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Darla Poole Brescia of Gray Paws Sanctuary

Episode 9: The Art of Helping Senior Dogs in Need

Show Notes

Alongside her husband Joe, Darla is the founder of Gray Paws Sanctuary, where they are passionate about senior dogs! Since 2014, they’ve been caring for older dogs in the greater Pittsburgh area in need of preventive and routine medical care, physical therapy, socialization, and above all, love!

Darla and Joe do this in three ways. First, senior dogs in “sanctuary” live with them, spending every day caring for this pack of senior dogs themselves.

two senior dogs laying on a couch at Gray Paws Sanctuary
Cooper and Trip

The couple also matches senior dogs with local families through their “Forever Foster Care – Medical Coverage Program” to care for them for the duration of their lives.

Finally, their LOYAL Program provides financial support to families in order to help prevent the surrender or premature euthanasia of senior dogs that can be kept healthy and safe in their current homes.

Darla is the creator of “The Eight Pillars of a Dog’s Life Chart” designed to assist people in deciding when the quality of life is such that it is time to let go.

Find Darla and Gray Paws Sanctuary

Gray Paws Sanctuary

A dog looking up at the camera from Gray Paws, a sanctuary for senior dogs who have been abandoned or surrendered

Angela Schneider

Hi and welcome back to One Last Network. Thanks for listening!

Today Jessica Wasik, the top dog at Bark and Gold Photography in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,  is interviewing Darla Poole Brescia of Gray Paws Sanctuary, a nonprofit in the suburb of McKeesport that takes in old dogs who are unwanted by their families or abandoned at shelters where dogs will likely be euthanized because of their age and veterinary care costs.

Gray Paws is committed to providing the best quality of life for senior dogs and Darla and her husband Joe make sure they live out the remainder of their lives in dignity. They provide palliative and hospice care for dying dogs but let’s not let me spill all the details.

Let’s listen to Jes and Darla and their terrific conversation.

But first, don’t forget it’s National Adopt a Senior Pet Month and Senior Pet Month. If you’re feeling froggy, go to the Gray Paws Sanctuary page — or a nonprofit like it in your community — and donate a few bucks to their cause.

Or if you have a sweet senior pet yourself, make sure you get that biannual checkup done.

Now, over to Jes.

Jessica Wasik

Joining me today is Darla Poole Brescia of Gray Paws Sanctuary, a nonprofit senior dog sanctuary that she founded alongside her husband Joe. Since 2014, they’ve been welcoming unwanted and abandoned senior dogs who would otherwise be euthanized due to age or care costs.

In this episode, she’s going to give us some insight into what it’s like to foster senior dogs in her sanctuary, as well as share more about its programs including its senior dogs rescue and forever medical coverage program and its “Love Your Animal for Life,” or LOYAL, program. She’s also the creator of the “Eight Pillars of a Dog’s Life” chart, which I know will help many people who are dealing with the uncertainty surrounding quality of life for their aids and ailing pets and that clouded question of how do you know when it’s time. Darla, welcome to One Last Network. How is it going over on your furry side of town?

Darla Poole Brescia 

Oh, hi, it’s great here. How are you?


I am doing well. I am a sucker for senior dogs. And ever since I’ve been connected with you, I’ve been so excited to chat with you. So let’s dive right in and just tell us a little about yourself and how Gray Paws Sanctuary came to be?


Oh, sure. Well, ever since I was a child, my family always had animals, and I love dogs and cats, all kinds of animals. But when I was in my 20s, I was ready to settle down in my own home and wanted to start having pets again. And I went to adopt a dog, there was a senior dog that was in the kennel. And the people I was with are like, “Oh, don’t get that dog. That’s an old dog. Why would you want to get an old dog?” I left feeling so unsettled by that. And then over time, I did go back., not that dog, but I did adopt an older dog. And then I met my husband and he and I started just adopting senior dogs together. And then in 2014, we took it to scale and created Gray Paws Sanctuary as a full-fledged rescue.


