It began with a geriatric black-Lab mix who'd been picked up as a stray and locked in a cage at the South Los Angeles animal shelter. Hillary Rosen was trolling the shelter for dogs to save last summer when she spotted the woebegone mutt.
"She was horrible-looking and she barked at me from her kennel," Rosen recalled. "But there was something about that damn dog…. She was like 'Get me out of here right now and figure it out later.'"
So Rosen bailed her out and planned to hand her off to a friend in San Diego, who knew the dog was at risk of being euthanized and thought she could line up a new owner.
But it's not easy to find a home for a crotchety, horrible-looking, abandoned 12-year-old dog.
So the dog stayed at Rosen's home for days that turned into weeks — long enough for Rosen to fall in love, decide to keep her and become obsessed with finding homes for other senior dogs.
"I can't even explain it," Rosen told me, as the dog that shelter volunteers named Betsy waited patiently for a scrap from her owner's dinner plate. "They're grateful. They just want to be with you. They know what's going on.
"They look bad in the shelter," she said.
Of course they do. They're abandoned, frightened, lonely and heartbroken.
It's an adage that rescue groups understand: People want puppies. They're blank slates; irresistibly cute and impossibly charming.
Rosen used to be a puppy person too. Then her "puppy" Talullah died last year, just before she would have turned 13. Rosen was consumed by grief — and her routine rescue forays through animal shelters took on a whole new meaning.
"I started seeing Talullah in every old dog," she said. "I tried to imagine her in a shelter at the end of her life."
Public shelters are loaded with elderly dogs. Some are strays, but others are surrendered by owners who can't afford their care or aren't inclined to tolerate the inconvenience of canine old age. Many will decline in shelters and have to be put to death.
Shelters have seen an increase in older dogs because of the recession. So volunteers are stepping up efforts to retrieve and place them.
"To wind up in a cold, noisy crate when you've been loved all your life, that's a horrible, horrible end."
Some people shy away from senior adoptions because the dogs may not live long. "But there's something wonderful," Dube said, "about being there and loving them when their families have forsaken them."
Others believe that shelter dogs are damaged goods. "They think they're discarded or they're bad or they're abused," Rosen said.
But many older dogs are like Betsy: healthy, well-mannered and ready to rock 'n' roll. She's been like a mother hen to Rosen's rambunctious pack of young rescue dogs. "The seniors are housebroken, they know the rules, they've been around," Rosen said.
"Betsy knew how to sit, stay, shake. Somebody else taught her that."
Old dogs do bring challenges that younger dogs don't. They may not need to be walked every day, but they might need special diets or more attention from the vet.
Many rescue groups cover those expenses when they place old dogs in new homes.
Some rescue groups are strictly devoted to senior dogs, like Muttville in San Francisco. Locally, Ventura County's Health Care Agency promotes adoptions through a "Senior Dogs for Seniors Program" with the county's Animal Services Department.
Other groups are shifting resources or setting up special accounts to cover the costs of senior animal care — from medical care before an adoption to humane euthanasia at the end of a dog's life.
"It's scary as a rescuer. One dog could break my bank," said Rosen, whose tiny nonprofit A Purposeful Rescue has pulled dozens of dogs from shelters and found permanent homes for eight seniors in the last five months.
She pays for their medical care from her Manny Fund, a cache of small donations that poured in from around the country after the story of one of her early rescues went viral.
Manny was an elderly golden retriever she sprung from the Lancaster shelter last spring, after watching a heart-wrenching video of him trembling in his kennel. The video was shared thousands of times on social media. When Rosen stepped up to free him, contributions flowed in.
But on his first night of freedom, "Manny passed away in his sleep. He was sick and old and overweight, and the stress of the shelter was just too much," Rosen said.
"But he died in a home, on a soft dog bed, with his foster mom sleeping next to him on a couch. People were grateful for that. They were sending in $5, $10 ... whatever they could. They wanted their money to help other seniors. It was amazing," she said.
Now Rosen is using that fund not only to rescue seniors, but to help owners pay for medical treatment of elderly pets and educate children about the needs of older dogs.
"Everybody knows about puppies," she said. "But no one talks about what happens when dogs get old. It's like looking in a mirror. People are so afraid of old dogs; people are afraid of getting old."