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Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald Headshot

Apparently, You Can Teach an (17-Year) Old Dog New Tricks

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One of the most common questions I receive from people who know that I volunteer at my local animal shelter is, "Don't you just want to take them all home?" Reasonable question. The answer is: I want to do as much as I can to help them get adopted, and we have a crew of rescues at home, so I just try to stay focused on helping the animals get adopted and rescued.

In over a decade of volunteering, I've never taken a dog home that I met during my volunteer shift. Until one day...

I showed up at the shelter on a Sunday afternoon, and one of the most dedicated volunteers ever was holding a little dog who was shivering. This is L.A. It wasn't cold, and he wasn't cold. There were a group of staff and volunteers huddled around, giving him affection and discussing the situation.

Apparently, the owner had brought this 17-year-old dog to the shelter to be euthanized due to old age. According to his paperwork he had been with the family for 17 years. Of course many thoughts go through one's mind when you hear that. How could a family turn their dog in after so long? If the dog needed to be put to sleep for health reasons, why didn't they take him to a vet and be with him during his last moments?

One of my intentions in life in to not be judgmental. I have a long way to go, but I can see my progress in baby steps. Being involved in animal rescue certainly gives one the opportunity to "go there." What I have learned is that we really don't know people's stories. Many people are out of work and don't have the resources to care for their animals. So the point of writing this is not to be judgmental toward why this dog was turned in or how an owner can leave his or her dog at the shelter at the end of his life.

Okay, back to that Sunday. The volunteer who was holding the shivering dog had to attend to a couple interested in another dog, so she placed the dog in my hands for safekeeping. He was still shivering. I kept him in my arms, and I walked around the shelter doing whatever volunteer duties I could with a dog in my arms -- basically answering questions and helping match pets with potential adopters.

After about 20 minutes, the dog relaxed and stopped shivering. He looked so peaceful in my arms. I couldn't bear the thought of putting him back into the kennel at this stage in his life. Very caring people run this shelter, but a shelter is not a home.

I thought to myself, I'll bring this dog home for the night, and then take it from there. Fortunately, we have a foster program at our shelter, where you can take a shelter pet into your home and give it a break from the shelter. As I was discussing this idea with the volunteers, they were thinking of how they could help and network him to senior rescues while he would be staying at my place.

After filling out some paperwork and having a chat with the vet (turns out the dog was blind, deaf, arthritic, and had a heart murmur), I was in the car with the 17-year-old critter on my way home.

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When I arrived home and started walking up to the house with the dog, my husband was surprised, but on some level, not that surprised. Fortunately, he has a soft spot for abandoned animals. It didn't take too long for the dog's cuteness to win my husband over.

I thought I was bringing this dog home so he could live out whatever little time he had left in the comfort of a home on a cushy bed instead of a cement floor. I figured he'd sleep most of the day...

I was wrong.

As each day passed, the sweet dog seemed to get peppier and peppier. We kept saying each day how peppy he was. We kept using the word "peppy" to describe him, so we decided to name him Pepé. Although blind, deaf, and elderly, Pepé figured out the when and where of mealtime and treat time. He also figured out how to go out the doggie door and do his business in the back yard.

In the form filled out by the owner who turned him in, it said that he was incontinent and arthritic. We noticed he was weak in his legs, and even though he figured out the bathroom situation, he would have some accidents. We had him evaluated, and thanks to a Traditional Chinese Medicine veterinary herbal protocol, within days the accidents stopped, and Pepé even got peppier. When we would be putting the leashes on the other dogs in preparation for a walk, Pepé started coming to the group to join in. And walk he did. It seemed like every day on his walks he got a little, well, peppier. Oh, and that foster thing -- it didn't take long for us to decide to adopt Pepé.

It's funny how the things that touch our hearts are often the gifts that show up unexpectedly. If someone had said to me, "I have a 17-year-old blind, deaf, arthritic, and incontinent dog who needs a foster, would you take him?" I honestly don't think I would have said yes. Remember, the decision was strictly made because an anxious dog calmed down in my arms, and I couldn't bear to put him back into a noisy kennel at a city shelter. And I knew that fostering is not a long-term commitment.

Because he couldn't see or hear much at all, Pepé really stopped to smell the roses. I mean really -- for a long time. As you probably know, dogs have an incredible sense of smell, and on their walks they love to investigate with their noses. Well, Pepé had several full-scale investigations on each and every walk.

People often share how rescuing an animal was one of the best things they've done in their lives. The unconditional love we experience is so profound. I have experienced that with every pet we've adopted or helped find a home, but to be honest, I didn't expect that Pepé would have the effect he did.

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The experience with Pepé made me think often of The Third Metric, a theme here at The Huffington Post that invites us to look for success beyond money and power -- to incorporate well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving back.

The time Pepé spent with us gave us the unexpected gift of wonder. Watching this little dog who was abandoned at the end of his life adapt to new surroundings was wondrous in itself. But every day with him was a gift.

When we would go on the walks, and he wanted to stay and sniff for a very, very, long time, it was a gift to be present and just watch how much he seemed to be enjoying himself. We didn't rush him; we learned to slow down. Lots of mindful experiences.

If we were running late in getting the dogs their dinner, we could count on finding Pepé waiting in the kitchen, vocalizing his readiness for food. It was remarkable how quickly he adjusted to the schedule and found his way around the house given his limitations. I guess nobody told him about his limitations.

Pepé would let us know when he wanted to cuddle or be held. He was a sweet old man who knew what he wanted and wasn't afraid to ask for it.

Pepé went on vacations with us. He was a good traveler, and he enjoyed the smells of new environments. He knew how to charm everybody who stopped to meet him.

Every day with Pepé was a gift. Not knowing how long he would be with us, we appreciated each day with him. Watching Pepé approach each day with wonder was very humbling and touched our hearts deeply.

Such is the irony of life. I thought I was bringing Pepé home so he could die comfortably; his gift was allowing us to see him come back to life, make the most of each moment, and to not look back.

After a year with us, Pepé's health declined and he passed away peacefully, shortly after his 18th birthday.

Although he was with us a short time, Pepé has a place in our hearts forever. My husband and I feel truly blessed that his special spirit touched our lives, and we would do it over again in a heartbeat.

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