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In Tennessee, the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary welcomes two-legged visitors

At the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary near Nashville, staff member Shelby Ledbetter oversees playtime in the Oasis Yard with residents Lady Bird, Louise and Thelma. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)

Ms. Peggy rolled up in her chariot, a quilt-padded cart pulled by three attendants. She wore a jaunty handkerchief tied around her neck and a pair of orange Wayfarer-style sunglasses. Her handlers paused in front of a window so a fan could wave hello. She turned her head toward her admirer, causing her shades to slip down her pert nose. One of her assistants pushed them back into place.

Ms. Peggy is a Nashville personality, but she’s no diva. The resident at the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary (OFSDS) in Mount Juliet, Tenn., has arthritis, a heart ailment and no opposable thumbs, a consequence of her age and species. Despite her challenges, the 12-year-old bulldog mix shines in the limelight, lapping up the attention like a stouter Dolly Parton.

“Ms. Peggy has mobility issues and does not like other dogs,” said Sally McCanner, the rescue center’s tour director, “but she loves people and getting dressed up.”

If you have a soft spot for seasoned howlers, you can attend a performance at the Grand Ole Opry or visit OFSDS, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Nashville. The facility resembles an assisted-living community for canines: It provides lifetime care for shelter and stray dogs that are long in the fang — roughly 8 years old and up — and often beset with behavioral or physical issues.

“Sharkey would bite feet,” Sally said of the dachshund mix whose obituary highlighted this quirk. “No ankle was ever safe around him,” it reads.

Rescue centers with vulnerable populations typically try to shield their dogs from public view. OFSDS takes the opposite tack. After moving to new palatial digs in June, the staff started leading tours of the PAWvillions several days a week. With nearly 2 million Facebook likes and 163,000 Instagram followers (including myself), the sanctuary has welcomed a steady stream of supporters eager to meet the social media darlings.

“One couple drove from California, and another flew down from Boston and back,” Sally said.

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For my early-afternoon tour, I met Sally in the main lobby, which resembles a snug mountain lodge with a free-standing stone wall, carved wood artwork and a leather couch. A gift shop was tucked against the back wall. Sally began with a brief history lesson, which she would pause whenever a resident strolled by. “Hi, Baby Cakes,” she said to the chihuahua/miniature pinscher mix, adding in sotto voce, “He is one of a bonded trio.”

The nonprofit organization was founded almost a decade ago by Zina Goodin and her husband, Michael. The couple had been volunteering with a golden retriever rescue group when they noticed how adopters often overlooked the seniors. To give those in this upper age bracket a refuge of their own, the two opened their home to older dogs and later relocated to a former garden center in Mount Juliet. A few years ago, they started constructing the $5 million PAWvillions, which includes an on-site vet clinic, industrial-size kitchen with a medication pantry, grooming station, indoor and outdoor yards, and assorted accommodations (dorm-style rooms, private suites) suitable for upward of 120 dogs with varying predilections. On moving day, nearly 100 pups paraded through the streets, riding in shopping carts and strollers and atop floats like local celebrities.

On the tours, visitors can peek inside — but not enter — the living quarters of the dogs that are ready to go home with a “Geezer Guardian,” under assessment or deemed lifers because they suffer from a serious condition, such as dementia or separation anxiety. (OFSDS dogs go to permanent homes, but they return for vet appointments and medical treatments. For this reason, the caretakers must live within 100 miles of Mount Juliet.)

“There’s Cinnamon and Oreo, and Ketchup and Potato — she looks like a potato,” Sally said as we pressed our noses against the windows in Geezerville, a residential wing with five rooms. “Bentley is going to live forever,” she added slyly.

Unless you are a resolute cat person, you will be itching to scratch a dog behind its ears. And you can. Most of the interactions take place in the play areas. In Central Bark, an indoor park with bone-shape benches, clover-green turf grass and a mural of the Manhattan skyline, I pet Tony during his breaks from an imaginary squirrel chase. In one of the three outdoor yards, I horsed around with Dixie Do, a mom mastiff, and her two sons, Jake and Ivan. I romped with caution: Though gentle, the family weighs 460 pounds total, not including slobber.

