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Spencer is the poster dog for senior rescue

Spencer, a buff-colored Shih Tzu, was Michelle Marzolino's first pet.

That was nearly 19 years ago. Using the not-quite-accurate but widely cited calculation that dogs age seven years in every calendar year, Spencer will turn 133 years old in June.

"It amazes me that he is still a part of my life," says Marzolino of Alden.

Well into old age, Spencer was guardian of the house, barking to alert his people to any visitor, and king of the trails he trekked, including Mount Mansfield in Vermont, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine and Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

There is no doubt that the years have taken a toll on Spencer. He lost an eye to an infection a few years ago, and Marzolino knows that his hearing and vision in his other eye have diminished. He's been replaced as house guardian by his Shih Tzu brother Aston, now 8, which seems to suit Spencer just fine.

But Spencer still enjoys life, and Marzolino is happy to have him.

"He just keeps going," she says. "He is the first one to eat meals and the first one to finish. He enjoys going outside; he loves his belly rubs and he loves to go for rides in the car."

Because he pokes along slowly on the trails where he once scampered, she says the 10-pound dog, down from 17 in his youth, is carried in a knapsack so he can enjoy the scent of nature and the warm breezes.

A life span of 13 to 16 years "is probably pretty normal for this breed, which is generally quite healthy," says Jo Ann White, author of "The Official Book of the Shih Tzu."

White has had Shih Tzus since 1967 and says her oldest dog lived to be 18, "in great health for virtually all of that time. They're a great breed!"

Spencer is featured on the November page of the 2012 Graying Muzzles calendar issued by the Sanctuary for Senior Dogs in Cleveland, a rescue group for homeless senior dogs. In the photo, Spencer sits outside in the sunlight. The caption says, "Just like the Energizer bunny, Spencer keeps going and going and going."

Marzolino says she always wanted a dog but her father vetoed the idea. He did, however, frequently admire a black and white Shih Tzu walked by a neighbor. A month after her father died, Marzolino bought Spencer from a breeder in Depew.

As a pup, she says, Spencer "always had to be the leader of the pack. He didn't like men too much, so he was protective," with one exception -- he adores Marzolino's ex-husband, Don Markham.

Spencer enthusiastically joined in the family's active lifestyle of hiking and kayaking. "The dogs have always lived an outdoors life," says Marzolino. "Anytime I travel, I usually camp, so they always go with me."

A few years after Spencer joined the family, Marzolino added another Shih Tzu named Bentley, two years younger than Spencer. "They were best buddies," she says. But Bentley got cancer and, despite a course of chemo, he died at home at age 14.

Besides Ashton, Marzolino has a 2-year-old Shih Tzu named Preston and cats Rascal, 14; Casey Jones, 13; Cassidy, 10; and Spooky, 3. She says, "Spencer was such a good big brother to all the animals, but we used to kid that when we brought a new one in, he was probably thinking, 'Oh, no, not another one!' "

The dogs all enjoy good health, although she says a bit sheepishly, "I feed them whatever they want. They have eaten table food ever since they were young, although I know people discourage that."

Spencer is highly interested in food, and, says Marzolino, "His scent ability is so strong. He sleeps very soundly, and he can be in a sound sleep and if I come into the living room with food, that dog wakes up immediately."

She gives Spencer a pill now and then for his arthritis, "but he finds it in the food and spits it out, he's so smart," she says, laughing.

The World Atlas of Dog Breeds lists Shih Tzus as among the longest-lived dogs, living 11 to 15 years. Smaller dogs, including the Maltese, Pomeranians, Chihuahuas and miniature schnauzers, can live 15 years or more.

Dr. Barbara Scheffler, of Corfu/Darien Veterinary Clinic in Corfu, where Spencer has received his veterinary care for the past five years, says the smallest dogs have the longest lives and the giant breeds, such as Great Danes, have the shortest lives. "Nobody is exactly sure why, but weight seems to be a huge determining factor," says Scheffler.

But even given his small size, Spencer "is elderly," she says. "He has definitely lived beyond the ordinary life span. Luck, genes, diet, good medical care, I think all of those play a role."

Before surgery to remove his eye a few years ago, Marzolino says, his veterinarian did a complete work-up on Spencer, and found his heart strong and his blood test results good.

"You're as old as you feel, and dogs are just like people in that regard," says Scheffler. "A person missing an eye could potentially be self-conscious about that, but dogs missing an eye or a leg -- they don't care! It's a non-issue in their minds. Blind dogs do really, really well." Their other senses, including smell, "fill in a little bit, I think they become keener," she says. Even impaired vision and hearing "is not the end of the world," she says. "The owner has to basically take over and be the eyes and the ears for that dog."

Spencer was lucky to find a home with Marzolino, whom Scheffler calls "a very good owner who is very attuned to her pets. On the other hand, we see wonderful owners whose dogs get cancer. That's where the genes and luck come in."

Marzolino supports the work of the Cleveland rescue group that put Spencer's photo in its calendar, and encourages others to consider adopting senior dogs. "You never know how long they will live, and at least you're going to give them some quality of life for as many years as they are going to be around," she says.

To learn more about the Sanctuary for Senior Dogs in Cleveland, a 501(c)3 charity dedicated to helping find homes for dogs over age 7, go to sanctuaryforseniordogs.org.

email: aneville@buffnews.com