The joys of volunteer dog-walking
Unable to have her own canine companion, Maria Hodson joined Holly Hedge Animal Sanctuary as a volunteer dog walker and finds great
satisfaction in spending time with a wide variety of loveable homeless hounds
I've never had my own dog, much to my great chagrin. My mum had to contend with three active children and felt that adopting energetic animals would be a stretch too far. As a result, the largest pet I was able to obtain was a solitary goldfish, whom I grandiosely titled Washington DC. Big name for a little fish.
I'd hoped that as an adult I'd be able to own a dog - and indeed my brother has managed this and is the proud owner of the delightful Martha. I, however, always seem to be renting a city box while working in a 9-5 office job, neither of which sets me up as a perfect dog owner. And I do believe that if you're going to take on a commitment like a dog, you should do it properly - have the time, the space, the dedication.
So, to cut a long sob-story short, I joined a local animal shelter at the recommendation of my friend Esme. Holly Hedge Animal Sanctuary takes in homeless dogs and cats, provides them with food and shelter, and aims to resettle them within a loving household. These animals have arrived here for a variety of reasons - some were bought as puppies but, as they aged, required more care than the owner could provide; some had been left without a home after their long-term owner had died; some had been abandoned for unknown reasons.
I provide my relevant information and attend my induction with Alan, who talks and walks me through the rules of walking the dogs. As we escort the incredibly sweet-natured and exceptionally strong Alani, an Akita crossbreed, Alan explains that I should always wear the fluorescent yellow vest, remember to carry dog poo bags, have my phone on me, walk the woodlands in a circular loop and keep the dog on the lead at all times. He also points out that it's important to let the dogs enjoy the walk – let them stop, sniff and explore, as it's one of the highlights of their day.
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Once I have completed my induction, one of the first dogs I walk is Barney, who lopes about in great pleasure at being outdoors.
I share his delight and we have a lovely wander in the beautiful bluebell woodlands besides the sanctuary.
Patient Barney eyeballs the camera. "Don't we have better things to do with our time? Come on, let's get walking," he is no doubt thinking.
Although he probably thinks I am mad, I become very fond of Barney in a short space of time. Sadly, he isn't there the next time I visit - but it's a positive thing, as someone else has fallen for his loveable spirit and he has been rehoused.
I later meet Kira, a striking Siberian husky. Kira has the most extraordinary blue eyes and a lovely manner. She is dignified and intelligent, not over-friendly but self-contained and perfectly well-behaved.
I realise what a trooper Kira is when I take her out for a walk again the following week. This time, due to a misjudged stride, I trip over a tree root and go flying, in the process dropping the lead. I scrape my knee badly, smack my hip and feel rather bruised and shaken. To top it all off, I expect Kira to bolt, having been told that this is the usual behaviour of most dogs once they sense freedom, and that I must use my mobile to call for help as soon as that happens.
Kira, however, has other ideas, and instead explores a patch of bluebells nearby. I am so grateful and relieved that she hasn't fled; it would be mortifying to explain to Holly Hedge that so early in my volunteering experience I've already lost a dog. She goes one step further too, on seeing me wobbly and in pain, by coming over and pressing against my leg in what I take to be a gesture of sympathy. Thanks dear Kira. She has since found a home and I wish her all the best with her new family.
Here is little terrier Lucy. She is a very good-natured and amiable companion, nobly enduring a selfie with her dog walker when she would much rather be sniffing the trees and investigating slightly suspicious noises in the undergrowth. Lucy trots at quite a pace but it's perfectly manageable as she's quite small compared to some of the other dogs. This lovely lady has also since been adopted.
And let us not forget gorgeous Labradoodle Rocky. This young chap has boundless enthusiasm and almost explodes with joy at every opportunity. He is highly energetic and quite powerful, and needs quite a strong handler to walk him, as he does pull on the lead and bounce around with unfettered glee at every opportunity. Rocky benefits hugely from playtime in Holly Hedge's activity garden, where I throw balls and frisbees to keep Rocky engaged and release some of this pent-up energy. Rocky is yet to be adopted but in the past weeks I've witnessed the great work Holly Hedge does, as he is becoming increasingly biddable and well-behaved, and is a real pleasure to spend time with.
I can't wait to visit again and meet any new arrivals, who will no doubt also be fascinating characters. And doing it is no sacrifice - the enjoyment I get from walking and spending time with the dogs is vast, and I'm sure does me as much good as it does them.
I'm very impressed with the work that Holly Hedge Animal Sanctuary does. This noble operation succeeds on the goodwill of donations and volunteers, and brings great satisfaction to the dogs who need a new loving home; and the volunteers and potential owners who get to spend time with these charming canines.
Holly Hedge Animal Sanctuary also is in need of cat cuddlers for their array of marvellous moggies. For details of adoption or volunteering to help these dogs and cats in need, visit www.hollyhedge.org.uk
Holly Hedge Animal Sanctuary, Wild Country Lane, Barrow Gurney, Bristol BS48 3SE (telephone: 01275 474719)
Maria Hodson is production editor at BBC Countryfile Magazine, alongside Margaret Bartlett. Since moving to Bristol in 2014, Maria has made every effort to escape into nature and loves all things wild and watery, from surfing and swimming to paddle-boarding and kayaking. Her adventure highlight in recent years was sea kayaking around remote St Kilda, off the coast north-west Scotland, in 2016. Most weekends, however, are spent exploring the great outdoors with her small child and doing accessible walks. Favourite family adventures are bird-watching at Slimbridge Wetland Centre and exploring the Forest of Dean, as well as an annual pilgrimage to see the starling murmuration on the Somerset Levels.