This week, somebody suggested I was an unfeeling soul for being able to volunteer at the refuge without coming home with a dog a trip. It actually made me quite sad that they thought that way. But I do understand it. I think it’s most people’s biggest fear if they volunteer at an animal refuge – that they will come home with an animal they don’t really want, just because some beagle turned on the puppy dog eyes, or some lab cross rolled on its back to have its tummy tickled.
When I thought about it, it reminded me that once, long ago, a guy I knew in another life said I would never have my own animals – they’d always be found ones. I don’t know why he thought that, or how he knew. He was right though. I wonder if I have always been this way?
And then I thought about the fact that many people end up choosing careers where they take on something for a short period of time, care as best they can, then have to let go – be they teachers or nurses, psychologists or child minders. And I think people who choose careers like this are actually well prepared for working in a refuge.
It’s a bit like a GCSE class. You get thrown this motley assortment of hormonal teenagers. There are odd-bods, nervy ones, weird ones, angry ones, aggressive ones, sweet ones and sad ones. You see them two or three hours a week. And you build up this bizarre but incredible relationship over two years. You see them succeed. You see them fail. You see them implode from time to time, and you see them explode rather more frequently. At first, you don’t know their names, especially if they are new to you, but the ones with personality soon make their presence felt. Over the first few weeks, you work out which ones are easy to connect to, and then you work out which ones are ten kinds of trouble and need very firm boundaries. But, by and large, you come to love them all.
The sad ones are the toughest, as they are often quiet and subdued. There are children with all kinds of backgrounds that you can’t comprehend. But when you make a connection to them, if you manage to, it’s amazing. These are the troubled ones you remember the most. The ones that you end up wishing you could give a better life to, or at least a glance into the future to know that things will be okay.
The thing is, though, you have to let go. You have to take a breath as they come to the end of their time with you, and you let them go. You know that in all likelihood, you’ll not see most of them again. You know that even though they are all very special to you, they aren’t your children. And you get good at letting them go. Well, you get used to it. I don’t think there are many times I’ve not seen my fifth year leavers and had a little cry because they’re not mine any more. If you’re lucky, they give you presents. If you’re good at what you do, they leave with results that will take them into the future. And you are happy they are successful.
Walking refuge dogs is a bit like that. You know they aren’t yours. You build up this bond in a short period of time, but you know (or you hope) that it is a finite bond and that they will soon leave you. You don’t know them by name at first – just the unusual ones – but soon you know them. Their success is a joy for you. And soon, you get to know them. You know which ones are headstrong and which ones are jokers. You know which ones are depressed and which ones need a bit of support. You want to spend all your time with the lovelies, but know you need to spend your time with the tough ones. You know which ones will be successful and which ones are going to struggle beyond the institution.
But this reminds me of my first week on teaching practice. We spent a week in a primary school – just to see what was going on there. I was in a primary right behind the mostly derelict Park Hill estate in Sheffield. This expansive Brutalist block of flats towered over everything and to say it was depressing was an understatement. Deprivation and poverty everywhere. I was in with the seven-year-old students all week. I knew then that I could never be a primary school teacher because I’d end up wanting to take every single child home with me. 25 hours of time with 30 students all year, and those bonds would be impossible to break. I’d be smuggling them out in my pockets.
That and primary school children are like a herd of cats. Perhaps not so cunning. A herd of guinea pigs.
At secondary level, you only see students for three to four hours in core subjects. That’s enough time to get to know them, but not enough time to either want to commit an act of murder, or want to take them home. Even so, you still get the odd one who you form this heart-wrenching bond with, and it can be very difficult to let go. Sometimes, you go above and beyond your usual role just to help them out or give them a hand. In my first GCSE class, there was a boy called Matt. He was in with all these crazy lunatics – old habits of giving ‘sink’ classes to new teachers, I’m afraid. I loved all those crazy lunatics by the end of the course (and I can still remember who sat where, and the funny little stories they used to tell me) but Matt was different. He was quiet, respectful, hard-working. He was every teacher’s dream student. And because it took all my time to get all the other Anthonys and Phils and Dawns to pull in the same direction, I never got any time with Matt. I ended up giving him and a couple of other willing volunteers extra classes after school (years before league tables – now everyone is expected to teach after-hours crammer revision classes in English!!) Matt got a C, went to Preston College and now he is a computer engineer. God love him.