So is this something you’ve always envisioned kind of operating? Or was that that specific moment in your life when you thought this is my calling?


I think Joe really supported me in it. I always had a vision and a hope that someday I would do it. But you know, we don’t have human children. So our dogs became, you know, the center of what we did at home. And it just sort of, just sort of happened in my career professionally. I’m a social worker, and I work in a nonprofit. So I have some experience around the business side of it. So creating Gray Paws was maybe not as more difficult for me as it would be for other people. So it just … it happened. And you know, we’ve been doing it for, you know, going on nine years. And we’re just really happy to do it every day.


How many dogs would you say you have fostered or helped?


Well, there’s several different programs, we started initially just what we call being “in sanctuary” and those are the senior dogs that live with Joe and I and we’ve had as many as 15 living with us at one time, which is really kind of madness, but good madness, you know.

And that’s really where the “Eight Pillars of a Dog’s Life” progress chart came. Just because of the trying to memorize what was happening, because we would have several dogs that were on hospice that were experiencing symptoms of something. So I needed a way to chart actually what each dog was doing. Like some of them were just fine. And I didn’t worry about them. But some of them a handful at a time would maybe not be barking in the morning, or maybe not eat all their breakfast in the morning. And just to remember how that was going throughout every day for 15 dogs was really challenging. And it sort of evolved over time with the “Eight Pillars of a Dog’s Life,” which to me was the eating, drinking, peeing, pooping, wagging, walking, breathing and barking, those are like the eight things that if something’s not right, then it might be a sign that something else is going on. So that’s how the “Eight Pillars” came along.

And then the second program that we do about two or three years into it, probably two years into it, we started placing senior dogs with families. And we do that through partnerships with other rescues, with animal control, with some site-based facility rescues where they have, you know, senior dogs in kennels, and they might not be doing so well. So we placed those dogs into homes and we provide medical coverage for them for life.

And we’d have a local veterinarian that we use in the White Oak area, but they don’t have to use that veterinarian. We define our perimeter or, you know, service area as an hour from White Oak. And that’s because we do a lot of the … I do most of the work myself and meeting the family, screening the homes, meeting the dogs prior to intake.

We do have some wonderful volunteers that help do that. But just logistically more than an hour each way, you know, isn’t an option. It would just be too much time. So that’s the second program and we have currently 77 dogs in local homes that we’re helping to support. And some families don’t ever ask us for any money. Some of those families actually donate to us and then we have absolutely wonderful families that are just a modest means. Maybe they’re senior citizens, they don’t have that extra income to pay for an expensive health issue. A certain medication like for Cushing’s disease can cost over, you know, $100 a month just for that medication alone, let alone, the, you know, the blood levels that need to be checked on that medication and things like that.

So we just support those families who keep the senior dogs which led us into our third program, which is the LOYAL program, where we really want to prevent placement and euthanasia of senior dogs so or surrender. So we partner again, with local veterinarians, and a couple of other rescues if a family comes in that legitimately is a good family, but they’re really struggling financially to take care of something, and that’s their reason for surrendering, then they tell them about us, and then they contact us and we financially, you know, enroll that family in the LOYAL program. So they’re keeping that dog. So they’re not surrendering, and they’re not sometimes even asking for premature euthanasia.

And again, it’s seems to be elderly people that really feel desperate, because they themselves are dealing with their own mortality. And then the dog becomes sick, and they just don’t know what else to do. So it’s really rewarding to work with families like that.


Sure. And I’m, I’m assuming that there’s a special connection between those senior humans and those senior pets that they can just connect on such a different level, just having experienced the same type of health issues and quality of life.


Oh, yeah, absolutely. And there are some rescues — justifiably so — that will not adopt dogs to senior people. But we find that senior dogs are a good match with senior people. And there are some rescues that over time have started doing it also, you know, the senior-to-senior program is, you know, a way to refer to it, that it just really makes sense. Because the dog is low energy, the human is low energy. So they’re like a nice companionship that, you know …


Absolutely. What qualifies a dog to come into the sanctuary and these programs?


