As Battersea celebrates its 160th anniversary, Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray reflects on her decision to open her home (and her heart) to an energetic young rescue dog named Dennis.
Updated on 8 October: Battersea is celebrating its 160th anniversary this October. One of the UK’s oldest and leading animal welfare charities, it has been here for every dog and cat since it was founded by Mary Tealby in 1860 – and directly helps over 5,000 dogs and cats across its three centres and uses its expertise, influence, and voice to help thousands more animals all over the country and across the world.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Battersea has been forced to do things a little differently. Despite being hit by Covid-19 restrictions, though, the charity has worked hard to ensure it does its best by every animal that walks through its doors.
Here, Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray reflects on how they went above and beyond to ensure that she was still able to adopt her rescue dog during lockdown – and that she had all the support needed to ensure it went seamlessly, too.
As reported on 26 August: My partner and I began talking seriously about adopting a rescue dog last November. However, we didn’t begin looking in earnest for a new furry friend until late January, as we wanted to make sure we were in the best possible position to offer a dog a home: I began WFH several days a week, as part of my new job role. We got all of our finances in order. And we made sure that we felt emotionally ready to make the necessary changes to our lifestyle, too.
Because I was mega-keen to do things properly, I signed us up with Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Someone from the animal shelter picked up my application within days, gave me a call, and asked a series of questions to make sure they matched me with the ideal dog.
Did I have a garden, they asked? Did I already own any other pets? Did I have children? Was I pregnant, planning to move house, or due to go on holiday in the not-so-distant future? Had I owned a dog before? What size dog was I looking for? How much exercise could I give a dog on a daily basis? How many hours did I intend to leave a dog alone each day? And were there any dog breeds or behavioural issues I was unwilling to consider?
The list was seemingly exhaustive, but reassured me 100% that Battersea has the best interests of its dogs at heart.
I answered the questions frankly, adding a few key details of my own, and they promised to keep me updated if any suitable dogs came into the shelter.
And so we waited.
Occasionally, I’d ring up to ask about dogs I’d seen on the Battersea homepage, and they were always honest as to why they hadn’t already matched us. And there were missed opportunities, too: my partner and I drove to the Windsor centre in February to meet with a beautiful greyhound, but needed a few days to think about whether she was quite right for us. By the time we’d reached a decision, she had been rehomed with another (and apparently far less indecisive) couple.
A week before the coronavirus lockdown, though, I received a call from Battersea’s Brands Hatch branch. The woman on the phone informed me that they had a two-year-old lurcher there in need of a home. He’d been found wandering in the woods, and they had no idea if he’d ever lived in a house before, so they let me know that he’d need toilet training. That he may not know how to get up and down the stairs. That he may be startled by strange noises, such as the washing machine or the dishwasher.
That he may, essentially, take a little while to settle in.
All the while she spoke to me, though, I stared at the photo of a skinny black dog with soulful eyes, and felt my heart positively melt.
“He’s a very sweet boy,” she told me. “He plays nicely with other dogs, and all he wants to do is cuddle up with people. We really think he’d be a good first-time dog for you both.”
Due to early Covid-19 restrictions, Battersea were only allowing people to visit their facilities via a pre-scheduled appointment, and so my partner and I arranged to go in on the following Friday. But then, seemingly without warning, Boris Johnson took to the airwaves and announced that nobody was allowed to leave their houses anymore.
We were in lockdown. And, yeah, this meant that we couldn’t go and get our dog.
Thankfully, Battersea had a solution. The morning after Johnson’s announcement, they phoned me and explained that they had been given permission to drive dogs to meet their new families at home, but it had to be that day. I sat up in bed, smartphone pinned to my ear, feeling my stomach lurch with a mix of excitement and anxiety: I had no dog food, no dog toys, no dog bed. I didn’t even have a collar or lead.
“If it’s not today, please don’t worry. We can always wait until after lockdown,” the woman on the phone added.
Leave my dog in kennels for the entirety of an uncertain lockdown? Absolutely not. I shot one look at my partner, and he nodded.
