There isn’t much Sir Tony Robinson hasn’t achieved since his rise to fame in Blackadder…and now he’s added ‘Westie owner’ to his list of achievements.
“Westies are like Mini Coopers, small, but boy have they got an engine!” says Sir Tony Robinson after observing just some of the personality traits his rescue Westie, Holly Berry, has slowly chosen to reveal to him and his wife Lady Louise Robinson since rescuing her some eight months ago from the Abbey Street Rehoming Centre, an independently funded branch of the RSPCA Derby & District of which they are now both Patrons.
Following the loss of their terrier Winnie (a Yorkie Dachshund cross) around four years ago, Sir Tony and Louise were keen to adopt a rescue dog they could ‘share’.
“It took my wife much longer than me to get over Winnie’s death as she was always very much ‘her’ dog rather than ‘our’ dog for no other reason than I was always away filming. Having such a lovely time with Winnie and learning a little bit about dogs and from having the responsibility for Winnie I really wanted to have what I felt would be a dog of my own, not that it wouldn’t be Lou’s dog, but that we could find a dog that we could share”, he says.
The couple were determined to find a rescue dog and searched for some time hoping to stumble across a potential match.
“I think the more I got to know about animals the more I felt we all have a responsibility towards those dogs that are already alive and while there may be reasons why potential owners feel the need for a pure breed, I think everybody needs to ask themselves very seriously why wouldn’t I have a rescue before deciding which path to go down, that’s what we felt, and we came to the conclusion we wanted a rescue”, he says.
A Hollywood Moment
After searching online and just a few weeks into the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Louise spotted a potential match at the RSPCA Derby. While rescuing a dog involves numerous procedures, the fear of the spread of the virus meant some details such as home checks were being conducted online and eventually after plenty of video meetings the partnership was approved.
“About halfway there, I was dying to go to the loo, so we pulled into a service station. Now, even before COVID-19 most public loos at service stations were closed. I hadn’t really intended to go in to the RSPCA because everyone was starting to get slightly nervous about Covid-19 and I was going to sit in the car but I had to go in so I quickly asked if I could use their loo and when I came out the lady from the RSPCA just plonked the dog in my arms and I thought, yeah, this is it and we went out into a little holding area and I was just sitting there talking to the dog and my wife came over, saw the two of us together, and just burst into tears. It was a Hollywood movie moment that we’d always wanted. I remember a very old film starring Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood called, Love with a Proper Stranger, and she says in the film, ‘What I’ve always hoped for was bells and banjos’, and that’s what our moment was with Holly Berry”, he recalls.
Holly Berry, 7 1/2 years’ old, was a quiet and very serious little Westie that would take time to settle however enthusiastic her new owners might be to give her a better life.
“When she first arrived, it was so upsetting to see her go anywhere near food as she would just defend her territory like crazy and eat it all down. You’d have to keep your hand out of the way, not because she was deliberately going to bite you, but because she just had to get that food down her. She had clearly been starved. Now, she’s a real lady and a bit of a fusspot.”
In some ways Covid-19 proved the ideal time for Tony (he’s kindly told me I don’t have to keep calling him Sir) and Louise to offer a permanent home to Holly Berry as it provided the time and space for them to bond with their new canine pal.
“I could bond with her very quickly in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do at any other time and it also meant we were absolutely able to focus on bringing her back to life again both psychologically and as far as her medication was concerned. It was absolutely fantastic because she was so quiet to start with and it really took the first six months before she came to life again.”
Like a Japanese paper flower that blooms once it’s placed in water, Holly Berry began to thrive slowly leaving her previous miserable life behind her.
“All the things she had learnt earlier because when I say she was a rescue dog neither me or Lou have pressed the RSPCA about that and I think probably quite appropriately that they were perhaps reluctant to share with us precisely what she’d gone through, but when we first saw her, she had hardly any hair on her body whatsoever, she was a bit like a plucked chicken from Sainsburys. Her eyes were very poor, and she had skin issues. Her hearing wasn’t great but now she’s fully furred apart from a little bit of fur missing on her tum. She’ll always have a bit of a problem with her eyes, but she’s got the correct medication. Her hearing seems to be spot on – except when she doesn’t want to hear what I’m telling her.”
