Rural retreat for the barking mad

Cassie is depressed. Dennis needs therapy. Muffet the dog thinks he's a cat. Welcome to Bell Mead, The Priory for pets.
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The Independent Culture
Some come because they're miserable, others are into self-mutilation, a few are quite simply barking - all the time. On offer are fresh country air, a bit more space and a chance to romp in seven rolling acres. For the stressed-out stray, Bell Mead - Battersea Dogs Home's country annexe - is for canines what The Priory is for pop stars.

Bell Mead, a stick's throw from where the Magna Carta was signed, is fit for a king, or at least minor royalty. Leased from the Crown, the red brick mansion with its sweeping drive, towering camellias, oaks and small lake, once belonged to a relative of Queen Victoria's. But these days the slopes are alive with the sound of barking. Battersea's overflow annex can house up to 300 animals and about 299 of them like to let you know they're there.

Battersea Dogs Home acquired Bell Mead 20 years ago. It was originally intended as a kind of holiday centre where - swapping SW11 for a spell in Berkshire - the mongrels and mogs would benefit from less crowding and more exercise. But if today's sojourns tend to be short-term, it's for the best of reasons. A collage of snaps in Bell Mead's hallway is like a directory of former inmates. Beano, Buck, Bonzo, Bonnie, Bacardi - here are dogs looking winsome, dogs cocking an ear, dogs showing how a stint at Bell Mead can be the ticket to a great new life.

Recent arrivals are housed in one block. Two nights ago 11 lurchers and greyhounds checked in from Ireland. Retired working dogs who have been in kennels for a year, they stand a better chance of being re-homed from Bell Mead. In their quilted green-and-red corduroy coats they look a treat. Just around the corner is Floozie, an 18-month-old Dalmatian from Wales, given to the home because her owners were away too much.

"We tend to get a lot of adolescent Dalmatians," explains Gail Cavill, the re-homing supervisor. The designer dog can be immature and destructive. "People can't cope with them. But we get families coming here, and the kids stand outside the kennel having tantrums, pointing at the dog and saying `I want that one.'"

And people sometimes take on more dog than they can chew. Dennis has oodles of charm. But this sweet, gentle Patterdale has been re-homed and returned twice in the two years Bell Mead has known him. He soils the house if left alone for too long. A dog may give you the nod, but the biography pinned to his kennel will tell you whether he's likely to savage your children and give your cat a nervous breakdown.

Animals book in to Bell Mead for a variety of reasons. Muffet, for instance, was a dog who thought he was a cat. He was rejected by his mother when he was born, and his surrogate mum was a cat who'd recently given birth to kittens. Gail recalls: "We were quite concerned about Muffet so we got him socialising with the other dogs here." There's no knowing what kind of identity crisis he might have suffered in later years, but after a six-week stay at Bell Mead he was judged sane again, and has since found a new owner.

A current "patient" is Rasper, a Border collie puppy who is irrepressibly active. "He was very, very chase-motivated," says Gail. "But since he's been here he's become a lot calmer. We've got the paddock and space, with areas where dogs can go to unwind." Any animal with a serious attitude problem, meanwhile, gets help from the senior behaviourist, Ruth Yates.

"You tend to find the most intelligent dogs are the ones that have the most problems," Ruth says. Take the humungous Kermit, an 18-month-old Staffie cross. "He's very intelligent, a quick learner. But it's been very hard for him to cope with the noise and activity of Battersea. Because he's smart he modified his behaviour into becoming naughty - grabbing clothes, being difficult when he was being put away - and that made him difficult to re-home." By devising little tricks for Kermit to perform, Ruth has rechannelled his energy. Stephen, meanwhile (an Alsatian cross) has his own stash of biscuits. If he doesn't go berserk when someone passes his kennel, his quiet behaviour is rewarded with a crunchy snack.

Boredom is a problem in kennels and the managers are always looking for new ideas to keep occupants busy. It could be putting on the radio, or hiding food in toys. Animals need mental as well as physical stimulation. And dogs, especially, demand human company - which can be part of their problem.

Cassie, a young lurcher who loves children, suffers separation anxiety. She has been rehoused twice and each time her new owners have given up on her. Left alone she becomes destructive, messes in the house and barks continuously. Game, on the other hand, was a Labrador who arrived from Battersea with a people phobia.

Do animals suffer from depression? "Oh yes. I believe so, absolutely," says Gwen Olivier, head veterinary nurse. "Some may have come from a comfortable home where it's been nice and warm, and suddenly they're having to compete with a whole row of kennels for attention. Older animals find it difficult to adapt, and are quite anxious about things." Unsettled cats, for instance, can stop eating, swipe and hiss at anything that goes near them, or, like the rotund nine-year-old Sprout, be simply too shy to sell themselves to would-be owners.

Stress can take many forms. Some dogs endlessly chase their own tails. Others wag with such abandon that they damage the tip, which then needs to be surgically removed. Anxiety can lead to gastric problems, while kennel cough is the bane of animal homes. Dogs particularly vulnerable to respiratory problems are those with squashed-up faces and deep chests. Because Bell Mead is less enclosed than Battersea and has fresh air in abundance, they tend to recover faster than in town.

"The large breeds of dog such as great Danes and Alsatians we like to get exercised on nice green grass," says Gwen. "Here the staff have the time to give them one-to-one attention because Bell Mead's in the country; it's not as busy as Battersea and so they get special care."

But for Bell Mead, as for Battersea, it's all about finding a home. Tired, jaded, stuck in a rut - Battersea's long-stay dogs and cats get new smells, sights and company to arouse their curiosity. It's a chance to conquer their kennel cough, fight their phobia and let their personality shine through.

`Battersea Dogs Home' starts on BBC1 on 7 December; `Battersea Dogs Home', by Robin McGibbon and Bob Long (BBC Worldwide, price pounds 9.99)