IN THE DOG HOUSE

Dog rescue homes are finding new ways of tempting prospective owners. Jeremy Clarke visited a centre where the kennels are kitted out with fireplaces and sofas. Photographs by Jeremy Hilder
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The Independent Culture
CHOOSING a pet from a rescue centre must be one of the hardest things in the world. A dog, for example: how do you select one from row upon row of barking, stir-crazy, rejected animals? The stress of living in a kennel can cause many normally well-balanced canines to become frantic and froth at the mouth. But recent research carried out by psychologists at Queen's University, Belfast, has shown that people invariably plump for the responsive dog that comes to the front of its kennel, seems alert and doesn't bark too much.

The Ulster psychologists have found a way round this: their research shows that moving a dog's bed to the front of its cage and fixing toys and chews to the bars makes the dog quieter in the presence of visitors. Instead of passing quickly on, prospective owners linger, attracted by the more complex kennel environment and by the animal's placid demeanour.

The National Canine Defence League, Britain's largest dog rescue charity, has been quick to take notice of these findings. At the NCDL rescue centre at Roden in Shropshire, for example, they have not only moved the dogs' beds and provided the toys, but have gone a step further by putting sofas and chairs in some of the kennels. One cage has even been designed to look like a suburban living- room, complete with comfy armchair, mock fireplace and framed pictures on the wall.

I went along to Roden to view this four-star kennel accommodation. Claire Ferris, NCDL Roden's new Animal Welfare Adviser, took me on a tour of the kennels, beginning with this highly innovative, fully furnished dog pen.

As an AWA, Claire's job is to try to educate prospective owners ("the emphasis is on `try'," she says wryly) via compulsory pre-adoption classes. The object of these classes is to demonstrate to owners that a dog is a dog and does not possess human emotions, as many like to believe.

Dogs exhibiting behavioural problems go to Claire for therapy. Most of their problems involve fears of one sort or another: of being left alone, of other dogs, of motor cars, of men with beards, and so on.

Apart from the heart-stopping cacophony of barking that greeted us on the other side of the gate, the first thing I noticed was how attractively designed the kennels were. The kennel blocks at Roden are built in the shape of parasols: 12 kennels around a kitchen, the dogs facing outwards. Each kennel was clean and spacious. I wouldn't mind living in one myself but for the din. The dogs looked out across a thoughtfully landscaped garden: immature trees and flowerbeds in the foreground; behind, a windswept pond with bobbing ducklings. (Later, I watched one of these ducklings innocently wander between the bars of a kennel, where it was gobbled up and immediately forgotten about by a wild-looking black-and-white collie called Ted.)

Peering through the bars of the kennel with the mock fireplace, I was reminded of a children's playroom.The present occupant was out having a walk. Claire told me that they'd chosen to furnish the pen closest to the entrance because research shows that people tend to choose a dog from the first dozen they see, and if it is seen in remarkable surroundings, it is more likely to stick in the memory. This is why the fully furnished cage is reserved for dogs which are normally overlooked.

As we toured the cages, rarely was a dog indifferent to our presence. Some started barking like maniacs before we came into view; others stayed silent until we stopped to look at them, and then they went off suddenly, as if detonated. Some barked without much conviction and wagged their tails simultaneously; then there were the "spinners" - dogs who went round and round on the spot like whirling dervishes.

Here and there a friendly warning had been pinned to the bars of a cage. Above Tess, a self-contained, wheat-coloured terrier, a notice read: "My name is Tess. Please do not put your hands into my kennel. I do not like it." And above a terrier called Buzz, who was standing perfectly still and staring straight ahead of him, a sign: "I do seem to be too strong- willed for my own good sometimes."

Next door to Buzz, reclining on a blanket-covered sofa and wearing a smart tartan jacket, was a very ancient lurcher called 'Arry. As Claire and I passed his cage, he just about managed to raise his head from the cushion and pass a languid, philosophical, cloudy eye over the pair of us, before letting his head drop again. Above 'Arry's cage it said: "My name is 'Arry. I 'ave to be muzzled when I go out for walks as I don't like other dogs."

"You can always tell which dogs are going to be rehomed quickly, and which are going to take longer," said Claire, looking meditatively at 'Arry. "Older dogs unfortunately tend to stick - though Roden has quite a good record for getting them into homes. One way of homing an older dog is to simply recommend them to people. Some potential owners are far better suited to an older, less energetic dog - but the idea of adopting one hasn't occurred to them. An old dog can have a lot going for it. They tend to be quieter, get on better with other dogs, and they blend in more quickly to a new environment."

'Arry's next-door neighbours were a couple called Sarah and Bruno. Sarah was a young, tri-coloured mongrel. She stood quietly, her feathered tail moving slowly in a tentative greeting. Sarah had a kind face and a patient, gentle nature. Her cell-mate, Bruno, was an ugly, barmy old brute of a collie, who bared his rotten teeth and gums at us and backed away as though we represented some monstrous embodiment of his worst fears. As Bruno slavered and gasped in terror, kind Sarah looked from him to us as if to say, "You must excuse my colleague; he hasn't been very well, you know."

