Last January we lost our lovely ten-year-old Labrador, Oscar. The vet found an inoperable tumour in his abdomen and gently suggested we take him home to say our goodbyes.
We cuddled him on the sofa and tried to feed him small morsels of his favourite cheddar, but it was obvious he was fading from us fast.
Nothing prepared me for the agony of having him put to sleep the next morning. The children clung to him and wept before leaving for school — the same children who, as toddlers, had swung from his neck, covered his nose with Buzz Lightyear stickers and attempted to ride him like a horse across the garden.
Shona Sibary with her rescue centre dogs Juno (left) and Albus (right). More than 126,176 dogs have been picked up by local authorities over the past 12 months, but she found rescue wardens patronising
He was a family dog through and through. He’d seen me off at the front door to give birth to three babies and been there, waiting, each time I returned home — giving a gentle sniff to the tightly blanketed bundles, followed by a wag of approval.
Oscar’s death left us bereft and even though we’ve always owned a dog, it didn’t feel right, somehow, to rush into replacing him. But as winter thawed, so, too, did our resolve. By spring we were ready to share our lives with a four-legged friend again.
I started researching breeders on Google and was horrified to discover the price of a Kennel Club-registered Labrador puppy was £600 to £800. We’d paid £250 for Oscar in 2000.
It suddenly seemed hugely extravagant, not to mention socially irresponsible, to spend all that money on a dog when there are thousands of homeless mutts in rescue centres all over the country.
Figures by the Dogs Trust, the country’s largest dog welfare charity, reveal that the number of stray dogs in Britain has reached an 11-year high, with more than 126,176 dogs being picked up by local authorities over the past 12 months — equating to 345 stray dogs being found every day.
You would think, with so many strays needing a home, I’d have been welcomed with open arms at any dog rescue centre of my choosing.
But you’d be wrong. If I’d known then what I know now about the dog re-homing process, I’d have hot-footed it to the nearest pet shop, bought a goldfish and told the children to start bonding.
No one warns you of the ridiculous hoops you have to jump through and of the high-handed, often patronising manner of rescue wardens.
'Juno (left) is a Husky-cross-Pointer with piercing blue eyes. At the age of one, she was still deemed to be a "puppy" and we were still "officially" not allowed to have her,' said Shona
There were times — during a ludicrously long-winded and bureaucratic process of adopting our two pets, Juno and Albus — that I wanted to turn to the centre and say: ‘Look, do you want us to take these dogs or not?’
Perhaps it’s not the same for everyone. Certainly, more and more celebrities are opting to re-home a stray rather than parting with money to a breeder — even President Obama. But I couldn’t help wondering if they were all subjected to the same relentless grilling about their suitability to own a dog as we were.
Did Barack have to throw open the White House doors and show an officious dog warden around his home and garden (to ensure it was properly fenced the entire way round) before they would let him take Bo, a Portuguese water dog? Somehow, I suspect not.
Part of the problem for us was that with four children — one a toddler — I was reluctant to risk adopting an adult dog that might have behavioural problems. I felt, rightly or wrongly, it was just too much of a gamble and I would never be able to trust an older new pet in the same way I trusted Oscar.
But, similarly to the child adoption process, puppies, like babies, are hard to come by. Dog homes are full of older dogs.
A large proportion are cross breeds no one wants — pit bull terriers, Rottweilers and Doberman mixes.
In re-homing a dog, I knew I couldn’t be too picky — but there are limits. I’d have been insane to put my children’s safety at risk by selecting a dog with questionable parentage and a dodgy background.
So when, in June, we found a rescue centre in the South of England advertising six Rhodesian Ridgeback-cross-Boxer puppies on their website, we couldn’t believe our luck.
They were 12 weeks old — young enough to adapt to our family and still impressionable enough to train and fit into our way of life.
'Juno and Albus have brought that wonderful doggy spark back into our lives - wrestling for space on the sofa and barking endlessly at washing drying on the line,' said Shona
First mistake. I called the dog home to register our interest and was told their policy was never to re-home puppies into families with children younger than eight years old because — and I quote: ‘We can’t guarantee the puppy won’t, at some point in the future, bite one of your children.’
Instead, we were offered an older dog, one that had been assessed and deemed suitable to be around small people.
How they could guarantee that this dog — with eight years of goodness-knows-what treatment behind it — wouldn’t bite one of the children, I have no idea.
This was to be the first of several regulations that struck me as having no logic whatsoever.
