My rescue pups are family to me

Vicki Notaro

I am the very definition of a dog person. Not only do I adore them, I often prefer them to humans.

Show me a baby and a puppy, and my gut instinct is to go to the dog. I'm not sure what that says about me, but I bet a psychiatrist would have an opinion. I've written here about my lack of an inherent maternal instinct, and while that's true in relation to baby humans, with animals I am Mother Superior -- I love them, they love me and we are a match made in heaven.

It was Paris Hilton's Chihuahua Tinkerbell that made canine companions so hot back in the early Noughties, but nowadays celebrity dogs aren't just stylish accessories but part of the family.

Ryan Gosling's pal George accompanies him on chat shows, while the queen's beloved corgis had a starring role in her Olympics opening ceremony sketch. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are said to be fighting for custody of their rescue dog Bear in the wake of their recent split, and Jennifer Aniston has her dead pooch's name tattooed on her foot as she was so distraught at her long-time friend's passing.

Add to that the fact that Pudsey scooped the Britain's Got Talent crown in 2012, and that Barack Obama's Bo is referred to as "The First Dog" and it's fair to say the world has gone canine crazy.

However, doggies aren't a passing trend, and can be beloved members of the family. It boils my blood when people dismiss them as you would a goldfish as "just a pet".

An only child, I grew up with dogs instead of siblings (analyse that, Mr Freud). When I moved out of home at 22, it was the first time in my life that I didn't have a pooch in the house and I missed my "sister" Molly (the family dog since I was 12) terribly.

However, with a fledgling career in publishing and a tiny apartment, getting a dog was out of the question. Everyone told me how "cruel" it would be to have a dog while working a 40-plus-hour week, but I thought it would be more cruel for abandoned animals to die in the pound every week because nobody came to claim them. Still, I held out knowing that one day I'd be a dog owner, when the time was right.


That happened this year. I went freelance as a journalist and my boyfriend Eoin and I finally had a back garden and room enough for a dog to roam free. We talked about it for weeks before I convinced him to take the plunge one Sunday afternoon and go visiting dog shelters.

Molly had been rescued from Kildare Animal Foundation in 1998, and Eoin's family dog Ruby from ASH Animal Rescue in Wicklow in 2007. We knew we had to pay both places a visit to see if we could strike it lucky again.

Dog shelters funded by independent charities are not exactly "nice" places to visit -- in fact it can be quite distressing -- but the work they do through fundraising and the odd grant is extraordinary. Hundreds of dogs of all shapes and sizes, ages and breeds, all looking for their forever home. We went in knowing to leave our emotions at the door, and also with a strict idea of what we wanted. A small dog, six to 18 months old, preferably female and without any serious issues.

Typically, we walked in the door and fell in love with a two-and-a-half-year-old bitch named Dora with extreme separation anxiety. Oh yeah, and she came as a pair with a tiny black mongrel boy called Jacko. I knew I wanted them both, but logistically we had a lot to discuss so went home dog-less. However, it was a done deal in my mind, and a fortnight after we first met, Dora and Jacko were ours.

It was love at first lick, but it hasn't been easy -- there have been times I've regretted getting them, but only for about a minute. They came with myriad issues, from not being able to sit or obey the most basic orders, to whining in the night and barking whenever the mood took them. Dora's separation anxiety was adorable when it manifested in her shadowing me and snuggling up to my side. However, I soon found that when I tried to leave the house for half an hour, she pretty much went out of her mind -- shaking, howling and whining.

When we overcame that, we had to deal with Jacko randomly taking against people -- oddly enough all of my closest female friends. I googled the most hilarious things in those first couple of weeks -- "Irish dog whisperer", "Why won't my dog shut up" and "dog losing its mind help" all stood out.

In the end we had to call in help in the form of Problem Paws, aka dog behaviourist and trainer Joanne. She explained that dogs are pack animals, and at that moment were struggling for status with us. In other words, we needed to show them who's boss. We're still mid-training, but the effects are obvious. Still, I don't see them dancing to Queen like good ol' Pudsey anytime soon.

The dogs were instantly a priority over nights out, clothes shopping and even golf in Eoin's case, which, believe me, is shocking. I swore I'd never be one of those people who'd dress up their dogs, but when Jacko got caught in a rain shower and was translucent and shaking, I knew he just NEEDED a little jacket. And it wouldn't be fair to get him one and not Dora, right? So if you ever see a man looking mortified in South Dublin, walking one dog wearing camouflage and another a pink anorak, wave and say 'hi' to Eoin.

I also spent a silly amount on personalised collars and leads in pink and purple, with diamante letters for Dora the diva, and manly stainless steel for my little guy.

Our house soon became overrun with toys, treats, teddies and hordes of dog paraphernalia. We also took a course at Mutt Ugly in basic dog grooming, where I learned to keep Dora's wiry hair neat at home, and got to dye her fringe and tail tip pink. Don't worry, it faded out after 24 hours, but she looked pretty deadly that day.

Another obstacle we faced was going on holiday. We usually go away in September, but with Dora's separation anxiety it was obvious that we weren't going to be able to leave her with my mum and take off anytime soon. We were both dying to get out of Dublin so when I spied on Twitter that the gorgeous five-star Aghadoe Heights resort in Killarney, Co Kerry was offering a Pooches Paradise staycation package, I was in.

We arrived to a cute welcome message to the dogs, comfy beds for everyone, toys and water dishes, as well as specially bottled water called San Pet-egrino -- totes adorbs, as Paris Hilton would say.

There was also a doggy room service menu, but I soon discovered it wasn't part of the package and you had to pay separately, something that wasn't made initially clear. Still, their dinner arrived on a silver platter, so I couldn't

exactly complain about paying €5 for a big portion of chicken and rice.

I had to sign a waiver to say that we'd be responsible for any doggy damage, which is understandable but with cream carpets, the rooms weren't exactly practical to house doggies prone to leakage. Plus there was no balcony for them to do their business.

The "kids" were well behaved, but we were loath to leave them in the room for more than a couple of hours as they had to be caged, which curtailed our touristy instincts. I got to pay the fabulous spa a visit, though, and we walked the majestic hills of the Kingdom as a little family, which was pretty special.

If your pooch is trained well and doesn't mind being crated, I'd say to hotfoot it down to Aghadoe quick smart. Ours were probably still a bit too new for the experience, but we will be back when they've settled more.

The most incredible thing though is how it's changed our lives. Eoin and I frequently look at one another in wonder, thinking what the heck did we do with our lives before we had them. I also wonder (aloud) how on EARTH people cope with children.

Dogs are hard enough, and the guilt I feel leaving them out the back for a few hours while I run errands is horrific. The thing is though, we couldn't imagine being without them, and love them so unconditionally it sometimes hurts a bit. I keep telling my parents that it's likely these are the only grandchildren they're going to get, so to enjoy them.

I think they've just realised I'm bloody serious.