Columbo at the refuge
It’s ‘adoption’ day – February 21, 2006. I’m driving to the Var to adopt one or even two dogs from a refuge that the British community on the French Riviera heard about. It has 87 dogs, housed in dreadful conditions – you can read about this and how the Brits have been helping feed and clean at Le Refuge de Flassans and at Katie's Refuge SAM de Flassans.
Adopting a dog is not part of the plan for the year. The ‘dog of my life’ - Milou, the American cocker - and for whom Pension Milou was named – died last May and then in January, Flavia the yellow lab - my last dog, an old retired guide dog for the blind, went to doggy heaven. The last thing on my mind is getting another dog and certainly not right away. Perhaps in a year or even six months I had said to myself, after all, this place is full of other people’s dogs, so I’m hardly lacking the company of dogs. Sitting in a chair smothered in dogs: two on my lap, one sitting on each arm, one on the cushion behind my head, and big ones at my feet – no, there's no lack of dogs around here.
Rox at the refuge
It’s raining as we get near to the refuge – it was forecast – and I’ve brought a raincoat, a thick jacket to go under it, a rain hat– we’ve all got welly boots. The place is a quagmire, many dogs standing in 10 inches of water, their sleeping quarters are plastic airline cages filled with straw – soaking wet after they’ve gone in and out of the rain several times. They’ll be sleeping cold and wet tonight. This is no life for a dog.
I plan on taking the two oldest dogs in the refuge, as I know they have a no euthanasia policy. An older, suffering dog has the right to help when it’s time. But to tell the truth, it’s not that I’m being a goody-two-shoes in deciding to take older dogs, it’s that I don’t feel ready to make a long-term commitment yet and so older ones will be easier. No big deal for me to have a couple of extra dogs lying about the place – they’ll be happy and comfortable till the end of their days and I’ll gain brownie points for my soul.
Having said that I’d already seen a photo of Columbo when I uploaded his likeness onto the website. Those eyes seemed to speak to me and he’s not an older dog - only 5 or 6 years of age.
‘Where is Columbo,’ I ask. I’m taken to his pen where he stands, soaking wet, as were all the dogs. He is filthy, scared, skin and bone, ribs sticking out – backing off when David, the man who works there, approaches him. Terrified, he lets me hold his head. I looked into those sad eyes. ‘He’s epileptic,’ says David, ‘he doesn’t see very well either.’ I’ll take him, I say.
We continue walking round the pens. I look at Tara, a Great Dane cross of 13 but David says she is dominant with other females and that wouldn’t work here. She’ll make a lovely pet. I hope someone takes her and allows her to live out her last years in comfort. I see a beautiful griffon type dog. David says he’s not good with other males. I wonder if that is true.
I ask to see more older dogs. David takes me to see Rox, a Brittany spaniel type – perhaps crossed with a golden retriever. I walk into his pen: a boggy enclosure - Rox is standing in water. 13 years old. I bend down to take a look into his beautiful face. I ask him if he’d like to come and live with me but before I’ve finished speaking, he licks my rain-soaked face. David says ‘He never does that.’ Probably not true, this is one affectionate dog. ‘He’s got a bad rear end,’ he says. ‘How long has he been in the refuge,’ I ask. David replies, ‘4 years.’ ‘I’ll take him too,’ I say.
The rain never ceases. We are all soaked and I’d still not seen all the dogs. Katie is busy photographing dogs for the website. It is time for us go. I go into the refuge office to pay for the dogs and get what paperwork is available. Meanwhile, happily for me, Katie and Sheila are getting the dogs into the car. Rox jumps onto the back seat as if he knew it was his car and he is settled down with a towel over him. Columbo is a different matter. He is one terrified dog.
It’s time to leave. I get out of my stinky welling boots and into shoes but then have to get out again as I’ve lost my driving glasses. Mistake! My shoes sink into dog poop and mud. The car is steaming up and the smell from the dogs is pretty fierce. Eventually, I get my act together, spectacles are found, shoes are cleaned (well sort of) and off we go. Columbo barks. Columbo barks the whole journey. Katie travels facing the back, bless her, trying to calm him – Sheila sings him a lullaby, which miraculously works for a few brief minutes, but basically our Columbo isn’t a happy camper. He’s one scared dog as he sings his sad hound song.
We drop Katie off at her home in the Var and when we get home, Sheila, bless her, says she’ll come in and help me bath them. Meanwhile, Columbo continues to bark. Becky, who has been looking after the dogs who are staying here, keeps them happy whilst Sheila and I get stuck into the task in hand. Bathtime! I get into the bath, fully dressed, the water runs red, brown, filthy, but eventually we are done.
Sheila and Becky leave. I offer the dogs food. Rox woofs his down and then finds himself a comfortable bed and flops out. He’s lived in a home before. Columbo won't eat. He continues to bark.
Rox being bathed by Jilly and Sheila
Elaine arrives to collect Arthur – she had rescued Arthur from the Menton refuge and she knew I’d been taken with Colombo’s photograph. She had too. So she comes in to see him. Columbo continues to bark. I wonder what breed Columbo is, if indeed he is a breed. I look him up in one of my dog books; he looks very like an English foxhound with longer legs, slightly different jowls perhaps.
By now Columbo hasn’t stopped barking for 6 hours. I read what the book says: ‘Noisy. Does not make a good pet.’ At which point I burst into tears. What have I done? What about Columbo?
Columbo backs away from me. He walks into everything; he walks right across his water bowl and spills it. He backs off my touch. Has he been beaten? Is it his eyes?
Eventually I get him behind the baby gate in the kitchen, having made him a comfortable bed. I go to bed. I’m exhausted. Columbo barks ALL night. I don’t sleep. I worry how I’ll cope.
This is a mistake. I’m judging Old English Sheepdogs at Crufts in two weeks time. I should be relaxing, doing my nails and thinking about the task in hand and what an honour it is that the Kennel Club have invited me to judge at the biggest and most prestigious dog show in the world. It is every dog judge's dream. Yet here I am with a dog who barks 24 hours a day - what chance of relaxing, let alone sleep? And what about poor Columbo?
Update: Since then Columbo has been castrated (sorry gentlemen, necessary for all male dog who live here) he’s had his teeth cleaned, toenails cut. They’ve both had tests for leishmaniosis (results tomorrow) inoculations updated and they’ve been wormed. Rox has bad hips, so he’s on medication. Tomorrow he goes in for teeth cleaning. He is already castrated.
Rox on the sofa
And how is it now? Columbo never ever barks, he wags his tail; he jumps for joy when he sees me, as does sweet old Rox.
Rox in the garden
And me? Of course, I’ve fallen madly in love with an epileptic half-blind hound and a dysplastic spaniel-retriever cross.