Adopting a dog can be surprisingly difficult. You have to find your charity, and you have to find the dog you love. Most importantly, you have to be ready for your new dog
My dog – the best dog in the world – passed away on 28 September 2017, just before 1 pm. Pippa was in her bed under the window, breathing heavily but still smiling. I had made her one last steak, which she ate but which also caused her more breathing problems. The vet shaved a patch on her leg and prepared the catheter for her last injection. Pippa always had a way of looking at me – she looked straight through me like she could read my mind. Right now, she looked like someone who knew what would happen and like someone who wasn’t sad about that.
Pippa had been around 14 years old and had lots of illnesses. In the end, her lymphoma caused her too much pain to continue the chemotherapy she had been on. When I cancelled all further treatment end of August, I knew we had only a few days left. The four weeks were ended up having were filled with outings to her favourite places, a last nose-to-nose with her friends and steaks every day. I had time to say good-bye.
A dog-shaped hole
When Pippa died, it did leave a huge hole in my life. As a singleton who works mainly from home, I spent vast amounts of time with her. And because she had so many ailments, her care was inevitably demanding: I carried her up and down the stairs, often at night as the chemotherapy messed with her bowel movement; I had a cart to transport her in, and she needed eye drops 10 times a day.
So, when Pippa went to heaven, I had time. Lots of it. I travelled for a month, and when I came back I went out every night of the week. I went to the opera, the theatre, South London, Bonfire Night, and on occasion even stayed out past my preferred bedtime of 10 pm.
I did that for a few weeks before realising I’was not only dogless, I am also happily middle-aged and no longer interested in pub lock-ins and clubbing weekends. I ended up borrowing dogs from friends or wandering aimlessly in the evenings on the quiet streets of my neighbourhood, except that now none of the other dog-owners recognised or greeted me because without a dog you are just a weirdo walking around at night.
And after so many friends said: “Look at it this way: you can now do what you want,” I realised what I wanted was a dog.
Finding the one you love…
There was no question that I would get a rescue dog. There is not a single reason not to rescue, and with around 600 million homeless pooches around the world, I knew one of them would be for me. But I also didn’t want to jump into anything: a dog is a 10-year-plus commitment, and just like you don’t marry someone you don’t know, I also don’t think you should adopt an animal you don’t know. I wanted to foster first, as I had Pippa.
By mid-February, my previously free time was filled up again – not with an actual dog, but with the job of finding that dog. I emailed charities to volunteer as a fosterer, signed up to newsletters and alerts from the big rescue centres such as Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the Mayhew and the RSPCA. I combed the sites of Dogs Trust, All Dogs Matter and Many Tears Rescue on a daily basis and impatiently waited for the new tweets by Dogsblog, a brilliant volunteer-run website and Twitter feed that posts dogs for adoption from smaller rescue organisations. Dogsblog became my top bookmark, and from there I started to get a feel for which charities had the type of dog I wanted (female with a pointy nose, not a lap dog, small to medium – basically Pippa one size down). By contacting the charities I soon learnt about the pot luck dogs and adopters are subject to.
…and finding your charity
Some charities never replied; some clearly didn’t read my email properly and responded with rebuttals or nonsense, and some promised me foster dogs but also told me I wasn’t the first choice, because I don’t have a garden or a dog to give the new one some canine-to-canine guidance. Only one charity actually engaged with me.
That was Romanian Rescue Appeal (RRA), an organisation founded by Briton Lindsey Church who learnt about the desperate situation of the tens of thousands of stray dogs in Romania when looking for a new dog to adopt. Neglect, abuse and torture of dogs are commonplace, and the so-called ‘shelters’ are blood-stained sites of cruelty and butchery. Lindsey works with local partners and has built three private farms to take dogs in from the streets and the public ‘shelters’, to keep them out of harm’s way. Some of the hundreds of dogs RRA looks after are also in private homes. Once the animals are checked through, treated where necessary and ready to be rehomed, RRA gets its army of volunteers to tell the world about the dogs via social media and on its website. By the time dog-broody people like me get to see the dogs and decide whether to adopt them straight away or foster first, the worst is over for these animals.
But before I could even dream about getting my hands onto one of these dogs – to foster with the intent to fail (‘foster failure’ is a badge of honour in dogland) – I had to pass the home check, which is a bit like getting a mortgage agreement in principle: without passing this test you may as well stop looking.
A volunteer coordinator at RRA called Kate arranged for London-based volunteer, Steph, to visit my flat and interview me. When she turned up with two whippets and a substantial questionnaire on a clipboard, I was surprisingly nervous. Would I be good enough for a street dog?
The questions were quite probing: How long would the dog be alone for? What if I had to go out for longer? Could I afford to look after a dog? Do children visit? Do I have a vet? How experienced am I with dogs? Thankfully, I have this website to answer the latter question, and I sent the charity the link to my good-bye letter to Pippa. A week later I got an email back from Kate, saying: “We all agree that we need to put a new dog into your home.”
