After the sudden death of her beloved pet, Cassandra Jardine began the search for a new addition to the family. Little did she realise that the hunt for a homely hound would almost end in canine catastrophe.
Somewhat unfestively, my dog dropped dead on Christmas Day. Molly, a mongrel from Battersea Dogs Home, was only nine years old and apparently fit. After an afternoon walk, she lay down by the sofa while I cooked; a few minutes later, when I dangled a piece of ham, she failed to respond.
“Are you dead?” I called out rather callously. She was. I can only assume that she had silently succumbed to a heart attack.
Disposing of the body – fortunately it was cold in the garden shed over Christmas – was a grisly business. My husband shed tears as he carted her off. We all did. But, following a brief period of mourning, thoughts turned to replacing her.
Molly was useless at household chores compared to the assistance dogs I had encountered through the Dogs for the Disabled Christmas appeal. She wouldn’t fetch a ball let alone remove gloves or turn on lights, but she was part of the family and an essential element in our anti-burglar strategy.
Without her the house felt naked: hence the frantic search for a substitute. But our search nearly ended in us being sold a pup, instead of a puppy.
I have discovered that acquiring a dog is a major shopping project. The possibilities are endless. Rescue or pedigree? Trusty old breed such as Jack Russell or fancy obscure one like the Obamas’ Portuguese water dog? And should it be a dog? Or bitch? Puppy? Or adult? Aagh!
Even if you know what you want (in our case a puppy, non-moulting, gentle, cheap), next comes the question of where to look. Out of loyalty to Molly, our quest began back at Battersea Dogs Home, where I learnt that puppies are still given for Christmas, but generally aren’t dumped at the dogs’ home until March. “After a couple of months, when they still aren’t trained, people get bored,” says a Battersea expert .
Second-hand staffies and rottweilers were available in droves, however, immediately post-Christmas; the only puppy available was a mastiff crossed with an Akita (Japanese fighting dog). “But he’s hand-reared,” protested the expert when I balked at the idea of something so vast and alarming in a house regularly visited by toddlers.
Big, friendly, lazy and not too bright were my preferences, with a long coat to obscure its bottom. A Bernese mountain dog would suit perfectly, declared a helpful friend, so my 15-year-old daughter looked them up online. With what I now see was excessive ease, she instantly found not one but two owners with puppies to give away due to difficult family circumstances.
Admittedly, I didn’t like the frantic tone of one of the owners who, surprisingly, couldn’t spell Lerwick, on Shetland, where she purported to live. The other set-up sounded perfect. On offer was a 12-week-old puppy, with full health records, in need of a new home because the owner had died suddenly, leaving her son to sort out the estate.
“Steve Hill” wanted no money, only monthly updates on the puppy’s well-being. There was even a choice between a male and female puppy as his mother had had both – how marvellous.
The only snag was that the puppies lived on the Isle of Man. “Can you collect?” he emailed. “If not, I can arrange transport.” Soon pictures of “Lacey” were circulating within the family, to “oohs” and “aahs”.
In retrospect, the deal was too good to be true. Why would a woman at death’s door have acquired not one but two Bernese puppies in the previous couple of weeks? Why did “Steve Hill” not want to speak to me on a landline if his mobile reception was poor, as he said: surely a pet-lover would wish to verify my sob story about the dead dog and five sad children? Was it a coincidence that he and the woman from Lerwick lived in such inaccessible places? And why would anyone just happen to know, as he claimed to, of a reliable, cheap pet transport company?
Most suspicious of all was the mystery of why a puppy worth £1,000 would be given away when surely the breeder would have taken her back. It made no sense, but my judgment was clouded by greed. I felt marvellously superior (what a bargain!) as I exclaimed triumphantly: “All we have to pay is the transport costs.”
Hill swiftly registered me with the Kennel Club as the new owner – at least he said he did. An official-looking form then arrived in my in-box from the pet transport company, requiring me to send £200 by Western Union to Cameroon. I would like to say that I smelled a rat, but I was befuddled by flu and at that stage it was only the merest whiff.
Calling the number supplied, I was reassured that the Cameroon address was something to do with air transport. Returning to the money transfer form, I was one click away from humiliation when I had the sense to make a brief check.
