Small and cuddly or big and scary, if there's a homeless mutt out there that needs rescuing, one man will stop at nothing to help. Even if it means dog-napping...
He was standing in the middle of our lawn. A big dog. A very, very big dog with a mane of hair like a lion.
I started rescue work because I love large breeds like this, and here was a magnificent specimen. But nothing can quite prepare you for coming face-to-face with a recovered guard dog, especially one that is staring at you intently.
To the rescue: Barrie Hawkins with two Alsatians he saved from neglect
If it is possible for a dog to have a glint in his eye, then this German shepherd did. And I knew exactly what he was thinking - a pale-faced, bespectacled male with middle-age spread like me was not going to be a challenge.
Lion-mane dog was brought to us by Cecilia, a friend who rescues smaller breeds. And at times like this, I can't help wondering why we don't take in friendly, tail-wagging little spaniels, too. But there is something about big dogs - and German shepherds in particular - that appeals to me. For a start, few other rescue organisations will take them, or any other guarding breeds. And who can blame them? That afternoon, the only way I could stop Digby, as we later called him, from lunging at someone, was to throw myself on top of him.
But far from being naturally aggressive, these animals are intelligent, quick to learn - indeed, some of them have more brains than their owners - and desperate to please.
My wife, Dorothy, and I already knew that first-hand, and it was when our beloved German shepherd Elsa died that we decided to take in the dogs nobody wanted. It was our way of giving back some of the love and happiness we had enjoyed.
In 1993, we brought back the first rescue dog to our bungalow in an East Anglian village. Monty was an 11-month-old black German shepherd whose owner, John, was homeless and couldn't look af ter him anymore.
Monty would do anything for food, and one of the first times I took him out for a walk, he rushed over to a parked car before I could stop him, climbed through the open passenger door and stole the shocked driver's sausage roll.
Shaggy dog story: Twenty Wagging Tales: Our Year Of Rehoming Orphan Dogs, by Barrie Hawkins is out now
When I tried to feed him, he would get so excited to see a food bowl, he would leap into the air to try and get it. One day, he sprang off his back feet, head-butted the bottom of the bowl like a footballer and it ended up on my head, with the contents - tinned tripe - all over my hair and shoulders.
Our second dog, Pearl, a beautiful white German shepherd bitch, came to us because her owner had terminal cancer. I will never forget that visit.
We didn't know what to say as the owner sat there and said: 'I'm not afraid to die, Mr Hawkins. I'm just afraid of what will happen to my dog when I do.' She needn't have worried - Pearl was rehomed with a young policeman and his wife, who both doted on her.
There are many reasons why people feel they can no longer look after their dogs, and we have heard most of them. Sometimes, people take on a dog they can't handle. One such dog, Bo, was due to be put down when we took him in. He'd been labelled a 'biter' and there was no hope for him. But we soon realised he snarled and barked because he was scared. His previous owner had been cruel to him, and that's why he wouldn't let anyone get close. It only took a week to gain his confidence. For the first two days, Dorothy simply sat outside his pen reading, so that he could just get used to her being near. Then, by day three, he let her into the pen without barking. The first time she threw a ball for him, he looked at her as if she were demented, because no one had ever played with him.
Other dogs are unwanted gifts, like the five-week-old puppy we took in a few days before Christmas. Or they are abandoned because they are old and infirm, like Thor, who was found tied to the banisters a few days after the owners had moved.
I've also been guilty of dog-napping. Jess was a young German shepherd in perfect health with a lovely temperament, but the owner wanted him destroyed because his girlfriend had left him and he wanted to get back at her. So, after a tip-off from the vet, I drove down to London to collect him and took him back to East Anglia with me.
I never doubted for a second that what I had did was morally right. There was no valid reason to kill this dog, and to do so as an act of vengeance was despicable.
He went on to live happily with a detective chief superintendent and his wife until he died.
It's a costly business, rescuing dogs. At first, Dorothy - a business consultant - and myself - a law lecturer - funded it all. Now we are registering as a charity, and hopefully we can raise more money.
Most heartbreaking are the cases where the animal has been badly treated. Sometimes, the abuse is so bad, the first sight of the dog disgusts me and makes me wonder how human beings can be so cruel. One such animal was brought to us by Aki, a kind-hearted Japanese student, who found him lying in a west London street. This poor dog looked a hundred years old, and had sores on every leg. When I put my arms around him, it was like gathering up a framework of bones. Never in my life had I felt so sorry for any living-thing.
We called him Friend, and when he came back to visit months later with his new owners, I didn't recognise him. Before I knew it, I was crying as I remembered the hours I'd spent with him, willing him to get better.
I always get so emotional when the time comes to say a final farewell to dogs we have rescued. Monty left us to live with a lovely couple and, as we said our goodbyes, he offered me his paw and gazed at me for a while. Then he tilted his head first one way then the other. He'd been with us for just three weeks but as the tears started to fall, I knew exactly how long it takes to love a dog.
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- Extracted from Twenty Wagging Tales: Our Year Of Rehoming Orphan Dogs, by Barrie Hawkins, is published by Summersdale, £7.99. Barrie Hawkins, 2009. To order a copy (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.