when a life that we’ve made a commitment to gets a bit difficult to deal with, or needs some extra care, or can’t jog with us anymore, that we can just toss that life away? In contrast, the families that I see where the kids are learning to live with old dogs, and learning the cycle of life, and how to care for another life, be responsible, and not just self-centered – that’s a great thing for the kids to learn. For all of us, really.

As Carole pointed out in her article this spring, dogs are often tossed away for no other reason than that they’re old. It’s interesting that there’s not really a standard across cultures, or even across individuals within a culture, for how dogs are to be treated. I’ve seen dogs treated everywhere on the scale from a disposable commodity to a member of the family — all within one block of a neighborhood. And there’s not necessarily a correlation with wealth – an obviously wealthy woman walked into a Humane Society that we work with a few months ago, and turned over a little dog (with his bed).

People have a great capacity for burying unpleasant thoughts. I don’t think most people really consider – or want to consider – what will happen to their lifelong companion when they get dumped at the shelter. Shelters don’t make people take  a tour before turning in dogs – seeing the fear, incredible noise, cement cells and stress levels that the dog will be living in (if they live for long). I wonder what the wealthy woman thought was going to happen to her little dog? He wouldn’t be sleeping on his cozy little bed, that’s for sure.

There are other scenarios that are very sad, though. We see many situations where a person has to give up a dog because they truly can’t afford to keep him, or are being forced into housing that doesn’t accept animals – we see more and more of this with the current economic situation. Some of these people are heartbroken. Or an older person that is going into a nursing home and can’t keep the dog. I heard a very sad story just a few days ago about an senior German Shepherd mix turned into a shelter by an older gentleman who was just consumed with worry about him. This happens a lot and many of the organizations that we support will help out in those situations by taking the dog into a foster home.

What do you say to someone who is willing to open their home to an older dog?
I’d say “hurray for you!”  I have not yet met someone who regretted adopting an older dog, even if the inevitable leaving was hard. Old dogs are fun to care for because they’ve been through enough in life to know when they’ve got it good. They really appreciate that cushy bed, you can tell (as you try to pry them out of it). And dogs have such a huge capacity to love humans – they’ll love you even though every other human they’ve been with has abused or neglected them. Some people tell me they don’t want to adopt and old dog because he or she won’t bond with them – nuts! Dogs bond, that’s what they do. Come meet my shadow of a dog, who was rescued at age 10!

It must be emotional to adopt a dog knowing it may not live more than a year or two, if that.  Do you think it takes a special sort of person to take on that responsibility?
Yes, I definitely think it takes a special sort of person, and also the right time in your life. You may find that it is one of the most rewarding things you’ve done. I know I do. To give a dog who’s been abandoned a second chance to be loved, after they’ve been kicked out of their family when they most needed that family, or perhaps they were never allowed to have a family… it’s incredibly satisfying. I will say, though, that it’s not for everyone. And you shouldn’t feel bad if it’s not something you can do, emotionally or otherwise. For the first year I fostered, I  didn’t take on any hospice dogs that weren’t adoptable. I had just lost two dogs within 3 months, and I couldn’t handle the thought of more dogs dying. When I finally fell into a hospice situation, it was a dog that really needed me and it was obviously the right thing for me at that time. I think everyone contributes what they can, and there are lots of ways to help as a volunteer. (The GreyMuzzle site will soon be listing old dog organizations that need help).

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