Coming to live with us, they have to be extremely pack friendly. So I always say we take the cream of the crop to come live with us, because we do have people to come and visit we do our board meetings. Within the sanctuary home, where Joe and I live. So it’s really the sweetest pack-friendly dogs you can find. We have children that come in, they’re all, you know, good with kids, good with other dogs. So that’s the ones that we take, and then we just sort of manage our life.

I mean, he works full time, I work full time, and what our capacity is and what we think, you know, the year is going to bring. Right now, you know, we sort of have reined it back a little bit because we had a few vacations planned in the summer — yay! — which we don’t really vacation that much. But this year, we did because we’re down to a manageable number of dogs that allowed us to do that. But you know, next year, we’ll probably ramp it back up and, you know, have, you know, a larger pack with us.


Speaking of a larger pack, I understand you essentially outgrew that original home that you were using to help care for them. And you purchased I think it was three acres where you spent a few years custom designing what I guess you would call like a senior canine kingdom. What does that process look like for you? And how did that help you in welcoming even more dogs into your care?


Yeah, that was a fun time. But when we used to live on Arlington Avenue in North Versailles, in a big old Victorian home, and it had a lot of steps, and we had I think seven dogs living with us at the time. And it got to the point where some of them couldn’t get up to the bedroom to go to bed with us, they couldn’t go down into the yard. So we were building ramps off the front porch and just finally decided like this is not going to work if we’re going to keep bringing seniors and especially larger senior dogs, which we’ve had some really large dogs, we just needed to do something different.

So that started our quest to find property. I work in McKeesport, so I wanted to be somewhere close there. So White Oak is right next door to McKeesport, very fortunate to find the land there and we put a one-level modular home on it that has an extra, extra, extra large doggie door so we can accommodate any size dog. And we have a grassy yard that’s fenced in, and then we have a yard with astroturf.

We have super expansive spaces with covered porches and you know, it’s just really … it’s perfect for a dog and then my husband built dog crates into the wall sort of. So instead of having furniture in the house, we basically have crates everywhere around the walls and then furniture on top of those built in crates. It’s kind of hard to describe, but it works.


That sounds awesome. Like my ideal home. Having gone through that, what are some more simple tweaks that you might suggest for people who are trying to implement a better way for their animals to just get around their own homes?


Oh, wait, even though we have a wonderful setup, we still have some dogs that just when they get older, they get some weakness in their hips and their hind legs and we … it’s, you know, there are certain little gadgets that you can buy that really do work. Like the little nail tips, they’re these little rubber tips. We had a wonderful Dalmatian mix, he was such a good boy, and he was losing his, you know, his strength in his back end. We put these nail tips on his nails, and actually they’re like rubber. And they just give them traction, you know. And that really works, because he would not keep …

The other thing is like the socks that have the padding like you get in the hospital. There’s little spongy pads on the bottom. You can buy those for dogs, but he would not leave them on. Jazzy was his name, he would like pull them off. So we had to come up with a different solution. So the little caps come with glue, and you literally just … when he would be sleeping, I’d stick one on. And then he’d be like, what’s that? And he left us alone for some reason.

Yeah, just don’t be afraid to try the gadgets. And I would say supplements really work. And I really appreciate that our local veterinarian, the North Versailles veterinarian that we work with, Dr. Jay, he is into supplementation. So we do a lot of glucosamine fish oil, it really expands extends a dog’s life and it increases their quality of life.


That quality forever care, what does that exactly look like within the sanctuary? I’m sure it’s different dog to dog. But overall, what is that encompassing?


Oh, yeah, exactly what you said it’s dog to dog. We have, right now we have Max and he’s full of energy. And he loves to play. And he’s the one … Sparky is a beagle mix, Max is a husky. And they just like romp around and we just sort of like go, go play, you’re like you say to get go play, and the two of them run out and just like go play. And then we have the other smaller dogs that are just sort of like hang back and just want to do what they do.

