The saying ‘a dog’s for life, not just for Christmas’ may be well worn, but it is still failing to resonate with people, meaning there are hundreds of dogs and cats out there looking to be rehomed. Pet lover Susan O’Shea spoke to a number of rescue shelters to find out exactly what’s involved in rehoming and that would-be pet owners need to keep in mind
While the common perception is of Christmas puppies quickly turning into unwanted pets and being dumped on shelters in the new year, Vicky Hurley of Dog Action Welfare Group (DAWG) says it was actually the run-up to Christmas that saw a huge spike in the number of people wishing to ‘surrender’ their dogs.
“The phone was literally hopping. The most common reason given was that people were moving home, and not allowed to have a pet in their new rental accommodation, or people saying their landlord would no longer allow them to keep a pet,” she says.
Asked if she thought this was being used as an excuse, Vicky concedes that “there does seem to be an awful lot of people out there moving home. And usually, when a tenant signs a new agreement the issue of pet ownership is discussed. It seems strange a landlord would suddenly impose such a rule. Unfortunately, some people just wanted a dog-free house for Christmas.”
Jennifer Headlam of West Cork Animal Welfare says caller after caller to her rescue shelter is blaming landlords for why they want to rehome their pets.
“I’m not sure if it is a ruse, it probably is, though there are some genuine cases out there. You do start to wonder are they just making space for the arrival of a new puppy, and once the existing dog is gone, a smaller,cuter replacement isbrought in.”
Allergies are another common reason given, or that “the dog has grown too big, I can’t manage it, or I’m out working all day,” says Jennifer.
“People seem to be suddenly taken by surprise that they are out working all day, and they have a pet that needs taking care of.”
Vicky Hurley says there are “ways around that” such as using the services of a dog walker, which are ‘not expensive’, and that in the last four to five years our ‘disposable’ mentality has sadly extended to animals.
“We have some people ring us up and want to rehome a dog that’s lived with them for 10 years. We explain to them that the dog will be very upset. We explain that is very difficult to rehome an old dog. But they are no longer prepared to make the effort.”
Jennifer agrees. “In all my time doing this it’s not getting any better, in fact it’s getting worse. People don’t think ahead, they don’t consider what’s really involved in getting a puppy, or they don’t get a suitable breed. People decide on a whim they want a cat or a dog, they go on DoneDeal, and after a few weeks, sometimes even days, the reality dawns and then they ring us because basically they want to offload it.”
West Cork Animal Welfare are a ‘small’ rescue centre with capacity for about 50 animals. Any animal they can’t house, they try to pass on to other shelters.
“We get about 300 dogs a year to rehome, but if we had the capacity the demand is there for three or four times that amount.”
DAWG rehomes about 500 animals a year, and Vicky says in terms of taking animals in, their priority is strays who turn up at the pound, and dogs who are at serious risk, as they have only limited space and resources available.
“We offer to help rehome the dog by advertising it on our website, we advise that the dog be neutered, chipped and vaccinated to make the re-homing process easier.
“But some people areinsistent ‘the dog’s got to be gone by 5pm today, or I am putting it to sleep, and of course then we are under pressure to take it.”
There are, of course, many genuine cases where people have to surrender a pet and are heartbroken.
Pauline O’Mahony of Pauline’s Rescue says they had a family recently who had a rottweiler and a 15-month-old baby, and had to move house for financial reasons, and were no longer ableto keep the dog.
“They were extremely distressed handing him over. But then there are others who surrender their pets and hardly say goodbye to them.”
Despite various schemes to help people with the cost of neutering, Vicky says many dogs they get are not neutered.
“We ask people to neuter the dog before they surrender them, but many say ‘I don’t have any money’. We had four litters of puppies surrendered to us by the second week of December. The message just isn’t getting through, if anything it is getting worse.”
Jennifer agrees, and says there is no justification for not having a cat neutered.
“It is a must. Kittens can breed at four months. People will ring up and say, oh a stray wandered in and now I have a litter of kittens and I can’t cope. What did they think was going to happen. There are lots of schemes to help you get an animal neutered cheaply.”
Vicky agrees: “The reality is just sad, this is my 14th year of doing this. You would think with knowledge and information that people would realise a pet is for life. But they have just become so busy, and self-obsessed, they don’t want the long-term commitment.”
The owner of seven dogs herself, Vicky has never gone on holidays with her husband. “One of us always needs to be here with them. That’s the level of commitment required.”
