Early May 2012 and I was off on my travels again to do my bit as a dog carer for charity, this time a little closer to home than usual and with no guaranteed sunshine. I had chosen to spend a few days in Northern Ireland’s beautiful countryside and to volunteer at a small privately run dog rescue kennels near the town of Ballymoney. I first heard about this place through a relative who lives in the area and spends much of her time driving backwards and forwards to collect their dirty dog blankets for washing, as they have extremely limited facilities onsite.

Benvardin Animal Rescue Kennels, or BARK as it is known, was formerly a USPCA rehoming centre but they opted out in August 2010. An extremely dedicated and longstanding member of staff, Louise, could not bear to see it close so she and her partner Shaun made the mammoth decision to take the centre on themselves. After negotiating with the local council, they secured an initial five year agreement for the premises and set about building up their current excellent reputation.

The system regarding stray dogs differs in Northern Ireland from that of England and dogs are taken to council pounds, where they remain for fifteen days. Sadly, the reality is that many of these dogs are never reclaimed by their owners during this time and are often destined for euthanasia. BARK’s primary goal is to collect and rehome as many of these dogs as they are physically able to cope with. They currently have only one regular volunteer who works full time so the three of them certainly have their work cut out.

A typical day involves arriving early in the morning, letting the dogs out from their kennels into the outdoor runs so that the inside areas can be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. There are several kennel blocks to be covered as all incoming dogs are kept in an isolation area for ten days, due to the risk of them introducing kennel cough, parvovirus or other highly infectious diseases. Their standards are extremely high and the work is physically and emotionally draining. The dog’s meals are prepared in a small primitive kitchen area, which desperately needs updating as part of their planned programme of improvements. Meanwhile, Shaun starts his daily rounds of vet runs and collecting soon to be new residents from the pounds, which can involve travelling a huge number of miles, at great expense to the charity. He also personally carries out all home visits to prospective adopters once they have chosen their new pet. The kennels are open to the public during the afternoon and then the cleaning routine begins again. Louise has an amazing affinity with all of the dogs in her care – they adore her and she gets to know each individual’s personality extremely well prior to looking for a suitable home. All dogs are neutered, vaccinated, microchipped and licensed with the council (a legal requirement in this area) prior to being rehomed. BARK’s adoption fee barely covers these costs. They can also be providing food for around 60 dogs at any one time.

When Louise and Shaun finally make it home, their evening is spent caring for their own dogs and replying to email enquiries, updating their facebook page with details of new dogs available and those rehomed that day and also attending to any current fundraising events. Since taking over the shelter less than two years ago, BARK have rehomed and rescued an impressive 1200 dogs.

During my time at the dog kennels, I was lucky enough to make numerous new canine friends (and a few human ones!) and also spent time walking some of those who had been resident there for the longest time. My favourite was a lively Labrador called Bob who has had surgery to his eyes, funded by BARK, and is now desperate for a forever home.

One of BARK’s current aims is to substantially improve some of the buildings. They have already upgraded several of the dog areas but now need further facilities due to the run down state of some of the buildings. They desperately need to put together a dedicated and reliable team of fundraisers as they simply do not have enough hours in the day to continue doing everything themselves. At present, they have organised most of their money raising events on their own and also run a highly successful car boot sale every Sunday on land at the premises. This summer, there will be a sponsored dog walk in a neighbouring country estate and there are also plans for a sponsored cycle ride. Having spent the past four years fundraising for animal charities myself, I know only too well that the time required to organise, promote and host such an event is enormous. They take no holidays and cannot afford time off. Volunteers at the kennels come and go but finding reliable help proves tricky as many are fair weather workers and simply do not realise just what is involved.

My time at BARK was short but sweet. I have worked in numerous animal establishments over the years and have seen varying standards in operation but was hugely impressed by all that BARK have achieved so far. Voluntary work for local dog care charities is hugely rewarding and also provides a great social life with like minded people, whether in a hands on capacity or behind the scenes and even if just for a few hours each week. I have no doubt that I will return to Benvardin in the not too distant future but meanwhile, my next charity adventure will be back to the slightly warmer climes of Cyprus in August!

You can watch a short video about Benvardin’s work by visiting youtube and searching for Benvardin Animal Rescue Kennels, or visit their website www.benvardinkennels.co.uk or look for them on Facebook.