“They must be heart-rending places,” I said to the Dogs Trust PR as we talked about Dogs Trust’s Rehoming Centres. I imagined sad stories, doleful eyes and lots of cold concrete.
“Visit one,” she said. “You might be surprised.”
So I did. Last Sunday I took the family to Dogs Trust Harefield Rehoming Centre. The children knew that this was not a puppy-collecting expedition. It turned out to be a learning curve for us all.
First of all, the place is upbeat and positively bustling. It was not at all what I expected with its café and veterinary suite alongside a spic-and-span rehoming centre filled with friendly, smiling staff. Unsurprisingly dogs are all around – being exercised in spacious enclosures, being walked about the grounds by volunteers or being led through reception to meet their prospective families. There are plenty of people coming and going, too: making practical donations (duvets, pillows, dog food), scanning the library shelves, popping in for a coffee or settling down with clipboards and questionnaires to write up what they can offer a Dogs Trust dog (it takes a couple of meetings and a home visit before you can leave with the right dog for you).
Soon after we met our tour guide, manager Richard Moore, we met Bear, a huge Bullmastiff/Rottweiler mix, visiting the centre with his owner. Bear left the centre eight years ago and now his owner was looking for a new friend for them both. As Richard led us from Reception (where a target board showed that nine dogs had been rehomed in the first four days of 2015 – pretty impressive) into the well-stocked fund-raising library, we lingered, keen to watch Bear’s progress. He was lolloping about, sticking his friendly nose into everything, entirely unaware of his pony’ish size, when one of the staff brought along a young lurcher from the kennels: Bear’s potential new friend. We watched as they sized each other up, and then love, as it were, struck! Richard ushered them to the enclosed garden so that the dogs could get to know each other off-lead. Bear’s owner followed, smiling broadly. During our tour we witnessed much of the careful thought and hard work that goes into bringing this sort of success about.
We went to the viewing area where dogs available to be rehomed are placed. Each glass-fronted kennel is set at an angle so the dogs can see you coming. “Stop and listen”, said Richard. It’s silent. “We found that putting the dogs behind a clear glass barrier, rather than bars, helps make the them feel more secure. There’s not much barking.” When the dogs want to say hello, they can put their noses against the sniff holes and smell your hand. We read about the occupants of each kennel – some old, some young, some in pairs that are not to be split-up, some better suited to childless families, others needing lots of action – fittingly, they read like lonely hearts ads. Lots of the dogs charged up to greet us (see picture, above), but others lounged on armchairs or were busy making the most of those donated duvets and the underfloor heating.
We saw a batch of unwanted puppies being eased in by some of the home’s older dogs – so sweet, they would inevitably be finding a good home soon. Then we went through the area where new arrivals are kept as they go through the seven day behavioural assessment that is the Dogs Trust process. Here, understandably, the dogs are at their most disoriented and distressed but, having seen dogs that had been through the rehabilitation process, it was hard not to feel positive; they will all be given a proper second chance. Sometimes that means a fair amount of training is required, sometimes it simply means giving that extra bit of love. All the dogs have allotted cuddle time to make sure they get the human contact they need.
We came to Betty, a small black dog who was in a cosy room with a curtained viewing window. She had been locked in a shed for six months by an owner convinced that the dog was possessed by the devil. Betty was curled up in a pink blanket. There was a note on her door asking workers to give her extra cuddle time. Richard explained that even the simple routine of kennel life is good for many of these mistreated dogs – it helps give them a sense of normality. Richard pointed to the speakers that play a selection of upbeat music and calming radio channels 24/7 and always, but always, Classic FM at night. This is as much to help the workers as the dogs: “If the workers are happy, the dogs are too,” says Richard. “And of course the radio is helpful in getting dogs used to everyday sounds.”
The care that is taken to look after the best interests of every individual is impressive. In the Sensory Garden, an enclosed space where dogs can run among trees and greenery, with lots of tunnels, games, buried pots, wind chimes, and hanging life buoys to explore, Richard points to a white dog pottering about. Because this lurcher hates the noise of other dogs barking, the shutters are brought down over the outside space of the new arrivals unit during his run time. It’s such a thoughtful and kind approach.
After our tour, we leave Richard and head to the café where we can’t help but eavesdrop as some dog owners compare Dogs Trust stories. It was a heartwarming end to the perfect tour that left us all wanting to help. Hence this blogpost and my hope that you might want to give some support, too.
Dogs Trust cares for 17,000 dogs every year. They are the ones who never put a healthy dog down. They have 21 re-homing centres, some undergoing modernization, others being revamped. Harefield is an exemplary centre, an inspiring place. If you feel like I do, and want to support the great work that Dogs Trust do, there are plenty of ways to get involved. Volunteering (they need all sorts of help, from dog walkers to front-of-house staff, from gardeners to maintenance workers) and fundraising take some commitment, but you could start small, and remember Dogs Trust when you have an old duvet (feather-free, please), some spare cans of dog food or a blanket that you no longer need, and send it their way. Simple. Please read the Get Involved link on their website and, if you can help, then do!
(Because I love Dogs Trust so much, I’d also suggest you follow them on https://www.facebook.com/DogsTrust and Twitter, @DogsTrust)
UPDATE: I’ve just heard from Richard that Bear and his new Dogs Trust friend, Toddy, have gone home together and are doing well. Yay!