For most people having a dog changes their life. But this is a story that’s extra special because of an extra special dog.
Sarah Kells shares her story with us.
The journey into my new life started approximately 14 years ago. It was a journey that I was unprepared for so I muddled my way through until realisation of where my journey was to take me sank in. Like most life-changing experiences which turn up out of the blue, it was unexpected and a little unnerving.
I was 51 years old and recently divorced. My husband and I had always had dogs, they were part of our family so I was used to having them in my life. We had always chosen rescue dogs as opposed to buying a puppy, we had four in all.
When we separated it was decided that I would take the dogs and care for them, the dogs and I became a tight-knit family. Our dogs were all quite an age at that time so, sadly over the next year, I lost three of them, leaving my Bichon Frise named Chloebelle and I alone.
I decided to search for a friend for Chloebelle and was delighted to hear of a rescue that was advertising Bichons on their rehoming site. The write up said that the dog I had chosen had been an ex-breeding dog, she had never lived in a home or walked on a lead and it pointed out that she was not housetrained.
In my mind’s eye, I imagined big runs outside of spotlessly clean kennels and happy little dogs being very well cared for as, after all, they were providing pups. I could not have been more wrong. Quite simply, I had no idea at all of the truth behind the life of an ex-breeding dog.
I put forward my application, I was a nervous wreck in case they turned me down, I had decided that the little Bichon who was blind in one eye was going to be my new dog. The wait for the home check and the decision was unbearable, but finally, the day arrived that my application was approved and I was told I could collect her on the following Saturday.
My excitement was beyond and I got no sleep on Friday night. Chloebelle was primped to the limit, she had bows tied in her hair and sported a little pink tee shirt. My own outfit also chosen carefully as I wanted to make the right impression.
Meeting my first puppy farm survivor
I had decided on the name Willamena for my new dog.
The journey was long, I could not drive so had asked a friend to take me. How many times I asked him if we were nearly there yet, quite simply could not be counted. Finally, we arrived, Willamena was placed into my arms, from that moment I knew my life could never again be as it was.
She was covered in urine stains, she was so thin and shook so much I feared for her life. The adoption was processed, Willamena was now my total responsibility. I was terrified, what had I done? How could I help her when I didn't know what was wrong?
Willamena, pictured on her first day in her new home
The journey home was much different from the journey there, silence descended. Neither my friend nor I could speak we were both too shocked and too sad.
One tear fell, then another until finally, my face was awash with tears. I could not work out what had happened to this little dog for her to be in such a terrified and traumatised state. I knew I had to find out about ex-breeding dogs, which I later realised was a polite name for a puppy farm breeding dog.
A new vocation
When I wasn't caring for Willamena I was on the internet researching puppy farming.
My findings shook my world, the images invaded my dreams and sleep was not always possible. I kept thinking, ‘how could this hideous cruelty be allowed in our country which boasts to the rest of the world that our dogs are man’s best friend?’
Gone were the nights out with my friends, gone were the visits to the hairdresser and the nail technician, gone were the shopping days and lunching in nice restaurants. I became totally dedicated to caring for Willamena and Chloebelle.
Before too long I had contacted the rescue and offered to foster for them. My new life was complete, I had found my vocation and nothing could deter me to stray from it.
Emily, Alma and Coco
In all I fostered more than 150 puppy farm dogs over the next few years and in that number of foster dogs there were 13 that I knew I could not let go, so I officially adopted them.
I became the mad dog lady of Wrexham, mostly the term was used as an endearment as I received so much support from neighbours and friends. Those 13 dogs were, either physically damaged or physiologically broken. They were dogs I needed to keep close, I could not bear to let them go.
As one can imagine life was pretty hectic caring for all my dogs, ensuring all of their needs were met and more. Do I regret any of it? The answer is definitely not. Puppy farm dogs are totally different from any other dogs. They need all of you to put them back together again.
Willamena was so frightened of absolutely everything in her new life. Every single thing proved to be too much for her, she would stand in a corner thinking, perhaps that if she couldn't see me then most certainly I could not see her, when I approached her she shook violently and more often than not wet herself. It was a long very gradual process for Willamena to become relaxed within my presence.
Willamena fully recovered
To watch and be actively involved in these changes cannot be described. The joy I experienced the first time she came into the room where I was working, the first lick of my hand, the cuddles that became less tense and fearful for her, the first walk on the lead, the pee in the garden, the acceptance of treats from my hand - all of these things are simple and everyday actions of a pet that has always lived in a home with a loving family, but for Willamena to do them was, well, it was like winning the lottery.
Willamena lost the sight in her other eye several years later and she became totally blind. We were faced with another challenge as she became frightened, withdrawn and anxious, and for a few months, it was almost as if we had stepped back to the beginning.
But with love and encouragement Willamena once more found the strength to fight on and win her battle.
‘My dog taught me to be a better person’
Loving Willamena was an honour and a privilege. She was five years old when I adopted her and she left me for her new life in Rainbow Bridge when she was 12.
I will remain grateful to her for the remainder of my life. She taught me humility, compassion, and a feeling of utter determination I had never before experienced.