She says the shelter has a number of requirements for people wanting to rehome a dog including that the dog has to be allowed indoors at night, the garden has to be fenced in and secure, and a puppy won’t be given to a home where it would be left alone for eight to nine hours a day.
Jennifer says home visits are conducted as “we like to see where the dog is going to live. We can be flexible, it’s not always possible to have the garden fully fenced in, but you do need to be able to stop the dog from roaming.”
When West Cork Animal Welfare are asked to rehome a dog, they assess its health and personality, and take care of any veterinary needs. “We do ask people for a surrender fee to help cover costs... some people will pay it, others won’t.
Inevitably, some breeds are very popular and fly out the door. “It depends on the dog. We put a bichon up yesterday and the phone never stopped.
"People want what they see as small and fluffy, but bichons can be headstrong and snappy, and require a lot of maintenance. If we put a lurcher up on the website, the phone won’t ring, but they are a much calmer, and easier dog to manage, and don’t require too much maintenance,” says Vicky.
Jennifer agrees. “Everyone wants little fluffy, ‘cutsey’ ones. Labs and retrievers are also popular. Then we get collies in from farmers, who aren’t doing their job properly, or are too timid, and doghunt hounds, and of course they are much harder to rehome.
“People want what theyregard as straight-forward, easy-to-manage dogs, they are just not prepared to put in the effort.”
Jennifer says that a lot of genuine people will ring up and say “We will take a puppy, my three-year-old really wants one. But they are not thinking this through, it’s potentiallya 15-year-commitment. Are they really ready to make that?”
Another growing problem is that of teenagers asking for a huskey. “A year later they have gone off to college, and it’s left to mum and dad to take care of the huskey, which are not easy dogs to manage. They are working dogs, they aren’t pets.”
Pauline of Pauline’s Rescue says on home check visits, the priority is to ensure the dog is being rehomed in a safe environment.
“We won’t give a dog to anyone who insists it must be outdoors 24/7, or who wants a guard dog. And the garden must be secure. But we are also checking the people, making sure that they and the animal are a good fit. You get a sense from people very quickly whether or not they are animal lovers. You have to rely on your gut instinct. Sometimes it’s obvious from the way the people interact with the dog that it’s not just going to work out.
Understandably, Vicky says if they have a pair of dogs who need rehoming, they make every effort to keep them together.
“We will keep trying until we find a home for every dog. We don’t put down dogs. If necessary, we find homes for them in the UK, or even Sweden, where lurchers are very popular.
“Obviously the process of rehoming a dog overseas takes much longer, as we need to get them a passport, and ensure a good profile match before they travel.”
While some funding comes from the Department of Agriculture, Vicky says it only scratches the surface of what’s needed. “It is gratefully received, but it only covers about two months of vets’ bills.
The bulk of our money comes from volunteer fundraising activities such as carol singing in December, street collections, bag packing, volunteers organising their own activities like table quizzes etc.”
Total running costs can amount to €250,000 a year. Vets’ bills alone run to €1,200 a month, and then there are kennel costs, food etc.
“Some dogs such as strays will come in with injuries, or will have been hit by a car and require surgery. One dog alone cost €1,200 insurgery bills last month.”
Vicky says targeted Facebook campaigns, featuring a specific dog, and telling his story and injuries etc, are powerful ways in which to raise funds.
“People like that they are helping a particular dog and contribute to its specific recovery.”
With costs like these, it is understandable that shelters ask for a donation when a dog is being rehomed. “But it’s not a deal-breaker, some people pay it, some don’t.”
And yes, people do change their mind.
“We’ve had instances where people ring up two days after rehoming a dog saying I want it gone, it peed on the floor, or it chewed the furniture. We ask that they give the process time, allow the dog to settle in, but for some they just want rid of it. We will always take the dog back if it doesn’t work out.”
Pauline O’Mahony of Pauline’s Rescue Centre agrees. “We can’t guarantee that a dog is house trained. We had a lovely dog recently, very good in the kennels, but was back within a week as she had gone to the toilet in the house.
“Our advice is always to give it time, be patient and the issues can be overcome.”
Pauline says there is a misconception that if you get a dog from a rescue centre, you are inevitably getting problems.
“In nine out of 10 cases, there is no problem. The dogs will have had a lot of socialisation and we are here to help overcome any issues. Most rescue dogs make brilliant pets and there are lots of happy endings out there.”
While there are scores of successful rehoming stories out there, there are also numerous cases where the animal didn’t work out and had to be returned to the shelter.
