It's a dog's life


It's a dog's life

It’s a dog’s life

Ciara Moynihan

“The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, means that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.”

– Gregory Berns, reporting the results of a groundbreaking MRI study on dogs in The New York Times last October.

Dogs are, as they saying goes, man’s best friend. But sometimes man lets his friend down. Badly. Here in Ireland, our treatment of dogs has often come under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, from puppy farms to the ‘disposal’ of older greyhounds.
Thankfully, organisations like MADRA (Mutts Anonymous Dog Rescue and Adoption) exist. For years now, the Connemara-based rescue charity has been taking in stray, abandoned and unwanted dogs from Mayo and Galway and finding them homes. It regularly visits the Mayo and Galway pounds, rescuing dogs that would otherwise be put to sleep after just five days if no one claims them. In Mayo it has reduced the put-to-sleep rate down to 11 percent – a drop of almost 70 percent from just five years ago, while in Galway it has brought the rate of dogs being euthanised down from 80 percent eight years ago to 14 percent.
Speaking to The Mayo News last week, the Chairperson of MADRA, Edel Comerford explained that the charity has a good relationship with the pounds it works with. “They want to see the dogs being rehomed too … We have a very strong relationship with the pounds, and it works really well. The girl who runs the dog pound in Mayo, for example, she’s absolutely terrific. There’s such a good personal relationship between herself and Marina [Fiddler, one of the women who runs MADRA]. She’ll phone Marina and say, we’ve got X number of dogs and Marina might ask her to hold on to them for a few days until she has room or whatever, and she will happily do that for her, keep them longer than the five days so they can go to MADRA to be rehomed. It’s just great.”
Whenever it can, MADRA also takes in dogs found by members of the public – injured dogs, lost dogs, dumped dogs, neglected and starving dogs – as well as pets surrendered by people who, for whatever reason, can no longer take care of them.
Dogs and puppies have also been left tied up outside MADRA’s premises. Recently, a traumatised and terrified German Shepherd was found shaking at the charity’s gate at 6am. She had chewed through the rope that she had been tied up with, but had stayed where she was left. Dogs that have been dumped often do that: stay in the exact spot they last saw their human, waiting for him or her to come back. MADRA also rescues dogs from cruel and abusive situations.
A completely voluntary organisation from top to bottom, the charity is run by registered dog trainers Marina Fiddler and Tara Nic Dhiarmada and a team of tireless volunteers. Dogs that are taken in are spayed or neutered and given whatever vet care they need. They are rehabilitated if necessary, and cared for with plenty of food, socialisation and daily walks. The MADRA adoption programme aims to find ‘forever homes’ for all the dogs and pups it takes in.
Around 700 dogs pass through MADRA’s hands every year. The bills are high. “It costs around €150,000 a year to keep the facility open,” Edel explained. It gets just €3,000 from the Government. The rest it makes up through holding a myriad of fundraising events, running two charity shops, and selling calendars, bags, collars and dog beds.
Recently, however, it was so overwhelmed by the number of dogs and puppies it had taken in, many with injuries and illnesses requiring high levels of veterinary care, MADRA was forced to send out a heartbreaking plea for donations. “Due to the lack of funds in our account we will not be able to make our weekly trip to the pounds until we get back on our feet and money in our coffers. Considering that these pounds don’t rehome dogs directly, this is absolutely devastating for us, as these dogs are no less loving, loyal and deserving of a home than any of the other dogs that we have rescued this year,” the appeal read.
“We’re up at 40 or so dogs right now. We’re full to the rafters,” Edel explains. “The costs just seem to be going up and up at the moment – there’s more dogs, and we’re getting them in a worse condition than previously. It’s as though it’s raining damaged dogs. We get a lot of road traffic accident dogs, bitches in pup … the vet bills are massively expensive. Between feeding and vet bills, that’s where the bulk of our money goes. We’re really lucky, we get great discounts from our vets. They’re very, very good to us, but it’s still very costly.”
Thanks to the public’s response to the donations, MADRA was able to restart its pound visits,  but the situation is still critical. “The response was amazing. However, even since we made the appeal, we’ve had four more dogs that came in that needed extra special vet care, pushing the care and food bills higher and higher. For example, there was a little Pomeranian that came in from one of the vets in town. It had undergone a serious operation, but no one came to reclaim the dog afterwards, so it came to us – vet bill and all. Then we discovered it had dislocated knees … that had to be fixed too. The knees alone cost €700.
“We also had six dogs come in from the Mayo pound [at Murneen, Claremorris] last week. They’re healthy, but they’ve come at a time when the kennels are already bursting at the seams. One was a little ten-week-old Springer Spaniel. A real little dote of a thing…” Edel’s voice trails off. Although she could go on listing other cases, some get to you more than others.
Last month, a very underweight Lurcher mother and her ten tiny pups were dumped outside a pound. They were taken in by MADRA (some of the pups have been rehomed, but some are still waiting at the kennels; their mother, now named Lottie, is in foster care but looking for a permanent home). The same day the Lurchers came in, a Galway pound called MADRA to say nine more dogs were waiting to be collected; the Mayo pound phoned to say three were waiting to be collected; the dog warden brought in ‘a scared Collie boy’; a member of the public brought in a terrier he had found; a postman brought in a Labrador that had been dumped at his house; and a local businessperson brought in three little Husky pups that had been abandoned at a bog. Sadly, not all of these dogs could be taken in. There just wasn’t enough room.
“The hardest part of the job, aside from the money part, is not being able to take all the dogs,” says Edel. “To go the the pound and not be able to say ‘Load them all up, we’ll take them all’ – that’s really difficult. It’s difficult for the people in the pounds too. It’s a tough job for them. It’s a tough job for us.”

