‘Sam’s story: The things you should know before adopting a pet’

Feb 23, 2020
Ken shares some of the challenges for over-60s when adopting or fostering a pet. Source: Luke Yates/Getty Images

I recently celebrated my 79th birthday. It occurred one month after what was the sixth anniversary of my wife’s death from cancer. In those six years, well, the last four of them anyway, I searched in vain for a new partner. Joined clubs and associations and did the online dating thing. Lots of coffee, lots of lunches, lots of travel but no success.

In the last few months, encouraged by the kids, I have given a lot of thought to getting a dog for company. I had a border collie when I was a kid and my kids grew up in homes with a succession of retrievers. I did some research about dogs online and visited several dog refuges. Then I spotted a dog on a refuge’s website. A kelpie, the advertisement said, seeking a new ‘fur-ever’ home. The ad was accompanied by a very nice photo of a handsome black and white dog. I paid a visit.

It’s a very serious business trying to adopt a dog. Forms to fill giving all sorts of details. Multiple pages of information including the dog’s details (he was 4.5 years old, desexed, dewormed, microchipped had been vet checked and so on). I was formally interviewed by a staff member. Then, finally, I had an introduction to the dog himself — Sam!

We got on like a house on fire. Yet I couldn’t help but notice the wide snout with a bump on it and a barrel chest and I thought that if he was a kelpie then he certainly had a touch of Staffy. The formal documents, however, described his as being kelpie.

It was suggested that I might like to take him home on a two-week foster basis. I could return him at any time if I felt it wasn’t working. They would provide everything — dog bed and blanket, towel, bags of dry food, cans of wet food, water and food bowls, squeaky toys, leash and harness and I was given a crash course in applying them, exercise instructions and so on. And strict instructions to never let him off the leash in public. Among the paperwork, I noticed a handwritten report from a previous foster. It was rather disconcerting in respect of Sam’s behaviour but the staff said they very much doubted the veracity of that report. Anyway, I decided to take him.

It was a very hot day but we managed to cart all the gear out to the car and Sam came along pulling strongly on the lead. No trouble getting him into the car on the back seat, where he sat looking very much at home and with the leash still attached. I enquired about some form of restraint but was informed it wasn’t necessary. I started the engine and put all four windows down about 10 centimetres and the fan on full and wound the air-conditioning temperature down as low as possible, and off we went.

All was well until we got into traffic and Sam started to bark and get agitated. I tried to talk to him calmly and turned on some quiet music but it didn’t help — he kept on barking very loudly and would not sit still. Then he jumped across the centre console between the front seats to sit there, facing me, his mouth not 10cm from my face, and continued to bark — loudly. I started to look for an opportunity to turn around and take him back, but it was late Friday afternoon with very heavy traffic. I had to keep going.

Then I noticed the air-con had managed to cool things down considerably so I closed the windows and he immediately stopped barking, returned to the back seat and lay down. Not another peep out of him in the hour it took to get home.

I think it was probably the wind noise and noise from other vehicles that had upset him most. I was a bit shaken and wondered what I had got myself into.

We got home without further event. I opened the garage door with the remote, drove in and closed the door behind me before opening the car doors. He needed no persuasion to get out and I grabbed the leash as he went past. He pulled me through the open back door of the garage and found his way to the laundry door where he promptly sat looking in. Throwing caution to the wind I unhitched the leash and removed the harness then opened the laundry door. In he went and methodically inspected every room in the house. He immediately obeyed my curt demand to get off my bed the second that he sprang onto it.

He followed me around while I unloaded his gear from the car. I set up his bed near mine and he promptly tested it for comfort. I filled a pannikin with water and placed it outside in the patio. He slurped up a goodly quantity. I poured the mandated, one small cup full of dry dog food into another pannikin and placed it alongside the water. He gave it a desultory sniff then ignored it.

Challenge One. I added a little milk to no effect. Finally, I opened one of the cans of wet dog food and mixed in a couple of dessert spoons full. This met with his approval and he scoffed the lot. That then became the twice-daily ritual at meal times — mix wet dog food from the can with the dry stuff and he was as happy as Larry.

He lay alongside my chair while I ate dinner. I did not feed him anything including scraps. After dinner, I adjourned to my theatre room to watch the news on TV from my recliner chair. This stands alongside a second such chair. Sam summed up the situation smartly — sprang onto the adjacent chair then across onto my lap! My powers of persuasion were put to the test to get him back onto the other recliner, but eventually he complied and got himself comfortable with his head on the armrest on my side. He dozed off.

