Some ‘get’ dogs, whereas others don’t. And by ‘get’ I don’t mean ‘obtain, I mean ‘grasp their significance in our lives’. A dog’s value is weighty, diverse and extends well beyond its familiar role as companion and guardian.
They are, for example, inadvertent comedians. It just is endlessly entertaining for two year olds and upwards to watch Bonzo zigzagging across the carpet with his head stuck in the cereal packet he’d ransacked in search of a cornflake, or squeezing himself defiantly into the corner of your car boot to prevent any possibility of your leaving home without him, or his studied nonchalance, hoping you won’t notice his eyebrows plastered with the cream trifle he’d just nicked off the table.
Dogs also have a key role as confidantes – during those childhood moments when the whole world is hateful and even family just ‘doesn’t understand you’, there is one being 100% ready with a listening ear, offering comfort and moral support. Children who lack this essential soul mate miss out.
Additionally, our canine friends need regular exercise and so play a vital role as personal fitness trainers with a level of dedication rarely found in the human variety. You won’t find a human trainer who brings you the equipment – shoes, socks, coat – needed for the outing in case you forget, or who places their hand on your arm every three minutes for hours on end as a gentle reminder, or who, when you finally relent, goes into hysterical paroxysms of joy – for Bonzo, every day is Christmas day at this key moment. The pressure to take exercise is huge.
They also teach us how to treat other living beings, human and non-human. Despite our superior intelligence, they remind us that we aren’t ‘top dog’ and need to respect and nurture others in the natural world with whom we co-exist.
But, above all, they are receivers and givers of unconditional love, to a standard that humans, with their sophisticated neuroses, insecurities and other excess baggage, struggle to achieve. This sets a high but necessary bar that can only improve us through aspiration.
Meet ‘Strays Without Borders’
Having waxed lyrical about our canine friends, I want to tell our story. When, having seen our kids through 15 years of childhood, our two Springadors died from cancer just six weeks apart, we were bereft. So, we decided to do something radical and adopt a stray. This decision introduced us to the extraordinary world of dog rescue – a hive of organisations quietly working behind the scenes to save and re-home unwanted, neglected dogs (and cats).
Before you presume that these organisations are just money scams, let me say that this was definitely not our experience. Strays Without Borders (SWB) is an animal rescue team founded by Snezhana Dichevska and Milka Dokuzova in Macedonia. They began rescuing and re-homing animals in 2016 from the streets of Macedonia, a region that is poorly served by rescue organisations. SWB was officially registered in October 2020 and currently consists of a small team of eight people. Some of the team are temporary foster carers based in the UK; others work in Macedonia. So far SWB has rescued over 540 dogs and 4 cats, linked them with UK families and transported them through Europe to their new homes.
The process begins with prospective adopters selecting a dog from a picture. The lists are long and depict little souls of all ages, colours and types, from endearing, smiley pups to the anxious, the elderly and hard to shift. They are usually found on the street and some have eyes, ears or legs missing. But they have in common that they all need a life. Choosing is tough and feels hazardous.
If your application is accepted, the next stage is to be vetted as suitable owners. This involves various online meetings and a detailed video of your house and garden. All these checks are necessary. People don’t invariably pass. If you are deemed suitable, then you are given an arrival date and placed in a WhatsApp group of other adopters to share information and updates about the journey. Dogs are shipped roughly twice per month. Our group was kept informed by the rescue team throughout the journey to England on the wellbeing of our chosen ones.
The dog we chose had been living in the grounds of a Macedonian hotel complex. It’s hard not to read gratitude in the picture of her gazing up at her rescuer just a few minutes after being found.
The animals are checked by a vet, microchipped, given core vaccinations and any medications required. If fit to travel, they are then placed in a customized animal transportation van to come to the UK.
As our chosen ones journeyed for the three days and nights through the six European countries it took to get here, the anticipation in the WhatsApp group mounted to extreme heights – minutes were painfully counted, kettles polished to pass time, notes on useful equipment meticulously shared and phones obsessively watched. When the first picture came through of the van arriving at the English coast in the light of a November morning, the anticipation was intense.
After arriving in England, the dogs are delivered to two holding kennels, one in the south and one in the north, where they are required to stay for 48 hours before collection is permitted. For us all, this final regulation was probably the hardest part of the wait. But collection day finally arrived.
When we first met Lottie-May she was dusty and trembled fearfully as she was lifted into the car. On arriving home in the dark she was confused, wary and disbelieving. The first week was hard. She went bonkers the first night, not realising we’d still be there in the morning in this strange new environment, and we woke to a chewed door corner, various upturned items and a curtain on the floor. That first cold November week I spent all day in wellies, alternately mopping up mess and walking her round the garden on a lead eight or nine times a day, come rain or shine, in light and pitch darkness.
But as the weeks went by she started to gain weight, play, explore and attach herself to us in earnest and with gusto. Also, her coat began to acquire a sheen of truly dazzling chestnut hues. With each interaction, you could see her gradual comprehension that she had magically arrived in a better world where she’d receive things – affection, food, safety, companionship – she hadn’t quite realised she had always needed.
She rapidly took her place at the heart of the family, displaying all the values described above through her own unique personality. She’s a gentle, loyal soul, well-mannered, ladylike, patient and super-tactile. She adores exploring and is curious (sometimes too curious) about the world, mortified by rain but a talented and enthusiastic singer.
I wrote this piece because I am immensely grateful to SWB for saving Lottie-May, for linking her with our family and for ensuring that she was cared for so brilliantly on her journey here. They do this work every month, carefully placing stray animals whose lives would otherwise be wretched and painful, with new families. Their tremendous efficiency and tireless dedication deserves a higher profile and support from us.
Unlike rescue services who focus only on adoption, SWB is also actively investigating the core issues behind Macedonian strays. Motivated by the sheer number of strays and the dire condition in which they are often found, SWB recently campaigned with vets in five Macedonian towns to raise funds for a free spaying (neutering) programme. As a result, 156 dogs and 103 cats were successfully treated. SWB are also seeking answers to why institutions are failing to contain the population of strays, despite taxpayer funding. They hope to improve Macedonian animal welfare legislation, increase international awareness and make much-needed institutional changes that are essential for a long-term solution.
In all these endeavours, SWB urgently needs help. They need more temporary foster carers and adoptive families in the UK to help the animals they rescue. They need volunteers who can assist with their administration, media promotion and fund-raising campaigns. They also need financial help with their considerable veterinary and kennel costs. If you ‘get’ dogs, then please help Strays Without Borders continue with this amazing work.
Ed: West England Bylines gives space to bona fide charities to feature their work but does not support any particular charity.