Next door were a pair of big black mongrels called Beavis and Hilda. Because, for some reason, people tend not to notice black dogs, Beavis and Hilda were each wearing a smart red collar to make them more visible to the casual visitor.

According to the Queen's University research, a dog's name can make a crucial difference to its length of stay at a rescue centre. People are unlikely to take on a dog called Satan or Killer, especially if it's a German Shepherd. Change its name to Popsy, however, and the future looks brighter. Recently a labrador cross was offered a home as soon as his name was changed from Judge to Fudge; and Rambo, a greyhound, woke up one morning to find himself being addressed as King Edward the Couch Potato. During my tour of the kennels, most of the dogs had very un-macho names: Horace, Toffee, Forrest Gump, Topsy, Rupert and Gerbil. At the moment, there is a food theme going on: strays arriving at Roden are given names such as Bacon, Sausage, Mushroom and Tomato. "Egg?" I inquired, but Claire couldn't remember a dog called Egg.

So that helps with the old ones, and the unattractive ones, and the black ones, and the unappealingly named ones. Which just leaves the mad ones. "What happens to them?" I asked. "Oh, the staff usually take the nutters home with them," Claire told me blithely.

Most of the dogs brought to Roden are strays. The centre is contracted to take them from two local borough councils: North Shropshire and Shrewsbury and Atcham. Capacity is 160 dogs. If they have room, the centre will also take dogs from owners who are obliged to give them up, whether because of ill-health, bereavement or difficulties with accommodation.

When a dog is brought in, it is seen by a vet and treated for minor ailments. It is also inoculated, microchipped, and neutered or spayed if that hasn't already been done. "We try not to use the word `castrated' in the pre-adoption classes," says Claire. "It makes the blokes uncomfortable."

The reception office reminded me of a waiting room in a doctor's surgery. There is a long padded bench to sit on and a rack of educational leaflets on the wall. A poster reads, "A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than himself." There is another with the NCDL's arresting "Toys aren't us" slogan and, beside this, a mission statement: "The National Canine Defence League exists to protect and defend all dogs from abuse, cruelty, abandonment and any form of mistreatment." The charity is committed to the belief that no healthy dog should ever be destroyed and that all dogs should be protected, wanted, homed for life and cared for by responsible owners.

According to their annual report, the NCDL cared for 10,834 dogs at their 13 rescue centres last year. Of these, 8,161 wore rehomed or returned to their owners, and 53 died, leaving just under 2,000 dogs in care by the end of the year.

At the front desk, Carol Young, who has been running the office for two years, was helping a couple to find a dog - preferably a Doberman. Carol handed them the standard NCDL "Homefinding Form" ("A Dog is for Life"). Another man was filling in an application form for a dog. I sneaked a look at his half-completed form. Next to the question: "Why do you want a dog?" he had written in capital letters: "friendship". Then two middle-aged women wearing identical raincoats came in and said that they wanted to become volunteer dog-walkers. They, too, were set to filling out forms.

A big black male Labrador burst through the door, closely followed by Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council dog warden Tony Wilkinson. Tony looked as though he had just lost a trial of strength. The Labrador was a strapping, healthy-looking beast. He jogged around the room, smiling and panting and swinging his muscular tail in such a wide arc that the whole of his rear end moved with it. He hadn't a clue why he was there, but seemed happy about it.

The young kennel staff crowded in to the office to look at him. Anoraks muddy and torn, hair dripping, they were excited by the arrival of a new dog, as if 160 weren't quite enough. One thought she recognised him, and a sensor was run over the dog to see whether he had been "chipped". He had: there was a microchip between his shoulder-blades. Carol called up his details on the computer. His name was Sabre, and he had been in several times before. Sabre's owner was rung and asked to come and collect him.

Carol found herself with 30 seconds to spare and told me about the last phone call. It was from the owner of an old people's home seeking advice about her five-year-old Collie, Sonny, who had taken to rounding up the elderly residents and herding them about like sheep. He singled out the most bewildered residents for special attention, and nipped at them until they got in line.

Alison Rowbowtham is a Behaviour Counsellor who comes to Roden twice a week, and specialises in dogs with aggression problems. "Who do you counsel?" I asked her. "The people or the dogs?" "Well, the owners really. But we tell them it's for the dogs. What we do is try to show them the dogs' point of view. Unfortunately a lot of people think their dog has human values. And that means they think they are entitled to treat it as they would a person. Especially when it gets it wrong."

It's back to that old anthropomorphism business again. Alison spoke to me as if I were one of her rescue dogs, putting as much meaning into her tone of voice as she does into her choice of words. "Of course people treat dogs like humans with the best will in the world," she assured me. "A dog has a knack of looking as though it understands us, as if it has exactly the same emotions as we do, and people assume it has an almost human understanding of the world. But it doesn't really understand what is happening at all.

