Judith Piper finds beauty in the ordinary. Her sensibilities aren’t piqued by the regal good looks of a purebred in his prime. Instead, she’s a woman driven to help shaggy mutts with medical conditions, seniors with creaky bones and matted coats. Dogs whose prettiest days are long gone.  

Piper, the founder of Old Dog Haven, rescues animals in the twilight of their lives. Even if they have only a couple of good years, months, or mere days of quality life left, Piper is on a mission to gives dogs the happy endings they deserve. I asked her why she does it. “People ask me that all the time,” she says. “I ask, how can you not?” As she talks about her rescue work, a cluster of 15 old dogs gather around to enjoy one of their favourite pastimes—napping. Sacked out on the living room floor of her Arlington, Washington-area home, their heavy sighs and light snores of contented relief signal deep appreciation. They are resting up for a sedate yet spirited playtime romp that will take place later on the five-acre grassy property.

Since its creation in 2004, Old Dog Haven has pulled animals off death row from 26 shelters in western Washington State. Piper has also accepted pets surrendered from owners, and responds to calls from veterinary clinics. She and her husband, Lee, together with a network of 50 active foster homes she has assembled, have taken in an impressive 614 old dogs in less than five years. Nearly 150 households have participated in the foster program since Old Dog Haven began.

During that time, hundreds of dogs have earned their angel wings, passing from Piper’s care into the next world. At the time of this report, 137 dogs were alive in her network. About 15 percent go up for adoption. The rest stay in foster care.

“This has stretched my capabilities to the limit. I adore these dogs. This is what I was meant to do,” says 63-year-old Piper.
The program changes the luck of the dogs fortunate enough to cross her path. And it is enormously gratifying for the foster parents. Piper mentions an 85-year-old woman who is giving hospice care to a large Wolfhound mix named Ozzy B. “He takes really good care of her,” she says.

Most foster parents are aged 40 to 60 years old, both retired and working. There is one need on which Piper won’t compromise: the dogs must have access to the outdoors every six hours so they can release their bladders. Caregivers accommodate this by installing a dog door, coming home at lunch, or having friends or family members swing by to let the dogs out.

Old Dog Haven is the last hope for death-row shelter dogs that most potential adopters breeze on past without a glance. The animals targeted by Piper are eight to 17 years old. The plain truth is that senior dogs who land at shelters have a near zero chance of survival. While shelters do the best they can to place older animals, going so far as to offer discounts on the elderly in some cases, or providing scholarships for medical bills, it’s still an uphill grind. Even minor medical costs and inconveniences such as the ongoing need for basic prescription drugs thwart an animal’s chance of being adopted.

With so many cute fuzzy puppies and young athletic dogs clamoring for homes in the midst of an overpopulation crisis, an old dog just doesn’t stand up to stiff competition.

And even if they didn’t fade out of sight amongst the millions, people are frightened to face the prospect of saying goodbye to a companion animal in a short time. It’s hard on the heart, and most would rather turn away.

But that’s not how Judith Piper feels about it. The chance to be there for these animals in their final days is reward enough.

“They deserve to be adopted,” she says. “They’ve been in a home their whole life.”
Her mission is costly. While foster families pay for the dogs’ food and other treats, Old Dog Haven foots the veterinary bills, which average $19,000 a month. “We’re not rich,” says Piper, adding that private donations keep her nonprofit going.
This former specialty retailer used to own a tack store in Bellevue, Washington, a wealthy city on the edge of Seattle. She rode horses competitively. She had friends who rescued animals, and when she became aware of the plight facing old shelter dogs, she and her husband Lee knew they had to do something.

“We just looked at each other and said, ‘We can do this,’” Piper says. “Somebody needed to.”

The dogs all have their own stories about how they became part of Old Dog Haven.

Some were left behind when elderly owners passed away or went into convalescent care. Others weren’t factored into a move, or their guardians decided they didn’t have enough time for them. Children with allergies, or new spouses who dislike their mate’s companion might have caused the animal to be banished from the home. In the wake of rocky economic times recently, home foreclosures and other financial problems have been a catalyst.

Whatcom Humane Society in Bellingham, Washington, is one of the shelters that transfers old dogs into Piper’s network.
“It’s the saddest thing for an old dog to die in a shelter with no owner,” says executive director Penny Cistaro. “If they’re scared, it makes me sad. They shouldn’t die here. They should be with their people.”

Outreach director Laura Clark agrees that old dogs are among the most heart-wrenching cases she encounters, and raves about the work Piper is doing.

“Being able to have a resource for older dogs who would probably never be adopted from the shelter is inspiring and really uplifting to the staff and volunteers,” she says.

Piper’s mission goes beyond helping the animals who end up in her arms. Another important component is outreach. She counsels people looking for a place to put their senior pets, respectfully questioning the guardians regarding the issues at hand. Frequently, it’s a case of recommending euthanasia to people who can’t face taking that compassionate step for their pets. As they grow unable to care for an animal in failing health, they might seek to place them somewhere else rather than making the decision and arrangements to end the pet’s suffering themselves.

“I get six or seven calls a week like that, when I have to talk people through euthanasia decisions. Human beings are not always strong souls who can do these things.”

Piper recommends people take an animal in failing health to be euthanized at their own veterinarian’s office rather than putting the dog into the shelter system.

The decision regarding when to euthanize is one that Piper has to navigate several times a month. She watches for signs, including changes of body posture and behaviour.

“It’s not always obvious, because they’re fading away,” she says. “I want them to go out on a good day. I have a gut feeling when it’s time. I’m no psychic, but I know the signs. The hardest thing is making the appointment. I wake up in the morning sick to my stomach.”
Sometimes, the choice doesn’t rest in her hands.

“Coming home and finding them gone is hard,” she says.

Besides the difficulty of saying goodbye to the animals she’s had in her care the longest, it’s tough to let go of the dogs she barely knew, the “short-timers,” as she calls them.

“If I don’t reach them, if I can’t get to them in time to let them see that someone cares,” she says, she is left feeling empty, unable to fulfill her mission to give that one dog a happy ending. “If you can’t give them several hours of time, it’s awful. Those are the ones that get to me.”

Old Dog Haven’s foster parents are in awe of Piper and her capacity to give animals a meaningful goodbye.

Sandy McCalib has fostered more than 20 Old Dog Haven rescues in the three years since a friend referred her to the website. She chatted with me while she was playing Scrabble with her best friend Lorna Lou, who helps her with the dog chores. Five dogs lay sleeping on cushions around them as we talked.

“Judith will bring a dog home knowing the dog will be put down in 24 hours,” McCalib said. “She will hold that dog all night just to give them love so they won’t have to die in a shelter.”

She added that Piper doesn’t just have her own losses to contend with. She also counsels her foster parents through their euthanasia experiences. “I call her when it’s done. I’m sobbing, and she helps me through it. She reminds me that they felt love with us, that in their final time they got so much love. They are out of pain. We gave them what they needed.”

Over the years, Piper has learned how to be there for her charges. If a guardian gives up a dog to her, she doesn’t allow them to visit for three months. If enough time hasn’t passed, the dogs think their stay is temporary, and continue to pine for their family.
It’s usually not an issue. Most who give up their dogs don’t visit. “A lot of people keep in touch, but they stop wanting to see them,” Piper says.

Perhaps it’s too painful, or maybe the memory of their dogs fades with time.

But with people like Judith Piper and her band of volunteers out there to welcome these animals into their homes, the dogs leave the world feeling loved and protected. More than most, they have angels in their corner who see beauty in even the straggliest souls.
“They are wonderful, loving dogs,” says Piper. “I swear this is the best time of their lives.”