All of the dogs spend at least 45 minutes a day in the “tropics” of Tennessee, a green space called the Oasis Yard that has a cooling splash pad and an artificial palm tree. I joined a play group already in session. Fancy, a terrier mix, hobbled over to Sally, who picked her up for a cuddle. Fancy’s son, Lil’ Pete, ran by with a tennis ball in his mouth. Woody, his brother, cheered from the sidelines. In the corner, I joined the curly crew, Henry and Robby, also known as the Poodle Puddle. The bonded pair are blind, so they had to trust me when I told them how fabulous they looked in their purple sweaters.

In the spring and fall, the sanctuary leads Tuesday-evening hikes along the property’s wooded trails. The outings alternate between slower dogs, including some in wagons and strollers, and speedier ones. I had planned to attend a hike with the hare group, but the sanctuary had to cancel the event because of an earlier outbreak of kennel cough. As consolation, I joined Noël Kiswiney, a staff member, and Deeno, a hound mix, on a morning stroll.

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Deeno is mostly blind and had a large tumor removed from his side, but that didn’t stop him from nimbly crossing Knight’s Bridge and bounding down the leafy path. Hikes typically last 45 minutes to an hour, with several stops to sit, rest and pant. After we completed the short loop, Noël and I were chatting when Deeno interjected. “He’s telling you it was a good time,” Noël said, translating for me.

Daytime, nighttime companions

OFSDS does not offer unsupervised off-site excursions, but I found a number of willing and able companions at the Nashville Humane Association. For just over two years, the private rescue center has been running a program called Doggie Dates and Rover Nights. I signed up for both. Selflessly, I wanted to help the staff better understand the dogs’ behaviors outside the shelter environment, which improves their chances of adoption. Selfishly, I wanted a four-legged playmate I could squire around Nashville.

For the daytime excursion, I arrived just after 11 and received a yellow sticky note listing the names of six dogs. I was directed to the back area, to the pens. I read their profiles — Fresca: “goofy, cuddly, outgoing” — and tried to not look too deeply into their puppy-dog eyes. I returned to the front desk with my selection, and a few minutes later, a handler appeared with Luna, a 6-month-old with an ebony coat, almond eyes and a toddler’s irrepressible energy. An employee gave me a printout of hiking spots and drinking and dining establishments that are partial to pets.

After browsing the park options, I piled Luna into my rental car and drove through the upscale neighborhood of Belle Meade — “Crank up the cute, Luna,” I instructed her — to Radnor Lake State Park. Dogs are only permitted on Otter Creek Road, the perfect spot for a trek with a dog you’ve just met. The paved path is flat and scenic, with enough room on the shoulder to roll in the grass without falling into the lake.

We hiked for two hours, and I’d like to say that Luna slept on the return trip, but she was more rambunctious than ever. I pulled into the driveway of a multimillion-dollar home to tighten her harness. The owner approached the car window, and I explained my predicament. He smiled knowingly, as if he had heard this one before.

When I returned for the sleepover, Luna had been crossed off the slip of paper; another volunteer had chosen her for a slumber party. I decided on Pamela, a 2-year-old with Cleopatra eyes and a calm demeanor. (I had rented an Airbnb, so I wanted a dog who neither chewed nor zoomied.) The rental was near Vanderbilt University, and we crisscrossed the campus chasing small critters in the fading pink light. A woman who had stopped to pet Pamela suggested we go around the corner to Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint — for sour beer and dog biscuits. In the morning, Pamela and I swung by Osa Coffee Roasters before her 9 a.m. return time. She stood on her hind legs to see whether there was anything on the menu for her. (There wasn’t.) Back at the shelter, I told her to go get adopted. Then I raided the racks of merchandise, diverting the tears.

I was on my own until my flight left later that afternoon. I popped into Fido, a cafe and coffeehouse in Hillsboro Village that occupies a former pet shop. I told myself I was there for the mushroom toast, but I really wanted to check out the outdoor seating area for future dates.

Postscript: Not long after my mid-October visit, Luna and Pamela were adopted.

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What to do

Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary

765 Nonaville Rd., Mount Juliet, Tenn.


The sanctuary runs tours three times a day, Tuesday through Friday, and twice a day on Saturday. Cost: $10 per person. Volunteers can walk the pups on free Tuesday-night hikes. The fall season recently ended; the events will return in April.

Nashville Humane Association

213 Oceola Ave., Nashville


The rescue center runs the Doggie Dates and Rover Nights program every day except Monday. There are two slots per outing, with pickup at 11:15 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. The center will provide supplies, including food, poop bags and a blanket for the rental car. Free, but you can show your support in the gift shop.

— A.S.

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