Gazette reporter James Willoughby visited dog-rescue charity SHAK to meet the team and spend a day in the life of a volunteer.
A big dog stands at the gate, before jumping up to give dedicated SHAK worker, Richard Johnson, a huge lick.
This lovable German shepherd looks happy, content and full of life.
“That’s Axel,” says the charity’s founder, Stephen Wylie, as he passes by.
I’m blown away and a massive smile spreads across my face; staggered at the transformation of this pooch, which was once at death’s door.
In December last year, I wrote about this courageous dog, shortly after he arrived at SHAK.
Like many taken in by the animal sanctuary, Axel’s story was heartbreaking.
Found as a stray in the West Midlands at the start of November, stricken Axel was severely underweight through sheer neglect, tipping the scales at a painfully light 21kgs; a dog of this kind should normally be between 38 and 42kgs.
The emaciated pooch was in such a bad state that he had a body score of 1.5 out of 5, was badly dehydrated and very cold, had no muscle tone and was suffering from a horrible skin infection.
Needless to say, the pictures of him made for grim viewing.
But things have changed dramatically since SHAK took him on, and I was delighted and surprised to see such a transformation in the space of six months or so.
Thanks to SHAK, Axel looks healthy and full of fun – and there was some meat on those bones too!
Amazingly, this dog, which arrived at SHAK requiring a muzzle, trusted me – a stranger – enough to give him a treat or two.
Meeting Axel in the flesh, and seeing how his life has changed since being cared for by the guardian angels at SHAK demonstrated just how crucial the charity is and what a vital job it does.
Indeed, Stephen – who founded the sanctuary just over 11 years ago – admits: “If we weren’t here, 80 per cent of these dogs would be dead.”
It’s a horrifying statistic; but yet another reminder of the great work that is going on here, bringing dogs back from the brink who, through no fault of their own, have been abused, mistreated or neglected.
SHAK is named after Stephen’s beloved pet dog and ‘best friend’, who died suddenly and unexpectedly, prior to him setting up the charity.
Following the creation of the sanctuary, SHAK became an adopted acronym for Safe Homes and Kindness.
After spending a few hours helping out, you realise it is a fitting phrase.
The kennels are in a rural location just outside Alnwick and, as you pull up outside, you can hear a chorus of barking.
The facility, which has recently been modernised, is currently home to just over 50 dogs of varying breeds, having arrived in various states.
Life as a SHAK helper is a full-on experience, but one which brings with it a huge amount of pleasure.
In the space of just a few hours, I have cleaned kennels, washed bowls, replaced blankets, topped-up food and taken numerous dogs out on a walk in the countryside – complete with poo bags, of course!
It is a continuous operation, which is repeated day in, day out. It is a labour of love, in the pursuit of giving these once-stricken dogs the chance to live a happy, healthy life.
One of the fascinating things about my time at SHAK is watching the team interact with the dogs and seeing just how they have taken the time to learn the personality and individual traits and needs of each dog.
It’s a crucial factor.
Indeed, each animal is treated differently, with personalised care and attention – whether that’s coaxing a dog out of its kennel in a certain way, feeding it a particular amount a day or even giving it a certain toy.
This attention to detail comes from love, dedication and, most of all, perseverance.
It’s not always easy and there are some challenges along the way, but each member of the team tells me it’s worth it, especially when they see the end results.
Take Eden for example. Born in a Romanian dog shelter, this terrified pup spent her days hiding between a pallet and kennel wall, facing away from the horrors and appalling conditions that she was exposed to on a daily basis. She had never been outside in 18 months and had been robbed of all confidence in humanity.
But having arrived at SHAK earlier this year, she is getting there, slowly, but surely; learning to trust and beginning to interact with other dogs and the SHAK team.
To put things into perspective, Richard describes the moment that little Eden felt rain for the first time.
He says: “We were out with her and it started raining. She didn’t know what it was and she was fascinated by it.”
Eden is, perhaps, a truly special case, but experienced Richard, 28, from Glanton, has seen it all during his three-and-a-half years at SHAK; first as a volunteer and, more recently, as a full-time worker.
As we spend some time walking a few of the dogs along a track in the stunning Northumberland countryside, he explains his passion and reasoning for helping.
“It’s the difference that you make and seeing how each dogs progresses,” he says.
“I think Axel has been one of the biggest success stories – he has come on so much.”
Indeed, having spent a few hours at SHAK, and having spoken to some of the helpers, there is one word that stands out among others. Rewarding.
That single word crops up time and time again, and it is easy to see why; playing a part in transforming these dogs’ worlds.
Take Lynn Whinfield, from Longhorsley, for example.
She only joined as a volunteer two weeks ago, but she has already fallen in love with the job at hand.
The 55-year-old, who took early retirement, said: “It is brilliant. SHAK does such an important job and you don’t realise just how much until you see it for yourself.
“It is very rewarding and it is nice to show these dogs some love. That’s all a lot of these dogs want – love.
“I would definitely encourage people to become volunteers.”
Help, after all, is crucial and central to what SHAK does; whether that’s manpower or donations in the form of food, blankets, equipment or money.
Volunteers are needed who are not only fully prepared to give practical help cleaning kennels, feeding the dogs, assisting with exercise and generally helping with a variety of tasks, but who can demonstrate a willingness to help in all areas.
With the individual needs of each and every one of these abused dogs being paramount, all volunteers must be willing and able to take direction, work under supervision and to be able to reliably commit to at least two shifts per week.
The early shift is 9.30am to 2pm, while the late shift is noon to 5pm.
Stephen says: “We are in need of reliable, dedicated volunteers to assist with the daily hands-on duties involved in caring and rehabilitating severely traumatised dogs.
“Our aim is simple. Rehabilitate, reassure and restore confidence.
“We concentrate all of our time, energy and resources directly into the wellbeing of our dogs, enriching lives that others had written off.
“The hundreds of dogs whose lives have been changed because of the loss of SHAK – my dog and best friend – is testament to a dog that had a lasting imprint on everyone he met.”
Indeed, it is the best possible legacy. And thanks to SHAK’s approach, hundreds of dogs have been saved, and many more will be rescued and given another chance at life in the years to come.
To find out how you can help SHAK – which has its headquarters along Greenwell Road, Alnwick – and for more information, visit the SHAK website.