And so, later that same day, a Battersea van pulled up outside our house.
Dennis was a fair bit skinnier than he should be, his stomach shaved and brightly pink in contrast with his black fur (he’d just been neutered, as is the practice with most rescue dogs). He was a little skittish at first, but soon leaned into my legs as I stroked him, staring up at me with those same soulful eyes I’d seen in his Battersea profile.
He was ours, from that moment. We filled in all the forms, we went through his medical history, and we paid his £150 adoption fee on the spot. Then, before we even had a chance to panic, the Battersea staff accompanying Dennis handed over several weeks worth of food, a dog bed, a stash of toys and tennis balls, a lead, and not just one, but two collars.
They’d even had a nametag inscribed for him, with our name and address on it.
“We knew you probably wouldn’t have had time to get much in,” they said, by way of explanation. I honestly could have cried, and desperately wanted to hug them by way of thanks, but social distancing restrictions refused it. All I could do was thank them over and over again.
Then, they bid goodbye to the skinny little dog that had been in their care, promised me that they’d be available to call if I needed any advice whatsoever, and drove off as we gently coaxed our new dog into the house.
Confession time? Those first few days were absolute hell. Dennis peed all over our living room floor almost immediately, and then proceeded to do so every couple of hours until we’d finally managed to teach him that the garden was his toilet. He cried when we went upstairs to bed that night, as he was unsure of his surroundings, and so we sleepily came back down and sat alongside him until the wee hours. And my partner and I, too, couldn’t ever take him for a walk together, as lockdown rules meant that we were only allowed to exercise once per day: I took him out in the mornings, and he took him out in the evenings.
Despite all of this, though, lockdown also proved to be the ideal time to adopt a dog. We were both able to stay home and help settle him. We didn’t have to worry about family and friends rushing around too soon to meet the newest member of our family (animal shelters advise you don’t introduce your rescue dog to lots of new people in the first few weeks of getting him).
And, when my partner went back to work, I had company in the form of a cheeky lurcher who pretty much constantly wants to know what I’m up to.
Over the past few months, Dennis has blossomed. His fur has grown back, silkier and softer and shinier than ever (indeed, plenty of people comment on his coat when I take him out for walkies). He’s learned to tackle the stairs, although he tends to run straight up them and into our strictly-for-humans bed. He loves me unconditionally, leaning against my legs while I cook, snuggling up alongside me on the sofa, or just turning around to gaze at me while we’re out walking. He sometimes joins me for Zoom meetings, boosting everyone’s spirits with his antics. And he’s charmed pretty much everyone with his gentle temperament and friendly demeanour.
Yes, he comes with a lot of baggage. Yes, he will always be spooked by fireworks and heavy rain, always be hungry, and always have an unhealthy fascination with squirrels. Yes, he sometimes embarrasses me on dog walks with his antics (he’s been known to stop suddenly and refuse to move for full minutes if he sees an open bag of Wotsits on the pavement). Yes, he’s already cost me a small fortune in pet insurance and vets bills. Yes, he will never be ‘trained’ (I’ve come to terms with the fact that a well-trained dog is always a work in progress). And, yes, he’s not as Instagrammable as my friends’ cavapoos and labradoodles: in fact, black dogs are actually less likely to be adopted for this very reason.
All that being said, though, I love Dennis to bits. He’s filled my life with so much love and laughter. He’s helped me make loads more friends. He’s got me out the house every single day. He’s encouraged me to take lunchbreaks and finish work on time. And he’s 100% transformed my life for the better.
Of course, I understand some people have very good reasons for buying over adopting. That being said, though, I urge anyone who’s considering getting a dog of their own to a) consider if they have the space in their home and their hearts to do so, b) assess whether they have the patience to handle toilet training and those first sleepless nights, and c) look into adopting.
Because I promise you this: when that rescue dog falls in love with you, and realises that you’re their forever person, you 100% won’t regret it.
Like many charities, Battersea has seen a significant drop in income as a direct impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Now more than ever, it needs your support.
To donate, visit the Battersea website now.
Images: author’s own