Those Less Fortunate
It is clear Holly Berry has been an absolute joy in the lives of Tony and Louise as the pair have watched her character re-emerge. Unfortunately, it appears many dogs rescued during Covid-19 have been less fortunate with some owners returning their rescue dogs back to shelters perhaps because the novelty of having a dog quickly wore off. Others have had justifiable concerns such as financial troubles and have had little choice.
“I think that’s absolutely true. I looked at a piece of research from the Dogs Trust that the last time, I think it was in 2008 when we had a financial crisis, the number of dogs on the streets absolutely rocketed because people could no longer afford to keep them and tragically a lot of dogs were abandoned. Of course, there was also a huge problem with housing them as far as charities are concerned because with the best will in the world every animal charity wants to help animals in any way they can, but also there has to be a time when they have to say no because they simply can’t.
“I think one of the things I would ask all dog owners to do (if they’ve got a little bit of money available) is to think about giving a little bit of it to a dog charity. I know a lot of people are really on the rocks because of COVID-19 but actually there are quite a lot of people who haven’t spent as much as they would normally spend and have still got their jobs and it may well be worth thinking about making a donation to a dog’s charity in order to deal with this problem because with the best will in the world, however much we might admonish potential owners not to abandon their dogs, some people will”, he states.
The other thing people can do is to consider fostering a dog.
“Obviously, there are procedures, but you can pour an enormous amount of love into them, and you can help make them better and you don’t have to have the responsibility of looking after them for a long, long time. It has been absolutely rewarding for us adopting Holly Berry and although I would certainly be cautious about suggesting anyone have a dog in lockdown as there are lots of issues around it, there are bonding issues, not just with yourself but with the possibility of not bonding with other people and dogs, but if you really are ready to take on this kind of responsibility and if you are genuinely buying into the idea that this dog is for life then it’s wonderful,” he says.
One thing Tony Robinson believes is that if the public understood more about dogs, there would be more of a willingness to look after them and to give them what they need to thrive.
A History of Dogs
“One of the things I’m very keen on doing, and I’ve talked to a number of dog charities and a number of programme makers about this is doing a history of dogs in order that people might understand what it is they’re buying into so that we can discuss the psychology and the relationship with dogs and human beings. You can learn a lot from the archaeology of buried animals, how they’re buried. You know, the mummified cat, I’m absolutely sure wasn’t about cruelty, it was people who loved and respected their animals having them mummified. The number of animals, dogs, horses, who are buried alongside people we assume are their owners, there’s a great lineage, and I think the more we understand what dogs are, how that relationship has developed with people, the more we might gain some kind of understanding about our relationship with them and what kind of responsibility we might have now. A job I can do is to make people think about dogs a bit more rather than just responding with a gut reaction about how cute they are, which is understandable, but it isn’t always the best thing”, he says.
The ongoing debate about what is best to feed Westies whether it’s raw food, kibble, air-dried or vegan, continues, although Tony isn’t falling into the trap either way.
“To be honest, I think that’s more about the preference of the owner than it is necessarily about the dog. If you see virtually any dog in the street, whatever it has been fed on, it’s going to revert to being what it’s always been which is a scavenger. I can understand the morality of people not wanting to feed their dogs meat-based products, but I suggest that most dogs, if they were to have a vote on it, would simply say, can I have whatever is nearest to me, please?”
A Friend for Life
While Tony and Louise’s relationship with Holly Berry continues to grow, it’s clear they have gained as much from adopting Holly Berry as she has from being in a loving home.
“I’m convinced and I’m sure other Westie owners will have had the same experience; I just genuinely feel that she trusts us, and of course in a sense I spoil her too much because I love her to pieces but I’m also aware that one of the real things about love is it’s got to be tough love as you’ve got to be able to say no to your dog and you’ve got to (my wife is laughing in the background now) but I genuinely believe it. It’s just funny things, the other night for the first time she was asleep under the coffee table, and I told her it was time for bed, and normally she would just jump up, but she didn’t want to go to bed, and she just feigned deafness! My message to your readers? You clearly have the best breed of any dog breed so you’re the luckiest people in the world and never forget it!
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