Man’s best friend, a partner for life, Rover, whatever you call your dog, losing him can be devastating – but what happens when the owner outlives the dog? For many years, dogs left behind by the deceased would end up as strays, escaping the now vacant house in which they were left, especially in the case of those with no direct next of kin.
“If there’s no friends or family and say no one can look after the dog,” says Phil Simmons, head of the ‘Canine Care Card’ of Dogs Trust, “then that could possibly happen.” In days gone by, he continues, if family members called the 127-year-old pet rescue charity, “it would just be what we would call a normal rehoming. If someone rings up we would make sure a centre has space before hopefully bringing them in, with rehoming obviously there can be a bit of a waiting list so there’s always that problem.”
The Canine Care Card was introduced over 25 years ago, and though Simmons insists “obviously we’d always try our best to get a dog in, especially if somebody had passed away”, those at Dogs Trust at the time “saw this problem, so that’s why we kind of formalised it and made it a service”. He describes the service as “very well established” and explains it has always been a free service, will remain so, and has gained recognition because of how well it chimes with the charity’s slogan: ‘Never put a healthy dog down’.
The process is simple – dog-owners call in to express interest, and are sent a form to fill in with relevant information about their pet or pets. Name, age, how they are with people, what kind of home would best suit their dog. “Because they know their dogs best,” say Simmons, “and they can describe their dog’s personality.”
Dogs Trust then sends them a ‘donor-style card’ to put in their wallet, and then “they are registered on to our scheme”. Simple. “So we’ll have the details about the dog and then if anything were to happen to them, we do ask that they put their wishes for their dog in their will as well.” Should the worst happen, the executor of the deceased can call the number on the card, and the Dogs Trust will take details of where the dog is at that moment and make sure it is safe to travel. All dogs in this situation are taken to the nearest rehoming centre and given a vet check and full medical.
“They will then be at the rehoming centre and hopefully, rehomed. If they for some reason aren’t rehomed they would always stay at that centre, and be cared for by staff. But hopefully, the main goal is for them to be rehomed to a loving family, so that’s the best possible outcome.”
What about those who have left instructions in their will? Simmons says the Canine Care Card does not supercede the owner’s will, and he is keen to point out that “we would never step in the way” of someone’s will, describing the card as “almost like a backup” for those with will plans for their dogs.
Importantly for owners who may be interested, the scheme is totally free. “It’s in line with our mission,” says Simmons, “just another way to help another dog and ensure that it goes to a loving home and they’re not stray or abandoned”. It is thought the number of dogs helped by the scheme is in the thousands over the 25 plus years the scheme has been running.
What can the pet industry do to help bereaved dogs?
The Dogs Trust does not rule out sending Canine Care Card forms to pet shops and breeders to promote the scheme. Simmons says “raising awareness” is key to ensuring that dogs are not forgotten about after the death of an owner. On what pet retailers can do, Simmons says “we want them to make people aware of [the scheme], as it could benefit someone or give someone piece of mind”.
Asked what central message he would want to send to the pet industry, he says: “Thinking about the future, like you would think about friends and family in the will, think about dogs. They are family to owners, it’s ensuring that owners think about [their dogs] in the will. Making sure that every family knows where they want the dog to go and where they want the dog to be cared for.”
Canine Care Cards are currently stocked at veterinary surgeries, and Simmons reports vets emailing to request 15 or 20 to distribute or display. “We certainly do that, and the best way is to speak to your local centre.”
Thankful dogs and their new owners
Amongst the thousands rescued elderly dogs usually struggle to find a home in comparison with young pups due to the obvious issue of life expectancy. When the Canine Care Card comes to the rescue of a bereaved dog, often he has been by the side of his owner for years and is himself elderly. A recenr example of this case, say the people at Dogs Trust, was a 15-year-old Lurcher, Frankie, who was able to find a new home as a result of the Canine Care Card. When Frankie first arrived at the Evesham branch of Dogs Trust he was clearly mourning his owner according to staff at the centre, however trained carers were able to bring Frankie back to his sociable old self.
At the time Shauna Stedman, supporter relations officer at Dogs Trust said: “We’re really pleased that Frankie is able to have a second chance at happiness through the Canine Care Card scheme. Many dog owners worry what might happen to their dog if they were to pass away first, leaving their beloved four-legged friend without an owner. However, the Canine Care Card scheme offers reassurance to dog owners, and also helps to ease the minds of friends and family during what is already a distressing time.
“For those who sign up to the scheme and sadly pass away, Dogs Trust will arrange for their dog to be taken to the nearest rehoming centre with kennel space, where they are examined by our on-site vet and cared for by our dedicated staff until we find them a new loving family.”
Despite his age Dogs Trust’s Canine Care Card scheme was able to find Frankie a brand new home.
Some dogs do not always go straight to new homes after being rescued by the scheme however.
Another dog that came in as a result of the Canine Care Card was 10-year-old Jack, a Jack Russell Terrier. Jack struggled with the loss of his owner a lot more than Frankie and reacted with intense grieving upon arrival at Dogs Trust’s West London branch. Volunteers at the centre decided Jack was in too bad of a state to be rehomed and instead was put into the temporary foster care of one of Dogs Trust’s specialist carers. After spending a short while with the foster carer Jack was ready to be rehomed and was quickly taken by a loving new family.
Simmons explains one of the updates to the Canine Care Card introduced the ability to register more than one dog to a person. The rule proved handy shortly after its induction after two nine-year-old best friends were bereaved and sent to Dogs Trust Manchester, which insisted on making sure the dogs were not split up, in accordance with their owner’s last wishes.
Lesley O’Donoghue, deputy manager of Dogs Trust Manchester’s rehoming centre said at the time of the pair’s arrival: “It was so sad to see them at first as everything they knew had been taken away so suddenly. They were obviously much loved as their owner had registered for our Canine Care Card which means when an owner dies, we are able to take care of their dogs immediately. Luckily despite what they’d been through they settled in really quickly and as long as they’re together, they’re happy.”
Those in the pet industry wishing to get involved with the Canine Care Card can contact Dogs Trust through the email address firstname.lastname@example.org or via the telephone number 0207 837 0006.