I was finally able to ‘look with intent’ on the RRA website. Cue pages full of dogs that have clearly just managed to lift their heads again or venture a tail wag. Dogs so thin that their ribs were sticking out even after weeks in RRA’s care, and who eagerly munch out of a trough together with their shelter buddies, knowing there is enough food for everyone. Dogs with wounds from sadistic abuse, bitches with the sadness of being bred and watching their puppies die of neglect, and abandoned pets who really have no clue what happened.
Of course, I wanted to adopt all of them. Every single one deserves a warm home, a comfy couch, meals, treats and cuddles until the end of their time.
One dog particularly tucked on my heartstrings: she reminded me of Pippa with a pointy nose, brown eyes and strawberry-to-ginger fur. Gretel was 10 months old and had been rejected by her own litter and instead adopted another litter in the shelter. Gretel actually looked content on the pictures, as she sat on straw surrounded by puppies. After a detailed chat, Kate and I decided to leave Gretel in the RRA shelter for the time being.
What about Goldie?
As I sat on my friend’s couch both distraught and happy for Gretel, we scrolled through the RRA website again.
“What about Goldie?” my friend said.
Slightly smaller than Gretel, the one-year-old girl was pretty with a freckled nose, button ears and a white patch on her head. Her fur wasn’t great, but what to expect of a street dog? Goldie looked friendly but timid. She looked at her picture-taker with the focus of a dog that wants to learn, that wants to be played with and engage.
There was one problem: Goldie was spoken for.
This was getting hard. I frantically started looking for alternatives, went back to Dogsblog and emailed charities that had previously ignored me. I was going mad for around five days with no potential dogs to dream about.
The Happy Bus
Then Kate rang: The lady who was interested in Goldie changed her mind, so I could foster her. It was getting real. That little dog was going to pack her bag and come on a bus as soon as RRA had enough dogs to fill a transport van from Romania to the UK. I had no arrival date, but by mid of March, I would have a foster dog again. I had to pay £160 for her transport, for which she was thoroughly vet-checked (including the 4Dx snap test for tick-borne diseases, heartworm, lyme, Ehrlichia canis, Ehrlichia ewingii, Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Anaplasma platys), microchipped, vaccinated, spayed and issued with a passport. This is standard for all dogs rehomed through RRA.
On Thursday, 8 March, the ‘Happy Bus’, as the charity calls it, left Romania with eight dogs on board, including Goldie. By this time, I got a new bed and a harness for her, bought a variety of foods and put chicken breast in the freezer, ready to boil when she arrived with a delicate belly from the travels. There was no exact arrival time and date – the van drivers stop regularly and take an entire day’s break to allow the dogs to recover and stretch their legs after being in their crates for a while.
I was visiting Crufts of all places, watching agility trials when I got a text from Kate: “Can you collect Goldie tomorrow at noon?” It was really getting real now.
The next day, on Mother’s Day, I rolled onto the coaches parking lot of a nondescript service station outside London at exactly noon. I am never on time for anything, but I was going to be on time for my little Romanian rescue dog. And sure enough, there was an unmarked Romanian transport van with a younger woman in a hand-knitted cardigan, who held lots of paperwork and her mobile phone. I waved frantically and pulled up right next to her. She was still on the phone and smiled while I stood with my lead and harness between our cars, pacing up and down. Five minutes passed, still pacing, smiling, waving.
And then she drove off. Turns out there are a lot of unmarked Romanian transport vans at service stations, and this wasn’t the one. Over the next half hour, I chatted up every single driver of an unmarked Romanian transport van, without luck. “No dog,” was the standard answer in broken English by friendly people who clearly had this happen to them before.
I felt completely desperate and alone. I frantically emailed Kate, but another volunteer had taken over. “We never give out the number of the van,” she explained, presumably fearing endless call bombarding the drivers. “Just wait – we’ll let you know when they arrive,” stand-in Kate said.
The van was almost three hours late. By that time, I had all the service station coffees, bought myself Mother’s Day flowers and prosecco (on the basis that I was about to become a foster mother) and perfected my knowledge of foreign licence plates on unmarked vans.
When the Happy Bus finally arrived, I shook like a leaf. I hugged the drivers, who smiled and held dog passports proudly in their hands. “Which dog?” they asked me. “Goldie,” I said slightly louder than planned.
Two other women joined me to pick up dogs – a mother with her sons adopted two to add to her existing two rescue dogs and another woman who, like me, was fostering.
The men carefully placed a couple of crates with dogs on the pavement to get to the ones further back. One dog placed outside looked beyond scared – I recognised her from the website. She had messed in her crate and shook as much as me. I just wanted to stroke her and tell her it would soon all be wonderful.
I was so preoccupied with the scared dog that I didn’t even see the driver getting Goldie from her crate. But all of a sudden, there she appeared from deep inside the van. The driver held her like a football and placed her gently into my arms. I didn’t get a proper look of her face, but she put her head on my shoulders.
And that’s when I became a foster failure once again.
I took her passport, carried her to my car and drove home. Goldie walked into her new home like she knew it. She went straight to the picture of Pippa I keep next to my bed and sniffed it as if to say: “I got this from here.” Contrary to all the warnings, Goldie was neither shy nor timid nor tired. She was home.
I signed the adoption paper not two weeks later.