I anticipated some sort of resistance or other problems come bedtime. But, no. I simply got into my bed then sternly ordered — “On your bed.” He promptly lay down on the bed. I turned off the light and the next thing I knew it was 5am. We both got up. He stretched then went to stand at the exit door. I opened it, he strolled out, turned around and came back in — no ablutions — and that caused me some concern but it all turned out quite well.

I live close to the beach and I decided to take him down there even though I was concerned about his reaction to other dogs — of which there are plenty. I got his harness and leash on without difficulty. He climbed up onto the rear seat of the car and sat down.

I drove to a less popular stretch of beach, got out without Sam and had a look. Not a dog or human to be seen in either direction. Great!

I got Sam out of the car while holding the leash firmly. He immediately stretched it to something resembling the string on a crossbow and away we went. He completely ignored my pleas, demands, orders and threats and just kept that leash tight while dragging me along as he sniffed at anything he found interesting and occasionally leaving evidence of his passing.

I was prepared for the poo thing and had plastic bags in my pocket. They were useful but required a certain amount of skill and dexterity on my part to pick up the droppings and keep Sam under control simultaneously. But I triumphed.

Then, in the distance I saw someone come onto the beach with what looked like a big dog. I decided to retreat and managed to get Sam to turn around and this exercise revealed another person with a large dog approaching from that direction. I figured I had time to get back to the pathway to the car park before they would get near. Then a piece of driftwood intervened.

I tried to pass to one side of it and Sam decided to pass to the other side. This resulted in me falling flat on the sand but with a grip on the leash like that of the Boston Strangler. Sam was not the least perturbed and kept going — dragging me along in the sand. With my feet dragging behind me I could not get up. When my hands tried to push me up the leash pulled them out from under me.

I decided I would be at something of a disadvantage if either or both of the other dogs decided to attack Sam — or vice-versa — so I made a superhuman effort pulling on the leash and swinging my legs around to be in front, under the leash. I then dug in my heals and Sam pulled me upright. Hallelujah! I got Sam, myself and about a tonne of sand into the car before the other dogs got near.

We went home, had some breakfast and then played with his squeaky toys on the back lawn. That resulted in a bleeding, 5cm scratch down my right leg and three teeth puncture wounds in the back of my left hand. These wounds were not delivered with malice — just high-spirited games. But, my aged skin is particularly prone to such trauma.

I showered, dried and applied band-aids to my bleeding leg and hand. I had to go shopping but what to do with Sam? To leave him in the house would be to risk damage to furniture and other items. To leave him in the yard would risk him jumping the side fence (1.5 meters high), to search for me. He would have no difficulty in doing that should he put his mind to it. To leave him in the car risked damage therein. (I was wondering, too, about what to do when I visited friends.)

I decided to take him with me. I found a shady place under a large tree in the shopping centre car park and parked so that he could watch me walk in through the main entrance and emerge from it later. That worked well partly due, I think, to the fact I was only gone about 20 minutes.

So it went on for three more days. I got online and read much of the voluminous information about training dogs — especially the methods of teaching dogs to walk with slack leashes. I brought training ‘treats’ and tried some of these methods. They failed — Sam would not heel at all no matter what enticement was used. I considered changing his name to Herpes — because he would not heel.

On the morning of the fifth day I made the decision to return him to the refuge. I rang them to fore-warn them. They were very understanding about it. When we arrived they put us into a small office to await the arrival of the manager. Sam saw fit to climb up onto one of the chairs at the table. I let him stay there. Then a young lady came to take him to a kennel. He refused to stand and she had to drag him out of the office. He looked back at me with a look that just about broke my heart. I knew then he had bonded to me and I had betrayed him.

However, my physique was not equal to Sam’s and never would be. To delay returning him would have made the parting that much more difficult later. I hope he might be taken up by a young family with robust teenage kids and/or athletic Mum and Dad. He is deserving of that.

I wrote this in an attempt to alert others in my situation to some of the difficulties that may arise from sponsoring or adopting a dog. I am certainly not suggesting that anyone my age should never do that, but I certainly am suggesting such people must do some homework and consider the many pros and cons before making the decision — and take expert advice on the mutual suitability’s of adopter and dog.

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Have you adopted or fostered a pet? Would getting a pet be something you'd consider to combat loneliness?

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