FILLMORE — The worn wooden sign in front of the retirement home says it all.
"Please! Watch Out for Old Dogs!"
No insult intended. The 36 clients spending their golden years at this peaceful sanctuary lined with sycamores and rosebushes are old dogs.
Some are toothless, some are blind, most have a wobble in their walk. These dogs have outlived owners, or become too inconvenient to take care of.
They come from all over the nation and have vastly different backgrounds. There are pampered show dogs and beloved house mutts. Some were abused by their owners. Some came here as their owner's last wish.
Whatever their medical problems, they are one batch of lucky dogs, for they have landed in the only retirement home for canines in the western United States, the Humane Animal Rescue Team kennel set on five acres of a 26-acre avocado ranch.
This is a place where four-footed retirees can live out their final days with dignity, as repayment for years of companionship and loyalty.
"We have a tremendous amount of love and affection for these animals," said Jamie Pinn, executive director of the kennel, bending down to hold a dog's gray-whiskered face in her palms.
"There's a tenderness about it. You figure all those years of loyalty to someone."
Take Dusty, who could fill a doghouse with the trophies she won during her glory days on the show circuit. Although her coat has turned to silver and her bark sounds more like a cough, the pure-bred German shepherd still has the grace of a performer. When she is walked, she moves with the elegance of a canine used to hearing the thunder of applause.
"She walks beautifully, don't you think?" Pinn said. "As if she's back in the ring."
Most of the time, however, Dusty, 14, and her 15-year-old German shepherd companion, Otto, lie around a spacious kennel, basking in the sun. They were taken in 10 months ago when their North Hollywood owner was stricken with breast cancer.
The owner's younger sister learned about the kennel from a social worker and called Pinn. The owner was a German shepherd breeder and her home was filled with dogs.
Pinn visited the house and chose Dusty and Otto, who were the oldest.
"I never spoke to the woman herself," Pinn said. "But when I departed with Dusty and Otto, I heard her call out faintly from a back room, 'Thank you.' She died shortly afterward."
The kennel was founded in 1984 by Suzanne and Phillip Kane, lifelong dog lovers who saw a need in the West for a home for aging pets, which are the hardest to find homes for.
When they decided to establish the kennel, Suzanne Kane was working in the Ventura County Public Works Department and her husband was a physical science professor at Cal State Northridge. The Kanes converted a tennis court into kennels, and placed wooden doghouses in each.
Last year, the Kanes retired and moved to Northern California, selling the dog sanctuary to the H.A.R.T. Foundation.
Pinn, 52, a former public relations executive who once represented Tom Selleck, is one of six paid staff members. For the 1998-99 fiscal year, the foundation received $525,636 in donations and $26,105 in bequests. Total expenses came to $338,820.
About 30 local volunteers help feed, walk, bathe, and shower the dogs with affection.
"There are a lot of parallels between our place and some of the finest facilities for elderly people," Pinn said. "The nurturing, the activity level, the beautiful surroundings."
The sanctuary also puts out a small newspaper, Muttmatchers Messenger. Even though the 15-page paper is distributed only to animal clinics and shelters in Southern California, the publication has found its way to shelters in the South and Pacific Northwest. Two dogs have come from Oregon and Texas. Since it went on the Internet, the facility has been getting even more calls from around the country.
Board and care for each dog costs about $250 a month. Since the pets are elderly, they require extra care and visits to the vet. Some need medication daily.
For details about the Humane Animal Rescue Team, call (805) 677-5541.