It mutts be love: My life with six dogs (and Georgie the cat)
They wreck the house and cost a fortune, but Andrea Smith couldn't live without her beloved pets
My massive phobia of dogs started when I was walking home from school aged 10 and a huge dog jumped over a wall, lunged at me and bit my arm. I became so fearful that people had to put their pets into another room before I would venture into their house.
Walking to and from school took ages, as I took detours to avoid all of the danger spots where dogs lurked in front gardens. They were probably docile and friendly, but to my frightened young mind, they were vicious, snarling beasts.
Then, when I was 15, my dad came home with a Jack Russell puppy. I wasn't thrilled initially, but he was tiny and adorable and I fell deeply in love within weeks. Dinky cured me of my phobia, and I actually went to the other extreme and became madly passionate about animals. I'd flounce off in a sulk when my parents turned a deaf ear to my pleas for more pets, declaring I could have loads of cats and dogs once I had my own house.
That day didn't come quickly, as I was 32 leaving home, a bit like your man in the film Failure to Launch. Shortly before I left, a friend offered me a stray cat, Ruby, who turned out to be pregnant. I moved into my new house with Ruby and her kittens, Lucy and Daisy, and then a vet suckered me into taking a tiny, motherless kitten, Holly, saying Ruby would feed her. She didn't - actually, she hated her - so bleary-eyed me was up every three hours during the night with a little kitten bottle for weeks.
A month later, I took pity on the local stray, a bashed-up bully called Oscar, so I had him snipped and fixed up, and he became the most ferociously adoring cat you could hope to meet. A neighbouring cat called Kizzy was then adopted, bringing me to six cats.
Cats are fabulous little creatures, so it annoys me when people make a face or give a theatrical shudder when they're mentioned. Once that happens, I know in my heart that even if they're lovely people, we ain't ever going to be on the same page.
Shortly after I started working from home, I heard about Jenny, a young border collie whose owners no longer wanted her and were planning to bring her to the pound.
I couldn't bear thinking about this unwanted little creature's fate, so I asked if I could take her. They had to cut her free from the three-foot rope that had tethered her out the back garden for the previous year, her matted hair had grown into her eyes, and she was sad and neglected.
As we drove away, the dejected little creature turned and licked my hand, and she repaid me by being the most devoted and loving little pal until she died 10 years later.
Dogs will always forgive humans, you see, even when we treat them horribly and let them down.
Two more dogs joined our motley crew, bringing me to nine pets. I found Suzie, another gentle collie, abandoned at a garage one night, and Layla, the most beautiful German Shepherd, followed me home. Detective work revealed her previous owner was an alcoholic, and he had gone on a bender and left her out in the back garden for days. She managed to escape, don't ask me how, and found me.
Layla cowered with fear every time I reached out to her at first, and wet the floor with terror the first time she saw me pick up the mop, but with a lot of kindness and patient care, her confidence blossomed and she became the most stunning, loving and intelligent dog.
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A bit too intelligent, actually. She could open every door and press in the house, and I had to eventually get a child lock on my fridge because she kept raiding it.
One Christmas, someone sent me a hamper, and I put the contents into the fridge and went out. An hour later, I came home to discover that Layla had polished off the smoked salmon, feasted on the vintage cheddar, and scoffed the Irish butter shortbread. She wasn't mad about the artisan jellies, but she still sampled each one before depositing them in random locations. What could I do but laugh?
People always ask me if I have favourites. The answer is, genuinely, no, but I harbour a little soft spot for the ones who were abused by former owners. There is something lovely and very rewarding about taking in a neglected cat or dog, and seeing it blossom, with a bit of love and care, into a happy, confident little creature.
I can't abide animal cruelty, and utterly despise those who neglect or hurt the animals in their care. Our pets are completely at our mercy, and all they want to do is love us and spend time with us. How anyone can abuse that trust is beyond me?
These days, I have six dogs and one cat. Shortly after I found Poppy one freezing winter's night, she had five puppies. I kept three - Lenny, Toby and Tatty- and comedian June Rodgers and our friend Trish have given the other two wonderful homes. Rosie, my petite Jack Russell, was another stray, and Tiny, an adorably foolish, grey shaggy dog was rescued from a bad situation. He came with his name, but is actually the biggest of the lot.
It breaks my heart that animals are so abused in Ireland, and our pounds and rescue centres are overflowing. The problem is that inexperienced people fall for adorable puppies, but often haven't a clue what's involved in responsible dog ownership, and get fed up and dump the dog or neglect it.
I always plead with people not to buy designer puppies - rescue dogs make wonderful pets. My dogs all love one another, and get on famously, unless one of them snatches the other's chewy bone, of course, and then war breaks out.
I also have a beautiful ginger cat, Georgie, who came to me when her owners emigrated. She treats the dogs with utter disdain, and sleeps on my bed at night.
I learned not to be house-proud very early on, as the dogs have practically eaten my house from the inside out - and there's hair, everywhere. RIP to all the sofas, skirting boards, phone chargers and laptop chargers that I once loved. I work from home, so I'm there most of the time with them, and I make sure I give them all individual attention every day so the shyer ones don't get left out.
Walking six dogs together is challenging, to say the least, as I can't manage six leads so have to let them run free. I get up at 6am now at weekends to let them run around a local field while nobody is around, and I have a couple of other places that are usually quiet mid-morning for walks during the week.
They're all friendly and bouncy, although I'm frequently left mortified when they spot a dog or cyclist across the field and go haring after them to say hello. Some people are understandably unimpressed as this colourful pack bounds towards them.
People often wonder about the cost of having so many pets, and between grooming, neutering, vaccinations, and occasional illnesses, it's an expensive business. There are times when I think it would be easier to get my salary paid directly to the vet.
Their food costs about €150 per month, and I get Tesco to deliver it, to save me breaking my back under the weight of it.
They say pets become like their owners, so I am far more careful with their diet than my own - I wouldn't want to be the fat owner out walking with all the fat pets.
When I go away, they go to West City Kennels in Citywest. The owners, Alan and Brendagh, are very kind to them and give me a great group rate. Even so, the cost often exceeds the price of my own trip.
I don't care what they cost though, because as far as I'm concerned, they're worth every cent. I adore my little furry family and they repay me with immeasurable loyalty and fun and company and love. I think that's why I'm never sick or despondent.
Of course, the fatal design flaw is that our pets just don't live long enough. I am always heartbroken when one of them dies or has to be put to sleep, although I'm grateful that at least we can do that for them and end any suffering.
I am good, I like to think, at letting them go in the early stages of an illness, because I can't bear the thought of them in pain. It's so important to be there for your pet right to their final breath, so I always look into their eyes and talk soothingly to them as the needle goes in and they slip away quietly. And then I cry for about a fortnight afterwards!
It helps having so many, of course, but I would still miss each little personality around the house.
Mind you, if I could train them to make me the odd cup of tea, I'd be laughing.