Rehoming is what MADRA is all about. The charity does its best to match dogs and puppies to new owners, taking into account the temperament of the dog and the life situation of the potential owner. “There will pretty much always be a dog for every situation,” says Edel.
“If someone’s interested in rehoming a dog from us, there’s an adoption questionnaire up on the website [], which we ask them to down load, fill out and send in. They would tell us their situation and what makes up their family unit, and their circumstances in terms of gardens and work life and so on. And they would say they are interested in X, Y or Z dog, and we would make an arrangement that if they could, they would come to the kennels and meet the dog.
“Sometimes people see a picture [of a dog on the website] and they think ‘That’s the dog for me, that’s the one I want’, and then they come out the kennels and end up taking home a completely different, opposite dog.
“We also do what’s called a home check. I think that strikes fear into the heart of every person that hears it, because somehow they think that we’re going to turn up to investigate their housekeeping skills or run a white glove along their mantelpiece to make sure everything is clean and tidy! It’s so completely not that at all! It’s not about scrutinising for every criteria, like secure gardens, it’s about matching each dog with the correct home.
“Some homes don’t have secure gardens, and that’s fine, because some dogs don’t need a secure garden, like an elderly dog that needs a place for their retirement, and just likes a little potter around with their person … Our home check is really just a case of going out to make sure really that you are who you say you are, and you live where you say you live.”
Edel has three rescue dogs, one of which is an older dog from MADRA, and she’s proof positive that older dogs can be much-loved family members and just as rewarding as any young dog. “We have three rescue dogs – two brothers we got when they were eight weeks old – but our third little addition, we’ve had her for two years now. She’s a Cavalier. She’s about ten. She was used as a puppy-farm breeding bitch before she came here. She’d had an awful life, and she was in a dreadful condition. We didn’t think she was going to live very long. She was extremely overweight, she had a heart murmur, and ulcerated eyes. But now … now she rules the roost!”
Hopefully, people thinking about getting a new dog for Christmas will consider taking in a rescue dog that needs to be rehomed. However, Edel say it’s best to avoid bringing new puppies or dogs home during the hectic few days of Christmas. “If the house is busy, with lots of comings and goings and lots of activity, it’s just not a great time for a pup to settle in. But by all means, the few weeks before hand, or the few weeks afterwards, when everything has calmed down a little bit, are no problem.”
If people are thinking about getting a rescue dog for Christmas, they could consider arranging it with MADRA beforehand – perhaps opening photos of the dog on Christmas day if it’s a surprise – and picking the dog up after the craziness of the silly season has died down. Or maybe get the dog as an early Christmas present, in weeks before Christmas starts, so it has time to find its feet (obviously if this is the chosen option, it’s time to get cracking!).
There’s no doubt that volunteering at MADRA is a difficult job, with heartbreaking cases coming in daily. So, how do the volunteers keep going? Edel doesn’t hesitate in answering. “The best thing about the job is the dog who’s been tied to the gate post, who’s found shivering and miserable in the morning, who’s 10 kilos under its proper body weight – to see that dog six months later in a picture from its new home, happy, healthy, lying on the couch, sprawled upside down. That’s what you do it for.”

Want to help?
There are many ways you can help MADRA. You could adopt a dog and give it a loving home, or you could donate to the charity through monthly contibutions or a once-off donation. Details of how to do this are on MADRA is also offering people the chance to buy a tree in a dog’s memory along a new walkway (Peggy’s Walkway) being built for the dogs, thanks to a legacy donation. A stone engraved with the dog’s name will be placed at the tree. The tree-buying scheme is being run through Horkan’s Garden Centre and Petworld.

For more on MADRA, its work, and the dogs it helps, visit or MADRA’s Facebook page.
MADRA is holding a collection day and selling calendars, Christmas cards and more in Cummins’ SuperValu, Ballinrobe, from 12-4pm this Saturday, December 7.