"The way we ask our dogs to live now is so different from the way it was 30, 20, even 10 years ago. Where did the dog live 30 years ago? He lived in a kennel in the garden. He knew his place, and he was happy about it. But now he lives as part of the family and is even allowed to sleep on the bed. No wonder it gets confused."

Alison is keen to dispel several myths concerning rescue dogs. One is that a rescue dog has probably been mistreated. "People think that at some stage in its life every dog that ends up in a place like this has been beaten. Then they get it home and overcompensate for this imagined mistreatment by cuddling the thing to death. `Rescue Dog Syndrome', we call it."

What really gets Alison's goat is the idea that by taking a dog from a rescue centre and bunging in a donation of a tenner, you are doing everybody a favour. "People have to understand that from the moment a dog arrives at the rescue centre, a lot of money has to be spent on it. Let's say a dog is in here for a week and then rehomed. The day after it comes in, it's vet-checked, inoculated, neutered and all the rest of it. It's given a heated kennel and fed on the best dog food." (Give them low-quality food and it works out more expensive in the long run because you pay more in vet's bills.) "It's walked every day. It might have some sort of behaviour therapy. Then at the end of the week it goes out of here with an insurance policy and a bright new collar and leash. If it's an older dog with a chronic health problem, a rescue society like the NCDL might undertake to help with your vet's bills in future. And if it doesn't work out, they'll take the dog back and start all over again. The dog is handed over. The new owner signs the form, and you ask him for a donation. And he gives you maybe a tenner." For a moment, the thought of that pounds 10 donation silences her.

Later, back in the reception office, Gerbil was in the chair having his photograph taken. Three kennel staff were waving bits of cheese in his face to distract him so that the photographer could get a decent shot. It was an agonising process - the silly sod was looking anywhere except at the camera.

After everyone had gone home, I sat on in the reception office with my head in my hands. Assistant manager Kerry Ridgeway, who sleeps in, appeared in the doorway with four very large, very demoralised-looking dogs. One was almost blind, one was going bald, one was ancient and frail, one seemed fearful. They stood there with their heads down - the saddest, most decrepit group of dogs I had ever seen. Kerry said she was going to take them for a walk in the field before locking up.

Through the window, I watched them going slowly across the yard, where they halted for a moment, and then they all came tottering back again. Kerry explained that the nearly blind one, the greyhound, had had an operation on her eyes that morning and wasn't really up to a walk after all. Would I sit with her until they came back? Of course, I said. And then it occurred to me that these old, blind, bald, unhappy creatures might actually be her dogs. So I said, "Whose dogs are those?"

"Mine," she said.

There was no inflection in the word "mine". Nothing to suggest pride, embarrassment, piety, defiance. Just "mine". I found the simplicity of the statement, added to the fact, rather moving.

With a weary sigh, the big, old, almost blind greyhound lay down at my feet and rested her chin on her crossed ankles, and for a quarter of an hour we waited together, in silence, for her owner to return. I watched her closely. She was a white-coated dog, but the impression was of whiteness due to extreme etiolation rather than natural pigment. She was so tired she didn't feel me watching her. And it struck me that in spite of her frailty, and her tiredness, and the encroaching darkness, this leftover dog had something very grand about her - she had her dignity.

NCDL's Roden Rescue Centre, Shropshire, 01952 770 225

TOM

Tom is an eight-year-old Jack Russell. He was handed in two years ago, when his owner died. According to team leader Sarah Barton, Tom likes peanut butter, agility training, and sitting on laps - but most of all he enjoys biting the vet

SADIE SUITCASE

Sadie is `nearly' a Labrador. Her owner had accommodation problems and signed her over to the NCDL when she was a puppy. She was at Roden for five years, but has just found a home. She has a persistent `food aggression' problem

BEN

Ben, a six-year-old German Shepherd cross Labrador, has been at Roden for five years. He was beaten before being rescued: `He hasn't really got over it,' says his handler. Ben is very bright, he says, but needs a home where there are no children

TESS

Tess is a self-contained, four-year-old terrier. She was signed over to Roden by her owner when he found out that he was terminally ill and had to go into a hospice. Tess has limpid eyes but is not overly fond of children

YOKO

A five-year-old German Shepherd with a gorgeous coat. Came in as a stray. Rehomed once and brought back, accused of biting passers-by. Loves playing with her ball and going to Tesco with her handler, who says, `She's as good as gold'

HICKORY

Hickory was one of 40 dogs discovered living in filthy conditions in a single room. When he arrived at Roden he didn't know what a food bowl was. Hickory is only really happy with other dogs, though he behaves well with his handler

BUZZ

A five-year-old terrier cross who arrived as a stray puppy. He has been unsuccessfully rehomed twice; the second time for only two days. He is a brilliant gymnast, say the staff, and loves cheese but doesn't like being touched when he's sleeping

TOPSY

Topsy is a 10-year-old Jack Russell. She was handed over to NCDL Roden by her elderly owner, who had to go into a residential home. She has a heart condition and would be a sponsorship candidate. Topsy doesn't like other dogs

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