As Pauline of Pauline’s Rescue says: “Some dogs and cats don’t settle when they are rehomed, and can be disruptive. It is difficult to find suitable people and suitable homes, and sometimes, even with the best intentions, it doesn’t work out.”
One family who spoke to the Irish Examiner, got a kitten from a shelter this autumn but were forced to return it a number of weeks later for a variety of reasons.
“He was too young to have all his vaccinations, so we had to keep him indoors. The bed we bought he refused to sleep in, the older two kids loved him, but my daughter became very nervous.
As a pet lover who has rehomed four dogs, not all of my tales have had happy endings either. Our first, Basil, a lively collie-cross had to return to the shelter after four months, as he bit a caller to the door. He had been badly treated as a pup, and was therefore unsuitable to living in a housing estate with children.
Our second pair, Harry and Sally, roan cocker spaniels, came to live with us for five years after the daughter of their owners developed an allergy.
Sally had been rescued from a puppy farm, where she was being left to die after producing four litters in quick succession. Harry had a range of health complaints, including epilepsy, and while we had six wonderful years with them, they cost us in excess of €10,000 on medication, vets bills, surgery and kennels, and were not eligible for pet insurance.
Our most recent addition, Rua, a brown cocker, has now been with us for six years. having been abandoned in a nearby woods, with pup, at just a year old. To date it’s been a success, though she is quiteterritorial and needs some careful watching when visitors call. It was only after we took her in, and researched the breed that we realised this is a common trait among brown cockers, so as the shelters advise, do your research when choosing a breed.
A cute-looking pooch may not necessarily make the best family pet.
Sheela Fox and her family adopted Beano last summer, and to date it’s been a match made in heaven. “Charmed and lucky to get him”, is how Sheela sums up the experience so far.
Sheela says she and her husband grew up with dogs and were always keen to get a pet, but wanted to wait until the kids were a little older. Now aged eight and 11, and “mad for a dog”, the family went looking during the summer and spotted Beano on the website of a Cork DAWG rescue shelter.
“We wanted a puppy and we wanted to get a rescue dog, and eight-week-old Beano, a collie/lurcher cross fitted the bill. They [the rescue centre] were a bit wary at first, given that it was a puppy and we had kids, but we bent their ear and persuaded them.”
A volunteer from the rescue centre first came to the family home to check it out and suggest any modifications. “I’d spent the day cleaning, but she just laughed when she got here,” says Sheela. “She said ‘people always clean before I come but I’m here to check the garden, not the house’.”
A secure garden meant that the family met one of the shelter’s key requirements.
"He was fully house-trained which was such a bonus. We weren’t fussy about getting a particular breed, we wanted a puppy, as you can’t be sure about the background of an older dog, and we wanted a medium-sized dog as we wouldn’t have space for a larger one.”
The woman who was fostering Beano for the shelter also had a litter of pups to care for, so Beano was well socialised, and indeed Sheela feels he may have even been a bit lonely initially. The first three nights she stayed by his crate until he settled and went to sleep. “I texted a friend to say ‘I’m waiting for the dog to nod off’, and she replied ‘it’s a dog Sheela, not a baby’! But within two weeks he had fully settled in and was loving it.”
Sheela says the shelter also checked to see how long the dog would be left on its own before agreeing to hand it over. “We timed getting him during the summer so that one or other of us would be around more to help him settle in. I was off in the month of August and the kids were off school, so he had plenty of company and time to get settled before he was left on his own for any length of time.
"My husband walks him in the morning when he brings the kids to school, and then I finish work at 2, go home, collect him, and walk him to the school to collect the kids. Given that he’s a collie cross he has lots of energy and needs a good bit of exercise."
He’s also the ‘most travelled dog in Ireland”, having been to Sheela’s native Galway numerous times, and to Belfast, her husband’s homeplace. “The first time he got sick in the car, but now we know to leave a long gap between feeding him and the journey.”
Sheela paid a donation of €150 to the shelter when the family got Beano, and that covered his neutering at six months and first round of vaccinations.
Sheela’sadvice to would-be rehomers is: “You need to have time to settle the dog in from the start. Beano has been great, very adaptable, very placid, lovely to be around, he’s never shown any sign of frustration though my eight-year-old would be a bit rough with him. But you need to give time to a pup, to establish a routine, and don’t be too precious about your stuff.
“Be fair to the dog, if you have a big family event coming up with lots of people in the house, put him in the kennels for the day, and, most importantly, be happy to walk him in all weather.”