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I Adopted a Senior Dog I Didn’t Think Would Live a Year, and I’m Glad I Did

Ellie had been abused by her previous owner. She flourished by my side, and we spent four wonderful years together.

Kat Merrill  |  Aug 1st 2016


I got Pasha, my first German Shepherd, from a breeder when she was 8 ½ weeks old. She came to me in a carrier the same size as the one for my cat. When she looked at me and went, “Ooom,” I was head over heels.

The day she died nine years later was one of the worst in my life. Despite the best veterinary care, an undetected tumor had been growing deep inside of her. It burst, rupturing her spleen. A trip to an emergency animal hospital turned into the news no animal owner wants to hear: “We can’t fix it. You can take her home and let her die naturally, or we can put her to sleep.”

I held her and sang her puppy song as she left the pain and suffering behind. I cry as I write this, 12 years later.

A few weeks after her death, I decided to find a way to honor her memory. I contacted a German Shepherd rescue group to set up a fund to save other shepherds.

I was still deeply depressed about her death. I cried every day. But I hated coming home to a house without a dog. That day, I planned to look at the rescue’s website when I got home. My best friend scouted it and sent me an admonishment: “Don’t look at the dogs that are up for adoption.”

Could you have said no to this face? This was the first photo of Ellie that I saw.

Could you have said no to this face? This was the first photo of Ellie that I saw. (Photo courtesy Kat Merrill)

You probably know what’s coming here. The first thing I did that night was look at those dogs, and the sad, lonely face of a gorgeous female spoke to my heart. Eleanor was thought to be 11. She was taken from an owner who neglected and abused her. I bawled as I thought of her horrible life, compared to the Barbie Dream House life my Pasha had lived at the same time. And then it came to me: I wanted to take that look off her face.

I went to meet her. She was standoffish. They said she weighed 65 pounds. The minute I saw her, I knew she was 100 pounds or close to it. She was cowed, crept along, didn’t have much energy, and was not very interested in anything that morning. I took one look at her and thought, “She won’t live a year. I don’t know if I can do this again in a year or less.”

I don’t know why I did what I did next. I sat on the ground in front of her and looked her in the eye. I said, “I am very sad because my dog is gone. It appears you are very sad, too. But I will make you a deal. If you want to come home with me, I will love you like no one ever has and I will make sure the rest of your life is awesome. Now, what do you say?”

Everyone gasped as she lunged toward me. I know dogs, so I didn’t flinch. She then stopped short and licked one entire side of my face, from chin to hairline, including right across my eyeball, with one stroke of her velvety tongue. I burst out laughing and said, “I’ll take that as a yes.”

By Kat Merrill I took Ellie wherever I could, and she loved the beach. This is my favorite photo of her.

I took Ellie wherever I could, and she loved the beach. This is one my favorite photos of her. (Photo by Kat Merrill)

On the way home, I decided to call her Ellie after remembering her foster mother lovingly calling her Oldenor instead of Eleanor. Would you feel young if everyone kept telling you that you were old?

Ellie had to have broken teeth from a previous beating fixed after some of them became infected. She came through the surgery with flying colors. I decided she had some fight left in her after all. My vet documented her injuries, and when he shared them with me, I was even more committed to spoiling this dog for the rest of her days.

Many stuffed toys entered her life in the next few years. She never tore up a single one. She really enjoyed them, after I taught her how to play with and squeak them. I spoiled her with food and with love. She started to look younger to me. And then something strange happened – she started to grow.

I thought, “Maybe she isn’t as old as they said.” I took her to the vet again for his opinion. He told me dogs that are abused shrink themselves to make themselves the smallest target possible. According to his measurements over the next six months, she was indeed getting taller and longer as she came to trust and love me.

By Kat Merrill Ellie enjoyed her meals, and always ate them in record time. Her collar says, 'It's not easy being a princess.' I tried to treat her like one every day.

Ellie enjoyed her meals, and always ate them in record time. (Photo by Kat Merrill)

We didn’t take many walks, but we did play gently in the house and the yard. I loved to watch her play with her squeaky tennis balls. We went to the beach several times. I made sure she got enough exercise, but more than anything as time went on, she just wanted to lounge by my side. Even though we had only four years together, they were wonderful.

A year and a half after I got her, I ran into her former foster mom at a pet store. She looked down at my shepherd and said, “Oh, I didn’t know Eleanor had passed. I’m so sorry. But that new dog of yours is beautiful. And she looks so happy.”

She was stunned when I told her this wasn’t a new dog, but rather the former Eleanor – younger, larger, stronger and indeed quite happy. After petting Ellie and talking to her, she realized it was true.

Ellie beat cancer at age 13. But her spine was degenerating and her hips had become painful. When she blew out a knee that could not be repaired a few months before age 15, it was time to let her go. I held her as she smiled at me and her eyes told me it was OK. She was at peace. And she was happy every single day she was with me. She fell asleep in a large bowl of canned dog food, her favorite, and crossed the Rainbow Bridge.