So we just let every dog decide what they want to do. But, you know, paying attention to, like I said, the things on the pillar chart, like, what are they doing? Are they acting normal for that dog. And it’s always fascinating. Usually, when animal control picks up a dog that’s been either dumped or you know, has just been wandering, and they have a medical condition that’s happening, and it makes them look so old.

But when they come in to sanctuary or into one of our homes, and then they start getting the good healthy food and the supplementation, the medical treatment, they’re actually like Benjamin Button, I always say, they get younger, they you know, and you think they’re old.

Sometimes this has happened and it’s not a problem. But we’ll think we have a senior dog. And as they get well, we find out we don’t have a senior dog, we have like an adult dog, but definitely not a senior. And that’s OK. I mean, they’re still ours, once that happens.


That has to be so rewarding. I mean, you do want to care for the seniors, but to almost like you said, reverse that aging process for them and return them to the feeling of the age they should be. I can’t picture anything better.

So let’s talk about that “Eight Pillars,” and why you created that and how it can help pet guardians to get that better understanding of their companions, quality of life and the science to that it just might be time to let go.


Yeah, and it is, that’s the most difficult thing for us and for the families that we’re working with is when is it time. And like I said, having many dogs in a pack, it’s hard to just logistically remember which dog experience, which symptom or you know, what is changing with each dog. So the chart is probably more helpful with someone who has multiple senior dogs, if you have just one dog and you sort of know, I mean, you can remember what’s happening day to day very clearly, hopefully very clearly, some days I don’t remember anymore.

But you know, the eating the drinking, peeing, pooping, wagging, walking, breathing, barking is, you know, it’s going to be different for every dog. So we start off with a baseline. And I’ll complete this chart and then set up for like a week of activity and a little where you can say in the morning in the evening, is that good?

There’s like a five-point scale: very poor, poor, acceptable, good or very good. And hopefully, you know, we have dogs that come in, all those things are very good, but sometimes they’re not. So when we come in, bring them in, we’ll scale them or score them at, you know, what’s happening. And then over time, hopefully we’re getting them up to the good or very good rating. But if we’re not, you know, we don’t want it to go too long.

I always say to families that are struggling with “should I let them go or not,” I always say you know, one more day on this earth is not worth a day of pain. And if they … especially if they have a condition like kidney disease or something that’s just not going to get better. I mean, we know it’s not going to get better, it’s not curable, the symptoms will only worsen, and you don’t want to ever keep the dog for you. You want to do what’s best for the dog.

So it’s going to be painful. Yeah, but you don’t want the dog to be in pain, physically in pain on this earth for you so that you’re not in emotional pain. And it’s a struggle, but the chart is sort of a logical way to take your emotion out of it. And when you’re doing the scores and after you see a couple of days, OK, this is not getting better. I’m seeing decline in these scores, it’s really time to let them go.

And I always encourage people to have a celebration and just, you know, feed them their favorite food for a couple of days, schedule it proactively, don’t wait till it becomes a crisis. Because I don’t know if people are aware, but there’s a real veterinarian shortage happening in the community. And you know, getting into an emergency vet can even be a challenge, and you just proactively schedule when it’s time to let go. And that’s the best way to do it. Because they’re not going to get better. Typically, if they have a disease like that,


How often are you looking for signs that things are not good? Is it a few days? Is it a few weeks? Is it drastic changes day to day?


It depends. And if, you know, we, we track it ourselves, if we know medically what’s happening, but sometimes it’s a mystery. If it’s very rapid changes, we do go to the vet immediately and say, “OK, this is happening, get some blood work,” and whatever, you know, that will tell a, you know, maybe a hint of what’s going on, or a conclusion of what’s going on.

