Old dogs don’t care that they’re old. They focus on much more important matters: Comfort. Snacks. Naps. And, of course, belly rubs from the people they love.
Nearly 100 senior dogs are enjoying all those essentials and more at Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary, a fairy tale land for former shelter dogs in Mount Juliet, Tennessee. Hundreds more are lounging on soft beds and soaking up affection in “forever foster homes” located within a 100-mile radius of the sanctuary. Foster families get to care for calm, content pets without ever having to worry about a single vet bill, and the once-homeless dogs get to spend the rest of their days as part of a family.
“When they come to us from the shelter, we say, ‘Today is the day that they start their new life,’” Zina Goodin, co-founder of Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary, told TODAY. “We just try to help them feel better and make them healthy so they can live out the rest of their lives happily.”
Zina, 62, and her husband, Michael Goodin, 66, started the sanctuary in 2012 when they were semi-retired and on the prowl for meaningful volunteer opportunities. The couple saw a huge need to help older animals at shelters in Middle Tennessee, where euthanasia rates are high.
“People are less likely to adopt a senior dog from the shelter because they worry about the additional veterinary needs and medications,” Zina Goodin said. “Just like senior people, senior dogs have special needs ... so the senior dogs need rescue more than the younger dogs do.”
Eager to prevent older dogs from dying alone and afraid in shelters, the Goodins started out by taking a posse of pooches into their own home. Their efforts gradually grew as friends and strangers heard about what they were doing and offered to foster even more senior dogs in their homes. Then, in 2014 and 2015, that gradual growth became exponential thanks to social media; people began falling madly in love with dogs featured on the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary’s Facebook page.
“Almost like a soap opera, people would cling onto certain dogs,” Michael Goodin said. “They loved it!”
Today, Old Friends has more than 1.8 million followers on Facebook, live cams so fans can watch the dogs’ antics in real time online — watch out, it’s addicting! — and about 400 rescued senior dogs in its care. Two and a half years ago, the sanctuary relocated to 2 acres on the site of a former garden center. In their expanded digs, senior dogs can roam inside or outside as much as they want, and there’s no shortage of soft surfaces, socializing, sniffing and snoring.
The sanctuary relies on more than 300 volunteers and employs 26 people, including a full-time, on-site veterinarian to help keep the dogs’ health-care costs down. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, small tour groups of as many as six people visit the sanctuary to see its operations in person and meet all the dogs.
“We’ve become a bucket list item for a lot of people,” said Sally McCanner, Old Friends’ foster medical coordinator and tour director.
During a recent tour, visitors from Georgia were excited to meet some of their favorite dogs from Facebook and the live cams. The dog at the top of their priority list was Mack, a bona-fide internet star who had been in bad shape when he first came to Old Friends about four years ago.
“He had no vision because he had really bad glaucoma in his eyes, which is extremely painful,” Zina Goodin recalled. “So we had his eyes removed, and Mack never was bothered by it. Mack has been able to do everything Mack loves to do. You can watch him go through the yards and he knows where the water is, he knows where the bushes are, he knows where the steps are. ... You wouldn't even know he's blind.”
Michael Goodin reflected on how loving and playful Mack is.
“Mack actually likes to jump into people’s arms — he’s that trusting,” he said. “He does that with Mason, our worker ... He’ll jump right into his arms, not even seeing that he can hold him, trusting him completely. What a character! He’s just fantastic.”
Another must-see dog on many tours is Babs. Babs is a “bagle,” or beagle/basset hound mix, who loves the thrill of the hunt: she’s known for wandering outside, sniffing at full throttle and baying loudly about her aromatic findings.
Most dogs at the sanctuary range in age from about 10 to 14, although their ages are often “guesstimates” from veterinarians because so many animals arrive at shelters with incomplete or mysterious back stories. Some dogs are picked up as strays, while others get removed from situations of hoarding, abuse or neglect. Many more spend years living as family pets until their human owners face a life upheaval of some sort, such as a financial emergency, illness, divorce, home foreclosure or even a military deployment.
Another common scenario for senior shelter dogs is that their older human caretakers either pass away or move into nursing facilities that do not accept pets. Shelter stays can be even more stressful and disorienting for senior dogs in situations like these.
“They’re super confused because they've been with a family for 12 years and, all of a sudden, they're basically in jail,” Michael Goodin said. “It's wonderful to come in and save these guys and see 'em just brighten up and be great.”
After they arrive at the sanctuary and have their pressing veterinary needs met, the dogs tend to settle in quickly and let their true personalities show. At that point, sanctuary workers can start to see which dogs would be most likely to thrive in private foster homes and which ones would be best suited for sanctuary life.
The dogs who are sanctuary lifers love meeting all the new visitors on tour days. McCanner introduced the recent guests from Georgia to dogs with names like Sonny, Cher, Lollipop, Elmo, Freckles, Buttercup, Short Stack and Augustus Gloop.
“This is Mister Mister,” she said at one point. “He’s our resident marshmallow. ... Oh, and we've got Bella here. She looks like a potato but she’s a sweet girl.”
McCanner blows visitors’ minds with tales of just how much laundry the sanctuary’s 90 to 100 senior dogs generate. Old Friends invested in a commercial washer and dryer about a year ago to handle it all.
“That dryer will do 100 pounds of laundry in less than 30 minutes!” McCannner said. “The only distressing thing is we might look good for a couple hours, but then pretty much we’re back to square one and we're starting all over because most of these guys can’t hold it.”
All of the sanctuary’s cleaning supplies, pet food, medications, veterinary care and other needs are paid for by donations.
“Our average donation is only $25, so we have a lot of people who support us,” Zina Goodin said. “It also shows that every single donation that we get is very important. ...
“A lot of the dogs who come in from the shelters are in pretty bad shape ... and it is quite amazing how quickly those dogs will start to heal and turn into lively, energetic, healthy dogs when they’re given the care that they need. They’re able to move on and trust people and love people again.”
The work of Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary and other senior dog rescue efforts across North America is described in the bestselling book "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts," written by TODAY senior editor Laura T. Coffey and with photographs by Lori Fusaro. The book includes a comprehensive, state-by-state listing of senior dog rescue programs.