Deborah Workman is a tireless advocate for dogs across Northeast Ohio

Griselda will always hold a special place in Deborah Workman’s heart. The German Shepherd/Collie mix passed away in 1999 at the age of 17, which was quite a surprise to veterinarians who never thought she would make it past being a puppy.

“She had distemper as a puppy and the vets told me I should take her back because she would never live,” Workman says.

Griselda did live and gave Workman nearly two decades of unconditional love and happiness. Workman honors her memory each day through her work at The Sanctuary for Senior Dogs, a nonprofit she began following Griselda’s death. Sanctuary is an organization dedicated to the rescue, adoption and lifelong care of older dogs.

The first steps were taken as Workman was attending seminars through Best Friends Animal Society, a national animal rescue and advocacy organization. From there, she got involved with the Geauga Humane Society Rescue Village, where she would bring home older dogs.

“Back then, very few people adopted old dogs,” says Workman, executive director at Sanctuary. “They would sit there because the Geauga Humane Society tried not to euthanize animals unless they were sick or dangerous. So I just started slowly bringing them home and one day, I looked around my house and had six dogs. I thought there has to be a better way to do this.”

Saving lives, changing lives
Workman began to talk to vets and other people who work in pet-related fields about her idea to create an organization that would provide care for older dogs. The response she got was not at all supportive.

“Back then, there was a lot of resistance to the idea of spending what might be limited resources that people donate to animal welfare on dogs that in the words of one detractor, ‘don’t have a future,’” Workman says. “It’s all based on your perspective. I brought old dogs into my own home who were so old and ill, they only lived for a couple of weeks. But that’s a better end of life than just dying in a shelter or on the street.”

Workman was committed to her mission. She went to the library and read up on how to start a nonprofit in Ohio.

“I found something I absolutely love, which is a checklist,” she says. “I worked my way down the list and I guess the rest is history. We became an Ohio charity in 2000 and a federal nonprofit in 2002. And we have been growing strong ever since.”

Becoming a nonprofit allowed donations she received to be used as a tax deduction, which made people much more willing to support her cause.

“Being a charitable organization in Ohio also allows us to not have to pay a state sales tax and strengthens our validity in people’s minds,” she says. “The biggest difference was I wasn’t in it alone any longer. I wasn’t funding it privately or personally. In order to become a nonprofit, we had to establish a board of directors, which automatically meant more help. I had to find people who were interested in saving old dogs.”

That process still wasn’t easy, even as a nonprofit. But the nonprofit status gave her valuable credibility and she slowly built a team.

“I believed that these older dogs were owed something,” Workman says. “In many cases, they’ve lived their whole lives in a family. They’ve been surrounded if not by luxury, then love. Then circumstances change, however, and they find themselves on the street or in a loud, noisy urban kennel. They deserve better than that.”

Not all of the dogs that Sanctuary cares for are in the final stages of life.

“There are old dogs that have a lot left to live for,” Workman says. “They are not just couch potatoes that require care and don’t give anything back. We have an active therapy dog program that is branching out to helping humans. If a dog comes to us with an exceptional temperament, we put that dog through training and we register the dog as a therapy dog. He or she can visit nursing homes, schools, hospitals — all sorts of different places.”

Things have changed
Workman has about 30 foster caregivers who bring in new old dogs that come to Sanctuary. There is also a Forever Foster program that is geared for those dogs that are nearing the end of their lives and require constant care.

“In those situations, we provide palliative care just as you would a human being in hospice,” Workman says.

“We evaluate their quality of life on a case-by-case basis. If there comes a point where the dog is suffering and there is no hope for a cure or improvement and we can’t control the suffering or lessen the pain, we make the decision together with our veterinarian to humanely euthanize them.”

Workman looks at nearly 20 years of advocacy on behalf of older dogs and can see the difference she has been able to make.

“The awareness of senior dogs and the help they get has multiplied exponentially,” Workman says. “Most rescues will now take older dogs. We went from taking seven-year-old dogs that people thought had no future to now other rescues are taking those dogs right away. Now we are taking more of the hospice cases or the dogs so old that other people can’t help. Things have changed.”

How to reach: The Sanctuary for Senior Dogs, (216) 485-9233 or