And it depends on the dog’s age. You know, we don’t do extraordinary treatments on a 17-year-old dog, for example. And we have that right in our agreement that we sign with people because, you know, we want families to understand that that’s not what we’re going to do. But we do have a clause in there that, you know, if someone wants to — personally, I don’t agree with it — but if someone wants to do chemotherapy on, for example, on a dog that’s 16 or 17, we will release them to the … to them, if they’ve been there, you know, caring for that dog for a period of time under Gray Paws, we will release the dog to their care, knowing that it’s good intention, and that is a medical option. It’s just one that Gray Paws won’t support.


Yeah. Outside of our pets being just such an important part of our life and the love that we have for them and that they have for us. Why do you think many people have such a hard time letting go even when they deep down know it’s the most appropriate decision at that time?


I don’t know, I wish I had a, you know, a crystal ball and that, but I always say, you know, because I’m a social worker, I think it comes back to how people think of themselves and their own mortality, and death in general of humans and canines alike. And some people can deal with death and loss and illness very well. And some people just can’t deal with that loss. So it just really is a personality issue on each person and what they feel about death and dying.


Going back to what you said at the beginning and your why to start this, I realized so many senior dogs are overlooked due to that age or their medical needs. Can we speak a little bit more to what you’re doing to kind of combat that stigma of adopting a senior dog through your medical coverage program?


Yeah, we do a lot of marketing things, mostly on Facebook. And we have a website but … and we go to different community events and talk to people about it. Amazingly, people will say, Oh, how do you afford that. And that’s why we do this. You know, we … that’s why we do fundraising. That’s why, you know, I write for grant monies, because we have people that would love to do what we’re doing, but they’re afraid they’re financially going to drown themselves.

So that’s why we support them. And yeah, just the joy of a senior dog. Some people, you’re never going to change, you know, and the people that surrender their dogs at age 10. I’ll never understand how someone could do that. But there are just people out there who do that, and do it routinely. And again, it’s a personality issue. I don’t understand it. But that’s, you know, someone’s prerogative to do that. And that’s why we try and combat that with our programs.


Yes, and that’s where that LOYAL program comes in. In the financial end, correct?


Correct. Yep.


Can you tell us more about that? How the funds are coming in and what type of coverage you provide in terms of care?


Yeah, we did a lot of research. We have a committee of board members that really dug into what was out there currently. And there are a couple of national organizations that provide care for different things, but there was really a gap in just routine veterinarian care, like just an annual vet appointment, just annual senior blood panel, which is so important to get with a senior dog because that will tell you if their kidneys aren’t working, their liver’s not working.

You know, the minute you find that out, you can start with the supplements first and then it will turn over to possibly prescription medications to manage that. But that is such a roadmap to good health and quality of life is that blood panel at least every year, but a lot of those national coverages wouldn’t provide just basic routine quality-of-life procedures and things like that, testing.

So we came up with a policy and we have … all three prongs of care are provided to us we’ll do the testing, we do emergency care, and we will help with euthanasia to, you know a dog gets hit by a car or something like that. In there. You know someone is trying to deal with that crisis, we will step in and help with that.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know about the program, which is good and bad. I mean, if you open the floodgates, I was just talking with the foundation a couple of weeks ago about funding for that program. And, you know, she was asking, how do we market it? And I said, honestly, we haven’t really marketed it widely, because we don’t know if we’re going to have the funds to support everybody.

So we’ve just sort of been working with the rescues and the veterinarians we have very close relationships with but we haven’t been screaming it from the mountaintops or putting it in the newspaper or anything. Because we just don’t know if we would have enough financial support for everybody. And we’re very hopeful that that foundation is going to come through and we’re going to have a large pot of money, and maybe we will, and that’s why I told her maybe I will be screaming about the program. If I’m confident that I have your support that I can do that. So that would be fantastic.


Yes, it would, what is next for you and Gray Paws? Are there any exciting plans or big dreams in the works?


Oh, just that I would really love to market the LOYAL program more to have senior dogs stay in the home that they’re in. You know, why would you want to move them or surrender them or you know, to have facility rescue or any rescue if you don’t have to?

