For the love of dogs

Russell Hargrave meets the dog owners who help keep the borough hound-happy

Russ and Molly

Russell with his greyhound Molly in Lloyd Park, Walthamstow

One Saturday evening last year, a dog went missing in Walthamstow.

Cleo the shitzu, no doubt with a nose for a bit more freedom, jumped out of her front garden, sprinted towards a park down the road, and disappeared.

Cleo’s owner, in a panic, took to social media. It was starting to get dark, and it would soon get cold as well. Ten minutes had passed since the dog vanished. Could anyone on Twitter or Facebook help?

Well, yes, they could.

A support network quickly moved into gear, overseen by the community group Waltham Forest 4 Dogs, which was established in 2013 to help make the borough as dog-friendly as possible. Its members knew what they needed to do to get Cleo back home. They shared and retweeted the call for help across the borough (their Facebook group has 2,000 members and their Twitter following is nearly 1,000). Shortly after that, timelines were flooded with images of Cleo.

Alerted to the lost dog, several local people went out and joined the search in person. Others checked national websites for reports of recently spotted dogs. Still more people used Facebook to track sightings of Cleo and guide those on the ground. About an hour after she had run away, the dog and her extremely relieved owner were reunited.

“Dog owners, I think, have a natural sense of community,” reflects Fabien Strawbridge, one of the people who founded Waltham Forest 4 Dogs back in 2013. “So when there’s a dog that’s missing, suddenly everyone is looking. When there’s a dog that needs taking to the vet, we’re not short of volunteers.”

The dedication of some of those volunteers is extraordinary. Shelagh Savage volunteers for the national charity Dog Lost, and regularly works with Waltham Forest 4 Dogs. Shelagh has helped reunite lost pets in the area for around six years, and estimates that she has recovered between 30 and 40 dogs in Waltham Forest alone (which is just one of eight London boroughs where she helps out).

When Shelagh says she is available any time, she means it. “I go out on Christmas Day,” she tells me. “I don’t care what day it is, I will go.”

Shelagh talks me through how she operates; smaller dogs may just mean searching ten roads close to their home, but bigger breeds “could be five miles away” so she and other volunteers will talk to the owners to get a sense of the dog’s habits and drive in two-mile loops around the area. Like a detective, she passes out her card to people she meets, and follows each lead.

Once she has tracked the dog down, she says the key thing is not to frighten the missing pup. Shelagh uses food to tempt the dog towards her, and then keeps still so that it does not run again. “I sit on the floor,” she tells me, “and it will come to me”.

“The reward is getting the dog back to the owner,” Shelagh says. “It’s a real buzz, better than anything you can get down the pub. We do it for the love of dogs.”

This sort of emergency help is the most high-profile work the group carries out. But it is also dedicated to making Waltham Forest a better place to own (and be) a dog. As Fabien puts it, they want to create “a community where we could join up experiences in order to build a picture of what it is like in the borough to be a dog owner.”

There is no official record of the number of dogs in the area, but estimates based on national data suggest there may be around 10,000. Like most community groups, Waltham Forest 4 Dogs was established to try and resolve a local problem. In this case it was newly-proposed Dog Control Orders, which Waltham Forest Council wanted to roll out in 2012.

A handful of dog owners in the borough were worried that the new rules would punish perfectly well-behaved pets, and were baffled by the council’s assertion that it had consulted widely on its proposals. They talked to a wider circle of local owners, groomers and walkers, but couldn’t find a single person who had been consulted.

The group – Fabien, along with Katherine Marshall, Marita Keremezo, Sarah Mooney, and Charlotte Cole – pulled together a mountain of leaflets and petitions. Their formal requests to the council, after much stalling, reached the government’s Information Commissioner’s Office. It eventually emerged that, far from a wide consultation, the orders had been designed by just two officials sitting together in a room.

Fabien realised that he and his neighbours would “need to do this in a more official capacity, so as to engage the council properly and represent local dog owners meaningfully”.

As a result, Waltham Forest 4 Dogs now works on a range of issues. They can advise owners on the best steps if the council’s dog wardens get in touch, or if you are issued with a fine. They spend countless hours chasing down the rules and regulations; do the council’s dog team have appropriate training? How often are dogs in the council’s care watered, fed and walked? And they try to incentivise the borough’s pubs and shops to welcome dogs, too. Any business which agrees is listed on their website and gets a ‘paw-friendly’ sticker for its front door, designed by Fabien.

“Without this group,” Shelagh says, “Waltham Forest would be a sadder place for dogs.” Cleo the Shitzu would no doubt agree.

Join the Waltham Forest 4 Dogs group on Facebook: