How an abandoned stray wandered into home of JOHN LEWIS-STEMPEL – and transformed his family’s life


La Roche is exactly how you would picture a small village in South-West France. Red-tiled roofs, quaint shutters, a cat picking its way slowly across the square towards the mairie in the bright winter sunshine.

My wife Penny and I live in what locals call ‘La Maison Toute Seule’ (The House All Alone), hidden at the end of a track by the forest.

One morning in late October, our two dogs — a puppyish female black labrador, Plum, and a stately male border terrier, Rupert — started barking uncontrollably at something beyond the stone wall of the front garden.

The usual cause of such canine commotion is the escape of our pony Zeb, the Harry Houdini of horses. So I grabbed a lead rope, marched outside and opened the wooden front gate. But instead of Zeb, there was a bedraggled and aged golden labrador.

Her eyelid was cut; her eyes were full of despair. I looked up and down the track for her owner. Nobody. My stomach sank.

The French have a terrible habit of dumping dogs. Indeed, they top the European league table for abandoned pooches, at a rate of 60,000 a year (compared with 16,000 in the UK, according to the RSPCA). French dog-owners often just don’t want to pay for kennels or settle their vet bills for ill and old dogs.

This is a country in which the state is so omnipresent and munificent, people are aghast at the thought of paying for anything other than themselves.

John Lewis-Stempel with Freda, 22, and his rescue dog Honey, who was found abandoned in the forest behind his house in South-West France and adopted by his family 

So out the door goes Fido, despite dog-dumping being illegal and theoretically carrying a two-year prison sentence. Alas, like many laws in France, this is rarely observed in actuality.

No one was there. But perhaps the dog had wandered up from the village?

I gave her a tickle under the chin, fetched her a bowl of water, which she lapped up greedily, and shut the gate.

Fifteen minutes later, I went to check that she had wandered off home. But she was still by the gate. Still looking tired, still hungry. So I invited her in.

She hobbled over the threshold and into our garden. As well as being exhausted, she was suffering from arthritis and as fat as a buttered croissant.

Her untrimmed claws looked like an eagle’s talons. She came in, sat and raised her paw. I know labradors are genetically engineered to play on human emotions but this was unbearable. Surely no one could have abandoned such a lovely, gentle dog?

She wolfed down a bowl of dog food and a family conference ensued (like everyone, we have been Covid-affected and our adult children, Tris, 26, and Freda, 22, have spent much of 2020 unexpectedly back in the family nest).

First, Penny did the obvious thing. She phoned Jean-Louis, the village’s unofficial elder and a labrador-owner himself, to see if he knew of a missing dog.

Non.

So, next we put the dog in the back of the car and took her to the vet in town. After all, French dogs aged over four months are required by law to be identified by a microchip or tattoo.

Also, all French dogs are obliged to be registered with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, and their owners must possess an ID card — a Carte d’Identification de Mon Animal.

At the surgery, the vet, Charlotte Monat, opened the doors to usher out an elderly couple carrying their bloodhound with a row of criss-cross stitches down its leg.

‘Nous avons trouvé cette chienne . . .’ I said, signalling to the boot. Mme Monat’s lips tightened into a grimace of resignation and she went off to fetch the microchip scanner.

The elderly couple we’d just encountered, it turned out, were retired Germans, living locally. Their dog had been abandoned, too, but on a roadside. ‘You have to do something for these dogs,’ the woman said, flicking her finger backwards and forwards between the two pathetic pooches.

Mme Monat scanned for microchips, checked for ID tattoos. Nothing. She gave a Gallic shrug of despair.

‘Her health?’ I asked. Again, there was that Gallic shrug. ‘The back legs, obviously . . . The eye cut is nothing.’

By law, abandoned or lost dogs must be reported to local mairies — the town halls nearby. We agreed with Madame Monat to divide out the notifications between us.

But the elephant in the room — or rather, the portly labrador in the car park — was, who would look after her while it was determined whether an owner would come forward or be located?

‘White Dog’, as the family were starting to call her, could have gone to the local pound. But how nice would that be for her, hurt and bewildered?

‘Nous la gardons,’ I suddenly said to Mme Monat. We’ll watch over her.

By the fireside: Honey lazes comfortably. Who would look after her while it was determined whether an owner would come forward or be located?, writes Mr Lewis-Stempel

By the fireside: Honey lazes comfortably. Who would look after her while it was determined whether an owner would come forward or be located?, writes Mr Lewis-Stempel

A fateful moment. My daughter Freda has a love of looking after animal waifs and strays, which never seem to leave.