So really supporting families to keep their dogs is my next vision. And just growing what we’re doing right now, I get a lot of emails through the website constantly about dogs that need surrender. And oftentimes people don’t follow through, because I will communicate back and forth with them. And I ask them to do certain things or provide certain information and they just sort of disappear. I always wonder why did that person just disappear after we talked?

So I’m not quite sure where or what’s happening with those situations. But I guess that’s next on the horizon is hopefully the LOYAL program will be able to keep those dogs in their home.


Is there anything that we did not cover that you wanted to mention today?


No, I just really appreciate all the support. You know, one of the great things about the Pittsburgh area, I think, is we have a very strong rescue community, and different events come up. And you know, I know on a first-name basis, many people from other rescues we work together. If there’s a lot oftentimes people will contact me with a dog that’s too young for our program, so I can refer them to another organization that can help, hopefully help them and other people we do that, you know the same thing.

Hospaws is a wonderful organization that is local in Westmoreland County, and they provide temporary care for senior dogs, well, any dog really, for a person who’s going into the hospital and they don’t have a place for their dog to go. And then unfortunately, sometimes that person doesn’t make it back out of the hospital. So then we help find a permanent home for that dog, if it’s a senior dog.

So different examples of that, the rescue community is really, for the most part, fabulous to work with. We’ve met so many wonderful people. I think dog people are the best people in the world. If you don’t like a dog, I’m always a little suspicious. Like, yeah, things that come up you go, “If you didn’t like a dog, then what’s wrong with you?” I sort of do feel that way. Unless people are fearful. I do understand that, you know, if you have trauma as a child with a dog, then you’re naturally going to be afraid of them. But not liking them is always puzzling to me.


Exactly. I say dog people are my kind of people, and if you’ve got more paws than you have human feet in your home, that is my kind of home. Yep, I agree. This has been really informative. And I’m so excited to watch your programs grow and just to support the work that Gray Paws is doing. Where can people reach out to you and follow along with all the incredible work you’re doing?


We have, like I said, most of our activities on the Facebook page, Gray Paws Sanctuary, Gray is spelled with an A … G-R-A-Y. And it’s where we communicate about the dogs we have available and just the happenings and we do have a YouTube channel where I put videos on there. I usually share them on Facebook first and then I’ll upload them into our YouTube channel if you’re wanting to get some adorable videos. And then we have a website. And we’re not very tech savvy. A lot of people will say I tried to apply on your website. Well, we don’t really even have that, you just send me an email and I communicate with people directly to get placements and get services for them.


Perfect. Thank you so much for all you shared today, Darla, and thank you so much for coming on the podcast.


I appreciate it. Thank you so much.


Hey, Darla. If people don’t like a dog, I’m suspicious of them too. There HAS to be something wrong with them, yeah?

I also could never understand anyone surrendering their senior dog for any reason other than dire financial hardship. I remember so well when Shep started to slow down and the days ahead of us were fewer than the ones together.

We shared such sweet, intimate moments and I did everything I could to suck all the marrow out of the bones of our life together.

And now eight years later as Bella starts to enter her senior years, the all-encompassing love I have for her … well, I could never imagine handing her over to someone else. It would be like losing an arm.

That there are organizations like Gray Paws and people like Darla, though, gives me comfort that these sweet senior dogs have somewhere to go, and somewhere to be loved until their time comes to an end.

On a side note, if you’re in Pittsburgh and interested in Hospaws, one of the organizations Darla mentioned, they posted recently on their Facebook page that they’re closing their doors on December 31. The October 20 post mentioned that fosters, volunteers and donors should reach out to Paws Across Pittsburgh to continue helping companion animals in need. Any animals still in their care when they halt operations will be transferred to SAFE, Short-term Animal Fosters for Emergencies.

Next week, I chat with Coleen Ellis, a pet loss pioneer and founder of the Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, under whom I am certified as a pet loss grief companion.

Coleen has a dynamic, magnetic personality and I’m confident you are going to fall every bit in love with her as I am.

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