I find it hard to believe it’s a year since we first met Tom. It’s difficult to remember a time when he wasn’t such a key part of our family life.
Sunday, June 17th, 2018 was the day, barely 20 hours after we first saw a photograph of him, our Lottie having been a major contributing factor, her near-constant, brow-beating questioning increasing by the week. “Can we have a dog? Why can’t we have a dog?”
We argued at first that we couldn’t commit. I really didn’t know where work would take me, and where would we find the time and money to ensure a new arrival was properly looked after? But as the months went on, we became all the more assured that it might work.
Besides, I’d been self-employed for around eight years, much of that time working from home. The old excuse of having no one to look after a dog during the day had fallen by the wayside. Time was of the essence though, our eldest, Molly off to university soon. We didn’t want her to think she was being replaced, cute as any new arrival would indubitably be.
So with GCSEs and A-levels done and dusted, it had to be now, even if that meant extra headaches when it came to our summer holiday. That would at least give Molly chance to properly bond before heading across the Pennines to Sheffield in September. Both girls had a busy few weeks ahead, dates in the diary piling up, but soon, head started to be won over by heart, and we started looking, several dogging sites added to internet favourites on phones, laptops and hard drive. Erm, sorry, that should read dog-related sites.
Not as if we fully agreed on what we were looking for. Sentiment for me suggested a Labrador or retriever, an Irish setter like our cousins had in Cornwall in the ‘70s, a springer spaniel, or Jayne’s first choice, a Collie. I’d be happy with any of those. Molly wasn’t so keen on the idea of a big dog, preferring the notion of a spaniel perhaps. Something fluffy and cute, but nothing pedigree. As for Lottie, she was soon falling in love with any mutt she found on the internet, wanting to take them all in. And I think we all knew that if we went to a rescue centre, we’d choose the dog everyone else was likely to walk straight past.
We did sort of agree on a girl (I tried the word bitch there, but it looked wrong), half-expecting a male addition to the family to be so pleased to see everyone he came into contact with that he’d be forever humping legs. Us lads can be like that sometimes. And while we liked the idea of a rescue dog – rather that than supporting an industry built around fashionable pedigree breeding – in a bid to give a home to a pooch with an unfortunate start in life, we could well be dealing with a few issues. What might we be committing ourselves to, not knowing a full history? It was a dilemma.
With those admittedly wide parameters set, we got to it. I initially contacted a rehoming centre not far off my patch (no names, no breed here), but felt like an animal abuser by the time I got off the phone. I understand there are vetting processes, so to speak, but was made to feel rather uncomfortable at being a first-timer. I never did get a call back after my initial ‘interview’. Soon enough though, we were looking online each day, and every hour at times. And despite our earlier concerns, we were soon concentrating on rescue websites, local RSPCA sites in particular getting a hammering. I even reckon Lottie’s geography was improving. ‘Erm, you do realise – gorgeous as she is – Stafford’s 80-plus miles away, right?’
Soon, we fell in love – as we kind of expected – with Skye, a beautiful old black and tan scruffy terrier that no one seemed able to commit to. We spoke to the centre looking after her and our next dilemma followed. Apparently, an arthritic condition meant she didn’t have the stamina for more than short walks. It broke our hearts to make the decision, but surely there was someone out there who wasn’t seeking long walks, just wanting a little gentle company, whereas part of our motivation was to get fit and enjoy plenty of fresh air and exercise. Of course, once the hard decision was taken, we continued to sneak looks to see if Skye had been rehomed, while putting out the word ourselves.
Then came news of a wonderful Collie, who looked right up our street. Her name was Nell, and that seemed apt. As a keen family historian, I was aware of twins up my tree (so to speak) known as Nell and Tot, the latter really a Lottie, like my youngest. Frightening as it seemed, this was the moment, right?
We dithered, we talked it over, we weighed up pros and cons, we talked it over some more, then finally decided to get down to Merseyside that weekend and check her out. But someone got there first, her photo profile quickly updated to ‘now on a home visit’, leaving us genuinely upset that we’d missed out. But if that disappointment taught us anything, it was to act faster next time. And it also confirmed that we really did want a dog. There were no doubts now.
Then came a distinct possibility via another website we previously ruled out on account of the fact that the centre name, Wolfwood, suggested something more Canis lupus than we were looking for. It wasn’t far off, just south of Lancaster, but did we really want to rehome a wild dog? But it turned out that Wolfwood was all about rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing injured and displaced wildlife from local vets, RSPCA officers and the public. More to the point, in our case it was about rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming unwanted and stray dogs and finding appropriate new owners, even working with a dog behaviourist to help resolve any issues.
There was something else about this latest option that seemed to fly in the face of our earlier tick-list. He was a handsome fella, but … ah, there you have it – ‘he’. This here Tom was absolutely gorgeous, but … definitely a boy. Was our interest just some kind of on-the-rebound, kneejerk reaction? Maybe, but after Nell we knew there could be no stalling.
Lottie was in town that Saturday, but we sent her a message and she made the appropriate ‘noises’ in response, involving lots of heart emojis and exclamation marks. Consequently, my better half made the call around two that afternoon, with Molly and I listening in. We tried to convince ourselves it was just so we could find out a little more, then discount it as an option. We’d just say, ‘Ah, he’s lovely, but really we’re after a girl. If anything comes up that fits our (admittedly vague) description, could you let us know?’ Yeah, right.