So I did something naughty. I’m not proud of it, but I called back the next day pretending to be someone else with three children over the age of eight. And no toddler. Now I could be considered for a puppy — but only if I had owned a dog as an adult. Otherwise I would not be deemed suitable.
The next step was attending an interview at the dogs’ home and meeting Albus — we had decided to name the puppy we had fallen in love with online.
I can accept that an interview is an entirely reasonable part of the process. The centre must ensure their dogs are going to suitable families who will treat them well. After all, the last thing they want is for the dog to be abandoned a second (or even third) time.
They also insisted on seeking independent permission from our landlord (we live in rented accommodation) and separate references from our vet.
Part of me was pleased they were being so thorough. But we were far from finished.
Hurdle number two was that every member of the family had to visit Albus at the centre 70 miles away. Not just once. Or twice. But several times for ‘bonding’ purposes before they would release the puppy to us.
This involved several expensive train journeys for all of us and, of course, on each occasion, I had to find childcare for the toddler who didn’t exist.
'I can't imagine our lives without Juno and Albus. Which is a shame, because they still don't legally belong to us,' said Shona
It was during one of these visits that we fell in love with another stray in the rescue centre.
Juno is a Husky-cross-Pointer with piercing blue eyes. At the age of one, she was still deemed to be a ‘puppy’ and we were still ‘officially’ not allowed to have her.
But having lied once, we were on a roll and so we decided to take both dogs.
Hurdle number three was The Home Visit. By then, I was starting to feel more than a little irritated.
We had already expended a huge amount of time, money and energy in meeting their re-homing requirements. Sending a warden to assess our home seemed to be an excessive measure.
Let’s not forget we are talking about a dog — not a child. We were clearly a nice, middle-class family trying to do the right thing by giving not one, but two, strays a loving future with our family.
The centre had been assured that our garden was properly fenced and secure — the reference from our vet had confirmed this.
I had also told them that we live in the middle of beautiful National Trust countryside and are experienced dog owners.
But their stance through the entire process was one of distrust and annoying superiority.
They even insisted we pay for a whole term of puppy-training classes — and show them the receipt — before they would consider releasing Juno and Albus to us.
On the day of the home visit, supposedly the final box-ticking exercise, we removed all evidence of the toddler from the house.
The warden arrived for the inspection bringing another dog with her and asked if it could come inside the house. I suspected immediately this was a test of how dog-loving we are.
I made all the appropriate cooing noises despite the fact it was quite a smelly dog who proceeded to relieve itself all over our hallway rug.
By then, I would have done anything to get this woman to authorise our suitability — including waxing lyrical about the smell of dog urine.
'If the rescue centre finds out we have broken any terms of our contract (ie that we have a two-year-old), they have the right, with police force, to remove Juno and Albus from our care,' said Shona
Then she checked every single downstairs rooms and opened all our cupboards.
Luckily, she failed to see a toddler’s dummy on the draining board and, after a thorough inspection of the garden, shed and greenhouse she drove away — without once offering to help clean the hallway rug.
So, finally, after weeks of meeting the dog rescue centre’s requirements and attending a three-hour seminar on how to care properly for a canine, we were finally cleared to take Juno and Albus home.
Don’t get me wrong. I am as much of a dog lover as the next person. But there were many times during our re-homing adventure that I couldn’t help feeling the pooch police had lost the plot.
I’m quite convinced Madonna had an easier time adopting David and Mercy from Malawi than we did our two puppies.
Oh, and of course we still needed to pay £120 per dog for the privilege of this grilling we’d been subjected to.
Now that they’re with us, it all feels worth it. They’ve brought that wonderful doggy spark back into our lives — wrestling for space on the sofa and barking endlessly at washing drying on the line.
In fact, I can’t imagine our lives without them. Which is a shame, because they still don’t legally belong to us.
If the rescue centre finds out we have broken any terms of our contract (ie that we have a two-year-old), they have the right, with police force, to remove Juno and Albus from our care.
That’s why I’m writing this article — in the hope the centre will realise they are, at times, a little too stringent and this may put off some affectionate owners. After all, Albus and Juno couldn’t be more loved.
If we ever go on holiday abroad, we have to tell them. If for any reason we are unable to continue to look after the dogs, we are not allowed to give them away to family or friends — they have to go back to the rescue centre.
Oh, and Juno and Albus are micro-chipped back to the dogs’ home, so if they do ever find a gap in a fence and decide to run off, the dogs’ home will always know.
So there you have it. Barking mad or sensible measures? I’ll let you decide or, perhaps, we should let sleeping dogs lie.