Googling “puppy”, “scam” and “Cameroon” produced a history of credulous others who had sent off their money. In return they had received not a dog, but further cash demands for vaccinations, customs and other “unforeseen” costs. Imagining adorable puppies whimpering in limbo, they had kept paying up until, finally, they clocked that there was no dog – and never had been.
As a ruse for parting fools from their money it is perfect for Britons, targeting as it does our national obsessions with dogs and bargains.
Money-up-front schemes are the commonest scams reported to Consumer Direct, funded by the Office of Fair Trading: 1,035 such scams were reported last year, representing only the tip of the puppy’s tail, since few of us own up to our stupidity when the money is, in almost every case, gone for good.
This being the OFT’s Scamnesty Month, however, I am following advice to tell as many people as possible, and to report scams on the Consumer Direct website.
Internet scams are not the only way in which dog shopping can turn nasty. Unscrupulous breeders will add non-pedigree animals to a pedigree litter, acquiring Kennel Club certificates for them, and selling them on for inflated prices. These puppy-farmed animals are often unhealthy and maladjusted because they have been taken from their mothers too young and reared in squalor.
The alternative? “Choose one of our accredited breeders,” advised Bill Lambert, the Kennel Club’s health and breeder services manager, as I resumed the puppy hunt.
I did, but several Bernese aficionados disliked the sound of me, clueless as I was about waiting lists and the finer points of the breed. Eventually I found one who was more sympathetic, but her protective passion for her puppies put me off.
“You do realise, don’t you, that they must stay on the lead for the first 18 months in case they hurt their legs running after a ball?” the breeder said.
Originally bred not to climb mountains, but to plod along the meadows of Switzerland, Bernese mountain dogs are so heavy – some top 11 stone – that they hurt their knees if they judder to a stop. Stairs are a hazard, too. My house is full of them, I wailed. “You will need ramps,” she replied. “As for food: mine like sardines, meat, eggs, honey sandwiches and bio-yogurt.”
Hearing my voice go faint she concluded that I might be better suited to a dog from the small ads at the back of a local paper. A quick trawl of hers revealed two sets of golden doodles (golden retrievers crossed with poodles).
“Forgive me for groaning,” said Lambert from the Kennel Club when I told him that I was heading for a happy ending. “But a lot of people fall into the trap of buying the new crossbreeds because of their perceived cachet or because of the names.”
Wally Conron, who invented the labradoodle 23 years ago, has regretted creating the canine “Frankenstein” ; but to the laity they and the other poodle crosses appear to result in the perfect dog: intelligent, not inbred and, because of the poodle genes, not prone to shedding hair.
“More than half of them do shed, unlike the 20 hyper-allergic breeds on our website,” Lambert argues. “There’s no guarantee that you will get the traits you want and they are often more expensive than pure breeds. I appreciate the urgency of your wish to replace Molly but 'Buy in haste, repent at leisure’.”
It was too late. I was smitten. Two weeks ago I swapped £450 for 10-week-old Raphael, who has dark curranty eyes set in a mass of pale curls, and a winsome way of cocking his head. OK, he’s tiresomely fashionable and he’s already chewed through several computer cables, but that just proves he’s a puppy, not a pup.
Don't get cute with me: pesky pet scams
Fake buyers contact private sellers and ''pay’’ by sending a forged cheque for an amount larger than the agreed value of the kitten. Scammers then recommend that the seller banks the cheque, and pays back the extra by money transfer: armed with the bank details, they clean out the account.
High-value birds are used to lure people into scams. Parrots and cages have been offered for as little as £155. If the birds exist at all, they often turn out to be parakeets which die from shock in captivity, usually shortly after arrival.
Teacup, pocket and micropigs costing as much as £700 are sold to people who expect them to end up knee-high, with clean habits. They turn out to be normal-sized porkers, or pot-bellied pigs that have been starved and in-bred to keep them small, with short life spans. Sellers disappear.
Avoid being sold a pup
Be wary of the internet
Research a breed, or crossbreed, to make sure it is right for you
Avoid buying from pet shops and garden centres
Trust only reputable rescue organisations
Meet the dog and vendor at their home before handing over money
If buying a pure breed, check the dog’s unique three-name registration with the Kennel Club
Take out health insurance
Look at the dog to see if it appears healthy
Ask for evidence of health checks
Don’t trust anyone asking for money through Western Union or Moneygram
An offer of a puppy that seems too good to be true probably is