The words on the site simply read, ‘Collie cross Tom is about eight years old. He is a lovely lad to be around and has been brilliant since he arrived’. But it was the pictures that really enticed us. Local photographer Sue Milligan took lots of lovely shots for Wolfwood, and the ones of Tom did him great credit, works of art in their own right. He looked so handsome. Could it just be trick photography? We really were being cautious, cushioning ourselves against what would seem to be the inevitable crushing disappointment.
So there we were, Stephen from Wolfwood telling us down the telephone line, ‘Ah, he’s a lovely lad. Unfortunately, he’s driven by his testicles at the moment.’ We looked at each other. Did he really just say that? Yes, but he added, ‘That’ll change in a couple of days though. He’s booked in to be done,’ Yikes. Poor lad. He then talked some more about that procedure and we learned a little about Tom’s history, at least as much as they knew, Lancaster City Council’s dog wardens having apparently found him roaming the streets. Not sure when, where or for how long, but no one had come forward and now he was up for rehoming. Bless.
Who could do that? But all those (still unanswered) questions and possible theories would have to wait. Before we knew it, we’d agreed to pop up the following day and meet Tom, see how the Wolfwood operation worked. And there was certainly no sales patter in that phone call or any subsequent face-to-face meeting – just easy going, honest advice and shared experience, with no obligation on our part. Meanwhile, Lottie was on her way home and we shared further frantic WhatsApp messages, mulling over where we were at, excited at the prospect of the next day’s trip north.
While we had no real idea how old he really was, his handlers and the vet reckoned eight, judging by his teeth, which weren’t great. But his coat suggested he had been looked after, as did his demeanour. Perhaps an elderly owner could no longer cope, or a decision was taken from them, that owner’s family with too much on their own plate to properly care for him. Or maybe it was a homeless person whose situation had changed and for some reason or other could no longer properly look after their soul mate. All mere speculation, but that was all we had.
We must have gone through every possible scenario over the next few weeks as to how Tom ended up being looked after by the team at Wolfwood. But we’d soon come to the conclusion that he’d been loved and looked after before circumstances had somehow changed. Occasionally, in the months to come, albeit extremely rarely, we saw glimpses of reactions that suggested he wasn’t always surrounded by those who looked after him. Just a feeling. But he was definitely well mannered, friendly, inquisitive, occasionally playfully boisterous – certainly when he wanted a walk and we were taking too long – and very quickly melted our hearts.
That was all in the future though. For on that scorching Sunday morning, after a 25 mile drive up the M6, Jayne and I were trying to act dispassionately, weighing up more cautious outcomes. To add to that, when we parked up within Wolfwood’s gates, we were met with a barrage of seemingly relentless noise, from high-pitched yaps to fully resonant deep and loud barking. We walked towards the office, as if shell-shocked, trying to smile, expectation almost finishing us.
A young couple were just ahead, deep in conversation and paperwork about two young bull mastiffs tethered on leads at their side, barking at anything they could. It turned out that the couple were off on holiday, leaving the little fellas for a week or so in the kennels, a big adventure awaiting the dogs and their owners. And the look of relief on the fella’s face as they passed us to leave spoke volumes. What the hell were we letting ourselves in for? It was sheer mayhem, it seemed. We must both looked a little stunned. Trawling the websites, we saw so many dogs needing homes, and these two had clearly found a forever home. But their saviours needed a little rest and recuperation right now.
It was soon our turn to introduce ourselves, a message following via walkie-talkie, one of the handlers, Dianne, despatched to fetch Tom with us. And that’s something I haven’t mentioned yet. Tom was the name Wolfwood gave him, and Thomas was my Mum’s maiden name (don’t try and crack my online security questions, you’ve missed the boat by several years), having passed away after a long dementia battle a couple of months before. And her first name? Diana, close enough for me to give that serious reflective thought. Perhaps some things are just meant to be.
We soon headed off together to the kennels, Dianne and the girls in front, me holding back, waiting on the pathway, the cacophony continuing all around. Jayne later told me she was desperately trying not to make eye contact with all the other deserving four-legged pooches dreaming of a forever home, worried she’d end up offering to take them all in. That’s probably why I held back. Furthermore, Lottie told me that amid all the mayhem on either side of him, this gorgeous snooter suddenly appeared through the bars of the pen, and there was Tom, sniffing them out, his eyes seeming to tell them, ‘It’s bloody loud in here, can we go for a walk?’
Actually, fairly soon we decided he was a little hard of hearing, or at least hard of listening … unless meals or walks were involved. But the first I knew of all this was when Tom padded nonchalantly out, Dianne with the lead and the girls just behind, all smiles, hearts duly melted. It wasn’t about eye contact yet, with no obvious sign of him clocking me, but perhaps that was an in-built defence, not getting too attached at such an early stage, a few trust issues yet to be bridged. All Tom seemed to care about was that it was a lovely day and he had his lead on, so hopefully it was time for his next walk.
So it turns out that Sue’s photographs weren’t studio wizardry after all. That was the real Tom she’d captured there. And he was extremely handsome. We stroked him and said hello, the girls already in love. Me too. And that wagging tale suggested it was mutual.