As a child she used to give her Christmas-present money to the Dogs Trust charity and slept with her miniature Jack Russell, Snoopy, under her bed. Even today she tells everybody: ‘I grew up in a family of eight — four humans and four dogs.’

Her dogginess must have rubbed off on me.

On the way home, we stopped by the town pharmacy to buy some dog wormer and flea treatment. ‘Forty-four euros!’ I lamented in my grumpy father voice — about £40.

White Dog sat in the boot, happily looking out of the window.

Back home in the afternoon rain, I walked off with a photo of White Dog to ask Philippe, the farmer across the fields, if he could identify her. From the vantage point of his tractor cab he sees and knows everything. He is the village’s oracle.

As it happened, he was coming the other way along the track, hidden beneath his green plastic cape, on his way to check the sheep.

‘We found . . .’ I began in French, showing him the limp A4 photo.

‘Yes, I saw her in your courtyard,’ he replied. ‘I also saw a car in the forest in the morning. 75 plates.’

Ah, Paris plates! This was the first day of French Lockdown 2.0 and over the previous 48 hours, tens of thousands of Parisians had fled for the countryside — at one point traffic around the capital stretched for a cumulative 430 miles.

This was also not the first time dogs had been dumped in our forest — last summer a black labrador passed the house, frothing at the mouth, thin and too traumatised to accept our offers of help, beyond a few thrown biscuits.

Back at the house, further difficulties were beginning. Perhaps White Dog was abandoned because she was sick?

I guessed her age to be about 12. ‘Think this might be palliative care,’ I whispered to my wife.

But if it was the end, we would make it a wonderful last few days or weeks for White Dog.

In case she was harbouring an infectious disease, we decided to quarantine her for 48 hours in the grassy courtyard with its cosy stone shed, away from Plum and Rupert.

Home for keeps: Honey with dog-mad Freda, who built her a shelter by the back door and has cared for her ever since

Home for keeps: Honey with dog-mad Freda, who built her a shelter by the back door and has cared for her ever since

However, she staunchly refused to go into the shed, despite plenty of food and a bounty of blankets piled a foot deep. She only wanted to sit by the back door, even when the two days were up.

So Freda built a temporary kennel from wood and tarpaulin to keep her warm, and eventually we managed to entice her into the house — where on entry she immediately peed all over the stone kitchen floor.

A rescue dog, I realised, is not a blank slate: White Dog’s brain was imprinted with her past.

And it did not take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that she had probably been kept all her life in a yard — she had no conception of ‘inside’ etiquette. She hardly seemed domesticated at all. As soon as any shopping was put down, she would seize the baguette. When the food ran out, she raided the bins. And once, scoping our chickens, she drooled and proceeded to give keen, if lumbering, chase.

I was never expecting our new canine companion to understand English but it soon transpired she did not even comprehend French either, or indeed universal dog sign language such as palm flat-in-face for ‘stop’. She was completely untutored.

But can you teach an old dog new tricks? Yes, we discovered, with kindness and tiny bits of Emmental cheese as a reward. After two days with us, she even went outside to pee.

She was very patient with us. Inspirationally so. Throughout everything, she looked at us with what seemed to be a smile on her face. Freda, who has always wanted to be a dog-rescuer, shampooed her, took her for walks, cut her claws. White Dog lapped it up.

In France there are rules about everything, including dog abandonment. Any pup unclaimed after eight days is to be rehomed — or, sadly, put down (about 50,000 unwanted French dogs and cats are euthanised annually).

The statutory eight days came and went . . . and nobody came for White Dog, even after several weeks had passed.

But I am glad they did not.

We have since adopted her and given her a real name: Honey. The choice was my daughter’s, the dog’s new official owner. But, rather beautifully and unbeknown to Freda, my very first dog, when I was seven, was a golden labrador also called Honey.

The past year hasn’t been the best. But sometimes when Honey rests her paw on my leg, requesting a stroke, I wonder whether we rescued her or if she rescued us.

I write this from the sitting room, with the sofa pushed back to make space for our now three dogs, blissed out in front of the fire. Thanks to Honey, our lives are fuller. Better. Hers is too.

‘Hi Honey,’ we say to the new member of the family. ‘You are now home.’

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