And you get refuge dogs like that – the ones that you could easily walk two hours without a pull or a problem. Happy dogs, happy to be with you.
But then you get the ones that are a little tougher. In my first class, alongside my lovely Matt, there was another Matt. He was absent a lot, tall, looked like he was about 27, not 14. He’d been arrested a couple of times on drugs charges and was threatened with young offenders centres. In spite of all this, he was smart and fragile and he reminded me a lot of guys I knew. Sure, he was hard to handle. Many people would just have written him off as a lost cause.
But teachers of teenagers are often (not always!) believers in St Jude, patron saint of lost causes. And whether league tables forbid you from writing difficult teenagers off, or whether you are driven by some inner instinct to do your very best by them in that short time you have, secondary school teachers are often very good at doing that – giving as much as you can (and then a bit) and then letting go when it’s time. It’s your job.
It’s probably why I enjoy walking the dogs – and it’s fair to say I have been doing as much as I can recently. It’s been a welcome distraction, and as a big-hearted lady said yesterday, dogs can’t say anything offensive to you or upset you. It’s true. In that, they differ from teenagers. But you can only do your best. You can give what you can. And yes, there are those who break your heart for a million different reasons, but at the same time, you know you’re just sharing in these creatures’ lives for a little, be they teenagers or other animals.
Will there be dogs that I want to bring home?
Will there be dogs who make me sad they are here?
You just have to have faith that they find a future, that their future makes up in some small way for having had a period without a family of their own in their lives, that you can make a difference, even if it is only a little one.
This is my current love. He is called Milord (really!) and he is just gorgeous. Nervous, too distressed to walk. Just wants loves and cuddles.
The good thing is that dogs are often quickly rehomed. The bad thing is that often they are the cute, clean, little ones. Big black dog syndrome is a massive problem. Sad to think that nervous, neurotic, barky Heston would probably be at the SPA for years rather than weeks.
If you’d like a big pony, can I recommend Iko?
There are plenty of rehomings as well.
Yesterday, I saw that Haribo, a gorgeous collie, Cooky, Vicky and Galaxie have been rehomed. Haribo came in on the 30th January. That makes it a grand total of 41 days at the refuge.
A friend and I walked Galaxie when she was in the fourrières (the pound for strays) which is also based on the same site as the refuge. Dogs must stay here for a period of time whilst chips and tattoos are investigated, and owners are sought. If they aren’t claimed in the requisite time, they pass into the refuge to be rehomed. Galaxie came in on the 21st of February, making her stay one of 21 days.
But then there are dogs like Gecko and Darex, beautiful, beautiful dogs, cursed with the big black dog label. Gecko has been in the refuge for most of his life.
Still, that’s not to say they don’t find homes. Recently, Flavio, a dog who’d been in the refuge for most of his four years, found a home. I confess I wept with joy when I read that he’d been rehomed. That’s how it often goes – they leave without fanfare and without fuss. One day you’re walking them (I walked Haribo last Friday for the fourth time) and the next, there’s a new dog in their place. No leavers do for dogs in the refuge, I’m afraid.
Anyway, if you have got a spare couple of hours and you can get past your thoughts that you’d just want to bring all the dogs home, pop down to your local refuge. I can only speak for the refuge in Mornac when I say the dogs are happy to see you, and there might be a lot of barking, but hey, that’s what dogs do. You’ve got to take a deep breath and look past the circumstances that hold them back, only see what they can become and how you can help them do that. And then when you have days like today, you look on the website and you see familiar faces who have been rehomed, as I have today, it really does make the world feel like a whole lot brighter place.
If you are interested in any of the dogs at the Refuge de l’Angoumois in Angoulême, feel free to contact the refuge directly. I won’t be sad if a few dogs are missing next week because they’ve got new homes. I promise.