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A first for one of Hertfordshire’s animal rehoming centres

PUBLISHED: 10:00 26 February 2016

'Each dog has two 20-minute training and socialisation sessions each day to make sure it is good with people, traffic and other dogs'

'Each dog has two 20-minute training and socialisation sessions each day to make sure it is good with people, traffic and other dogs'

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The Watford branch of the National Animal Welfare Trust has scored a first among Britain’s rehoming charities. Gillian Thornton went along to investigate

Kitten numbers boom in the breeding season - from spring to autumnKitten numbers boom in the breeding season - from spring to autumn

Britain’s many rehoming centres are invariably short on space. We may be an animal-loving nation, but there’s always a surfeit of pets needing new owners. So a rescue and rehoming centre that has actually reduced its capacity might seem like a backward step, until you hear about Open Paw.

‘The National Animal Welfare Trust is extremely proud to have pioneered this educational animal behavioural programme, so here at Watford we are delighted to have been the first of the trust’s five centres to put it into practice,’ explains Jackie de Friez, manager of the centre. ‘We can’t take quite so many dogs in, but those we can take now stand a far greater chance of being rehomed quickly.’

The Watford site, just off the A41/M1 junction, was originally home to the Hendon and Aldenham Boarding Kennels, advertised during the Second World War as a safe place to evacuate pets at danger from air raids on the capital. In 1981, it became the first rescue and rehoming centre for the Animal Welfare Trust – ‘National’ being added in 1996 – and in July last year scored another first with the introduction of Open Paw, a programme imported from the United States for the retraining of rescue dogs.

‘Before Open Paw, our staff looked after 10 dogs each who were fed twice a day in a bowl and turned out in a paddock for exercise while their living quarters were scrubbed out,’ explains de Friez, who has 30 years’ experience of animal welfare work. ‘Under Open Paw, each dog has two 20-minute training and socialisation sessions each day, sometimes off-site, to make sure it is good with people, traffic and other dogs.

Jackie de Friez with one of her charges. The NAWT has around 60 cats in residence at any one timeJackie de Friez with one of her charges. The NAWT has around 60 cats in residence at any one time

‘Now they are fed three times a day out of a slow feeder device so that mealtimes take longer and are more fun. And they’re taken to “poo and pee” areas five times a day, which not only trains them to use a certain area but also makes kennel cleaning much quicker. It’s a much more structured and stimulating day for the dogs, which in turn makes them better behaved, but it does mean that each member of staff can work with only six dogs at a time. On each dog’s kennel, we put a small container of food and visitors are encouraged to feed the dogs as they walk round the centre.’

The scheme has been paying dividends since the outset. Research has shown it takes only one minute for a visitor to decide whether he or she wants to meet a particular dog, so the better the image each dog presents at the front of the cage, the more likely it is to attract a new owner.

‘It’s amazing how quickly the dogs picked up on the new regime, even those who had been with us a long time,’ says de Friez. ‘This year, we plan to introduce a specially-adapted Open Paw scheme for cats too.’

It might, however, be a tad late for de Friez’s own beloved pet, Fred, a rescue cat who has been with her for most of his 16 years but never recovered from his feral start. ‘Neighbours with dogs will cross the road rather than have Fred charge at them from under our car,’ she admits.

Animal carer Rees Powser with Splodge who lost an eye in a dog attackAnimal carer Rees Powser with Splodge who lost an eye in a dog attack

On average, the NAWT has around 60 cats in residence at any one time, the number rising towards three figures in the kitten season (spring to autumn). Dog capacity is now limited to 60, while there can be up to 30 rabbits and guinea pigs snuggled up happily in their straw. There’s almost always a waiting list for dogs and cats to be taken in, many of them seeking new homes through genuine cases of hardship or the changed circumstances of their owners.

‘We work very hard to make people aware that there is no shame in giving a much-loved family pet to us for rehoming,’ says de Friez as she introduces some of her feline guests like seven-year-old Smudge and his brother Splodge, who was attacked by a dog and lost an eye.

‘Only recently we took in a lovely-natured cat in very poor condition because her elderly owner was struggling to look after herself and her pet. The lady is now happily settled in a retirement home and her cat has new owners who adore him.’

Jackie has seen many pet fads come and go, especially short-lived fashions for dog breeds such as German Shepherd, Dobermans and Staffies. The latest trend is for huskies, a clever but potentially pushy pet that demands a big investment in time and training.

A scheme for cats similar to the one improving the lot of dogs in care will be introduced this yearA scheme for cats similar to the one improving the lot of dogs in care will be introduced this year

Puppies come into the centre rarely, being far more saleable on the open market, and de Friez has also seen a general drop in dog numbers, many of them now changing hands privately on the internet, a worrying trend that can provide an easy outlet for unscrupulous breeders.

‘If I wanted another animal – and Fred would let me! – I would always go to an animal welfare charity,’ she says firmly. ‘We ask all potential pet owners to come in more than once to make sure that they bond with their chosen animal. They’re home-checked before being accepted and can call on the trust afterwards at any time for advice or support from an animal behaviourist.

‘In return, people get dogs or cats that are vaccinated, neutered, and – compulsory for dogs from April – also microchipped. Our prices are not high either – £10 for guinea pigs, £30 for rabbits, £65 for a cat, and £120 for dogs.’

Some animals are brought in by animal wardens or local-authority pounds. Cute Bichon-type bitch Tallulah was pregnant when she was found tied to a lamppost outside a DIY superstore, but she and her pups all found new homes through the trust and they all return regularly to visit the centre with their adopters.

Smudge (brother to Splodge)Smudge (brother to Splodge)

The trust has a non-destruct policy which means it would put to sleep only an animal that is deemed unsafe with humans, or known to be terminally ill. But few animals are beyond rehoming, de Friez says.

Holding the record for the longest stay at the centre is Micky, a Corgi-Staffie cross who spent four years in Watford before a young couple recently saw through his unprepossessing exterior to the sweet-natured dog beneath.

‘Why did they love him?’ laughs de Friez. ‘It was precisely because he was ugly. There really is a pet to suit everyone – it just might take time to match them up!’

National Animal Welfare Trust Hertfordshire, Tylers Way, Watford WD25 8WT

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