MrPets

The Dogs Trust rehoming centre is a bright spot in a featureless landscape of dual carriageways and roundabouts. Maisy, a Jack Russell, and others dogs lie in glass-fronted cubicles, with underfloor heating, awaiting new homes. 

Dogs that are more nervous of the public are kept in quieter kennels in the back. There are light-filled timber buildings, a veterinary suite, a hydro centre and several dog-inspired artworks. Staff carry walkie-talkies and wear bumbags with dog treats.

On the day I visit there are around 80 or so dogs. Around half have been handed in by owners citing a change in circumstances – divorce, death or longer working hours. The other half are abandoned or strays. This now includes the sub-category of pregnant bitches seized at the border. They are brought straight here rather than to a quarantine centre to minimise disruption.

Roxanne*, a lovely, soft-spoken woman in her 20s, works in the puppy block, where her charges include two dachshund mothers and their litters, a poodle and her litter and a cavalier about to whelp any day. She describes herself as a ‘surrogate mother’ to 16 puppies.

Katy, a miniature dachshund, was brought in from Dover in early August. She was judged to be around two years old, seven weeks pregnant with her second litter. ‘She’d let me handle her but you could tell she’d had little to no human contact. Her nails were really long so it’s likely she’d never had a walk,’ says Roxanne, much of whose job is about making the dogs feel safe. ‘Once they’ve had puppies, they can be quite protective, so I need to make sure I’m able to get close, in case I’m needed.’ 

Her method with Katy was food. She loves cheese. ‘I’d go into her kennel, sit down with her, feed her some cheese and, when she was comfortable, I’d give her a little stroke.’ Katy gave birth to four puppies in the early hours of one Sunday in late August. ‘When I popped my head in I could hear squeaking. She got out of her crate and walked towards me wagging her tail.’

The puppies are named after biscuits: Bourbon, Hobnob, Biscuit and Garibaldi, the only male, and the runt of the litter, but also the most confident. Another litter of miniature dachshunds are named after potatoes: Maris, Piper, Spud, Rooster and Jersey. Around 30 puppies have been born at the centre this year, all from bitches mainly picked up at the Eurotunnel or Dover. ‘We run out of names,’ says Roxanne.

‘Enrichment’ is a term dog behaviourists use to describe activities to keep dogs entertained mentally and physically. ‘Habituation’ is getting puppies used to strangers, walking on grass, the sound of Hoovers. Neither are a priority for underground networks. 

Dogs with poor socialisation can become fearful and aggressive. But not always, and this fills Roxanne with sadness. ‘You expect the mums to be destroyed. If you wanted to bite my head off, I’d understand because of what you’ve been through. But some of them are still so loving. You can treat them badly and they will still love you. It’s awful.’

The dogs can bring diseases. Katy had heartworm, a potentially fatal disease caused by foot-long worms that live in the heart. Charlotte, mother of the potato-named litter, has leishmania, a parasitic disease transmitted through sandflies. Neither are usually found in British dogs. ‘Vets are seeing a lot more exotic diseases that we don’t have in the UK which could threaten our dog population,’ says Justine Shotton, president of the British Veterinary Association

Since summer 2020, there has been an unexpectedly high number of cases of brucella canis infections in dogs imported from eastern Europe, according to Public Health England. The UK is regarded as Officially Brucella Free (OBF). Brucella is a zoonotic pathogen; in other words, it can spread to humans through contact with infected animals.

There are also examples of poor breeding. ‘I saw a so-called pedigree certificate for a puppy born in Lithuania and when you looked, it was a brother and sister mating,’ says Boyden. Inbreeding of this sort brings together dangerous recessive genes, which are normally diluted by mating outside the family. 

Dogs can develop serious physical ailments and behavioural disorders. Ida, an eager 15-week-old American bully puppy that arrived at the centre several weeks ago, walks with a swaying gait because her front legs are bowed, has cherry eye – a pink blob in the corner of her eye – and a cleft lip, which can make eating biscuits difficult. ‘All are classic signs of bad breeding,’ says Bill, her carer.

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