Two years ago today, a new lady came into my life who would change it forever. Not the opening line of a romantic novella, but very much true. For those who know me, you will know of course, that I’m not talking about my wife or some romantic dalliance, but rather my lovely harrier hound Berta.
Many of you who follow me on Twitter will be familiar with Berta, and her adventures, odd poses and fondness of sleep, cheese and chicken curry. However, her life as not always been quite like this. This is the story of how we first met Berta.
We had talked for a long time about getting a dog, and decided that we would visit kennels after Christmas and see if there was a dog there that we thought would fit in with us. I was a bit nervous about going to visit, as I had a suspicion that we might want to take all of the dogs home with us. A bit of research told us that Dogs Trust would be a good place to visit, and we went to our then local centre at, appropriately enough, Kenilworth. It was a very impressive set up, and sadly there were no shortage of dogs for us to see. The process was that we made a list of up to five dogs that we saw and then came back to discuss them. Quite a few dogs had some sort of issue that would limit who might be their potential owners. We made a list of five dogs, and I scribbled a sixth on the bottom of the list. The sixth dog was not really what we were looking for, not least because at the age of eight, it was not a young dog.
When we went back to speak to the staff, there was a triage exercise to review the dogs on our shortlist against what we could offer. We thought that we would be an easy fit – no children at the time, one of us at home pretty much all of the time, plenty of space, etc – but as we went through the list with the staff, it was clear that some of these dogs had issues that would have meant that we would not be a suitable home for them. Some could not cope with children visiting, others suffered from severe separation anxiety that would have meant that we would need to be prepared to be with them twenty four hours a day. Quickly, our five dogs disappeared from our list. We were left with our sixth choice, the extra dog. You’ve guessed it, it was Berta. We took her for a walk around the grounds. She lacked energy and was very skinny. Her bones were clearly showing through her skin. She spent most of her time with her nose to the ground, sniffing various scents around her, and reminded me of Watson, Mr Baskerville’s dog from Pigeon Street, for those of you who remember that. However, she reacted well to us, and we liked her, and agreed that she was the dog for us, even if she was a little older and not the most energetic of dogs.
We completed the paperwork, and provided details of where we lived, including photos of our garden and house. If you live closer to the centre, they will complete an inspection of your house before they will agree to release a dog to you. All was well with us, and we agreed that four days later, Berta would come home with us, subject to a session with the experts at the centre.
We headed back with some trepidation the following Wednesday to hopefully pick up our new arrival. That’s when we learned a bit more about her. Berta is a harrier hound, and was one of two hounds that arrived on the same day, who became known as Bert and Berta. She had been found abandoned in rural Ireland, and ended up in the local dog pound. She was a couple of days from being put down when she was found by Dogs Trust, who rescue dogs in that situation and aim to rehome them. She was very, very thin and had obviously been sleeping outside, possibly for most or all of her life. She had hard calluses on her legs and body from long periods – possibly years – of sleeping on hard surfaces, where we were told the fur would probably never grow back. Judging by her pronounced teats, she had probably been forced to breed until she was not able to have any more litters, and had been kicked out as she was no longer of use. She had a few marks, including a permanently damaged eye that was consistent with being hit on the head. She liked people, but was wary. Given that she was a stray, the staff knew very little about her. There were two real facts, other than what the medical reports had shown. The first was about her relationship with her kennel mate. Most of the dogs lived in – quite big – two dog kennels, with an inside and outside area. Berta shared with Gus, and had built a special bond with him. The staff described them as being like a doggy marriage. They had their arguments – Berta would swipe out with a paw or snap if Gus barked too much or annoyed her – but most of the time, they had a lovely relationship. When they slept, Berta would spoon Gus like a married couple. They were very sweet. We almost felt guilty about separating them, but we were not in a position to cope with two dogs, and we thought that giving Berta a loving home was the better thing to do.
The other thing that was known about Berta was one of her pet likes. The centre has a room to see how dogs will react to moving into a home. There is a mocked living room with a small sofa. We were told that, at every opportunity, Berta was happy climbing on to the sofa and snoozing. When we went into the room to talk through Berta’s background with the staff, she climbed onto the sofa, where she happily stayed curled up for the rest of her time.
We completed the paperwork, and took Berta home. She was a perfect passenger in the car, and when she got home, she looked at the large sofa, and seemed to be asking for permission to get on it. We encouraged her onto it, and she curled up in the corner, looking scared to moved off it in case she was not allowed back on. She looked so thin in hindsight, particularly after she had spent the previous six weeks or so on a special diet to help her regain weight.
Over the last two years, Berta has become very much part of our family. She has been on all sorts of adventures, travelled with us to various parts of the UK, has even been a guest attendee at a number of conferences (long story), and appeared on national television websites. We have so many stories about Berta that I could fill pages just typing about her. She has become a confident, healthy dog who is as at home with us as we are with her, and almost unrecognisable from the dog that came home with us two years ago. When I take her for a walk around the village, nobody knows me but everyone knows Berta. Some of the calluses have cleared up, and she is an alert and happy hound. She can howl like a wolf when she wants to, and she is clever enough to know how to turn on the microwave, but hasn’t quite worked out that no frankfurters come out afterwards if you have not put any there in the first place…
We have come to celebrate the day that Berta arrived home as her birthday. So, this weekend, we will be having a little party and celebration of Berta’s tenth birthday, and two happy years with us. I try not to think about the less pleasant parts of Berta’s life before she was picked up as a stray, and I hope that she has got over whatever emotional scars they have left with her. I just hope that we are making her somewhere near as happy as she makes us by being part of our family.