Willamena offered me the chance of a new life, a life of meaning and I took that chance and have never looked back.
Willamena had lived through a horror that you and I could barely imagine. She was possibly born on the puppy farm, kept for one purpose and one purpose only. She was kept to produce puppies on an unregulated scale.
Back to back breeding is common practice for the puppy farmers, no thought or care for the breeding dogs, all thoughts are geared towards how much revenue the dogs will bring to their pockets.
They are driven by greed and greed alone. That greed does not allow for the dogs to receive even the most basic of care or have even the most basic needs met. Willamena had been subjected to these cruel deeds for approximately five long years, she had never heard a kind word whispered into her ear or felt a loving hand caress her.
She had never been for a walk on or off a lead, never walked on grass and never felt the sun on her back. There were so many nevers in Willamena’s life it is too cruel to contemplate.
It took much time for Willamena to understand her new life. It took much time for her to learn to trust me. It was a long journey that we embarked upon together. With much love and much patience, we arrived at our destination which was Willamena's life as a very loved and pampered pet. I cannot describe the joy this brings, it is immeasurable and a journey I was destined to travel many, many times.
It would take a book to write about all of my dogs rescued from the puppy farms, they were all different but had one thing in common - they all had eyes that told their life’s story of the pain and suffering, the loneliness and disparity endured.
They each had their physical health issues that needed to be treated, some lived their new lives with me for eight, even nine years but sadly some only lived a few months after adoption.
Each of them impacting on my life and the lives of their brothers and sisters in their new family, each time one died, we as a family mourned the loss of one of us.
Nancy, Milly and Tamara lived very short lives with us, each one of them around five years old when adopted. This was too much to bear. To lose them after just a few short months is unjust and heartbreaking.
Nancy and Milly had cancer tumours caused by overbreeding which were inoperable, Nancy lived with us for only 10 months and Milly 14 months.
Tamara lived with us for 12 months and throughout that time, she was pushed around in a pet stroller as she could barely walk.
I have to believe that those short months made a difference to these poor dogs. I have to believe that the love I poured into them in some small way made up for the horrors they had been forced to endure.
Sarah and Milly
The 13 dogs who have been a part of our family were rescued when they were:
Chloebelle - a few months old.
Willamena - 5 years old.
Freddie - 6 years old.
Milly - 5 years old.
Tamara - 4 years old.
Emmie - 7 years old. Emmie, pictured below, was totally blind and had her right eye removed.
Kitty Winkles - 1 year old.
Buggy - 8 years old.
Nancy - 8 years old.
Annie - 14 years old.
Archie - 12 years old.
Fleury - 4 years old.
Soames - 6 years old.
Nancy Lou - 9 1/2 years old.
Oliver and Nancy
Each of these dogs arrived with or developed soon after serious health issues, most if not all of these issues were caused by over breeding and severe neglect.
My family now consists of Fleury, Soames and Nancy Lou.
Nancy Lou was bred from until she was 9 1/2 years old and then sold on to a so-called rescue before she was sold on to me for the sum of £300. She was broken almost beyond repair and still, they were each making their money from her.
Nancy Lou will never be completely happy or content, she suffered too long at the hands of the puppy farmer and she cannot forget all that they did to her. She lives with me and my other two little ones and does her best to be happy, bless her little heart. I call her my broken dolly.
I still foster puppy farm breeding dogs and I will continue to do so until I am no longer fit enough. They are my very reason for living. That very first day that Willamena came into my life I knew, I just knew.
During the last 14 years, I have seen such pain and loss in the eyes of all of the dogs that arrived at my small home, each of them damaged and broken, each of them needing so much to put them back together.
I always felt that the Angels were around us, I felt their presence and their healing hands working invisibly on the bodies of the broken.
Norris, who had to have a leg operation in his pushchair
Rehabilitating and adopting a puppy farm dog
At the beginning of my story, I said that I knew nothing of puppy farming when I decided to foster puppy farm dogs, I made a pact with myself that when my foster dogs were adopted I would take measures that the adopters would at least go home with some knowledge with their new charge.
This is so important as that little bit of knowledge will go a long way in helping to understand behaviours, fears and difficulties the dog may experience in their new home.
They are taken out of a life which is filled with fear, pain, hunger, thirst and despair, they are expected to share their new space, which could not be more different from their previous space, with the very species that has caused all of the above, can you imagine how hard this must be for them? There is only one way to introduce a puppy farm breeding dog into your home and your life and that is very slowly.
If you are considering adopting an ex-puppy farm dog then I urge you to do so. I am not saying that this will have the same impact on your life as it has mine but I can promise you there will never be any regrets.
Sarah's canine family collecting for a local charity
Do your research, make an informed decision as to whether you are equipped to deal with the emotional side and also ensure you have insurance in place as these poor dogs are broken, they need veterinary care, possibly more often than other dogs.
Most importantly decide if you fit the required criteria to offer a new home and new life to one of these very special dogs. If you do, and you can, you won’t regret it. I haven’t.