Sali and family with Sylvie

LIFE HONESTLY

Falling madly in love with a rescue dog 

When Sali Hughes’ pedigree dog died, she got a rescue puppy. And the experience has changed her outlook for ever

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By Sali Hughes on

The front page of Monday’s edition of the Mirror exposed a hugely lucrative racket, whereby puppies bred in Hungary are smuggled to Britain and sold at a fraction of the going rate. The puppies (often French bulldogs, pugs, beagles, mastiffs and other trendy types) are bred in awful, packed, sweltering conditions, then taken from their mothers way too early (while they’re still tiny and cute, the way British customers like them), causing trauma and grave damage to the puppies’ mental and physical health. The EU demands that puppies be at least 15 weeks old before exportation, but the breeders fake birth dates and documents to get around these regulations, not only placing the dogs themselves in great danger, but also putting people at risk, because the pups are actually too young to be effectively immunised against rabies.

The story made me feel sick, but has been brewing a while. My beloved old dog, Margot, was put to sleep in my arms shortly after Christmas, having lived a long and healthy life. She had been somewhat ahead of her time. The runt of a litter of French bulldogs (“She’s way too small”, I was warned when I first enquired after her, as though I was looking to buy pets by the yard), she was born to one of only a handful of registered breeders in the UK, well before her breed was plastered over insurance commercials, kids’ pencil cases and hipster T-shirts. But, by the time she was five, Frenchies were so trendy and in demand that unscrupulous breeders had begun to put bitches to work in puppy farms, forcing them to produce litter after litter under horrible and unsafe conditions (Frenchies generally give birth via caesarean section). Meanwhile, “dog lovers” supported the entire nasty business by snapping up mistreated animals like knock-off Gucci handbags.

She’s a bloody mess. Part corgi (massive bat ears, short legs), part dachshund (unfeasibly long body), with a peculiar bone structure that suggests a smattering of fox terrier

I was so horrified by what had become of my beloved breed as it soared in popularity that, when I was finally ready to find a new pet, I decided that instead of becoming part of the problem, I was going to adopt a dog with fewer fans. Hundreds of thousands of dogs end up in rescue centres each year (17,000 at Dogs Trust alone), most of them crossbreeds, but very many of them designer breeds and pedigrees (it’s true that, after buying adorable farmed puppies, many owners realise they grow into dogs and give them up, thus completing the cycle of grotesque irresponsibility).

There’s a common misconception about rescue dogs, a belief that they’re somehow broken, that you’re getting something inferior but, in fact, quite the opposite is true. Unlike farmed puppies, animals adopted via reputable charities like RSPCA and Dogs Trust are cared for properly, neutered and microchipped as standard, and given a full health check by a vet. It’s true that rescue dogs may have experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment, but so too, very often, have farmed puppies. And, instead of taking your money and running, reputable animal shelters sit you down for a full and frank talking to, ensuring you truly understand what’s involved in caring for a dog. In the case of Dogs Trust, you even get a follow-up call from a veterinary nurse a few days after the adoption, to check if your pet is settling in well. And a shelter dog isn’t free either. You pay somewhere between £50-£200, plus any donation you feel like making, because, psychologically speaking, some financial commitment is important in making the process work.

So, last week, we came home from Dogs Trust in Evesham with Sylvie, a young dog with an unknown birthdate and a sketchy history. What we do know for sure is that she’s healthy, clever and quick to learn, funny, sweet, loving, extremely cuddly and, until last week, in danger of spending the rest of her life without a family while countless new pups are needlessly churned out for sale. Sylvie, like most rescue dogs, is not a designer breed. Far from it – she’s a bloody mess. Part corgi (massive bat ears, short legs), part dachshund (unfeasibly long body) and with a peculiar bone structure that suggests a smattering of fox terrier, a hint of lurcher and a possible maternal liaison with Basil Brush. Her right ear stands permanently to attention while her left falls asleep on the job. She is so mottled and dark that she absorbs all surrounding light, making her a nightmare to photograph (like the hundreds of black cats who now, in an Instagram age, are said to end up in rescue centres, unfit for purpose). She’s a misshape, a reject, and that’s more than OK, because she’s not a pair of court shoes; she a living, feeling, loving member of my family – I didn’t get to choose how the rest of them looked either. 

It’s not possible to convince someone who doesn’t love animals just how much a pet can mean, but nor will I justify those feelings to anyone

It’s not possible to convince someone who doesn’t love animals just how much a pet can mean, but nor will I justify those feelings to anyone. But I do accept that it’s hard to care about animals when the world is in such turmoil. “So what?’, people say, “they’re dogs, not people”, as though humans are incapable of caring about multiple issues at once, or that we need some superior little Facebook snark to point out that the trafficking of dogs is less troubling than the trafficking of children, or the murder of Cecil the lion is not as grave as those of aid workers in the Middle East. Of course, there is an infinite number of more troubling human issues currently at hand. The difference is that, unlike those, the abuse of dogs for money can be fixed simply and straightforwardly by normal people. The designer-dog-breeding industry is not born from some skewed sense of righteousness or misappropriated faith. It’s purely and simply about greed. It exists only for as long as we feed it. By adopting from rescue, we are opting out of a cruel game, reminding ourselves what a pet is actually for, and engaging in what has been, for me, one of the most mutually enriching experiences of my life.

A week in and we adore our new dog. The sense of reward I get from having rescued Sylvie in the ultimate form of recycling has convinced me that my pedigree-buying days are permanently over. I’m not attacking dog owners who choose not to adopt. Some people need specific breeds to suit their work, their surroundings, their allergies or disabilities (though the common argument that expecting pet owners to rescue is like telling a woman she should adopt a baby, instead of having one, is crass and laughable. There’s no hardwired physical imperative to acquire a newborn puppy of your choosing. Try telling an infertile couple they’re the same thing and see how you fare). I can see valid arguments for humane breeding and, as a former pedigree owner myself, I know that many good and decent people breed and buy dogs out of a love and desire to maintain and protect their breeds. But pets from responsible breeders, who put animal welfare before profit margins, cost money. If you are shopping around for a bargain puppy, neglecting to do proper welfare research for the sake of a good deal, thinking less about how your pet got here than how cute it might look in a comedy pink hoodie and diamanté collar, then you have blood on your hands. You are directly contributing to the despicable abuse of innocent animals and really have no business owning a pet at all.

For details on how to rehome a pet through Dogs Trust, click here

To access the database of Kennel Club registered pedigree breeders, click here

Sali and family with Sylvie
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SALI HUGHES

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