London-based canine charity Dogs Trust cares for more than 16,000 stray and abandoned dogs each year in its 18 re-homing centres, and through various preventative programs implemented a decade ago has helped drastically reduce the number of dogs put to sleep from approximately 32,000 to 6,000 annually.
But CEO Clarissa Baldwin, who began her career with Dogs Trust in 1974, says that the organisation isn't complacent: "We've got to bring the 6,000 down to zero."
The charity, founded in 1891 under the clunkier moniker National Canine Defence League, began supplementing its re-homing efforts with neutering, microchipping and educational programs in 2000. "We didn't just want to be a soup kitchen," Baldwin says. "We don't just want to put a sticking plaster over the wound." The organisation now spends about £5 million a year on those programs, which include offering free (or inexpensive) neutering vouchers to people in low-income areas, promoting the use of microchipping to identify and help reunite dogs with owners, and sending teams of education officers into classrooms to lead workshops on responsible dog ownership and safety.
In 1994, Dogs Trust began providing vaccinations, flea treatments and other care to dogs whose owners are homeless, through an initiative called the Hope Project. "We don't like to think of dogs used as begging bowls," Baldwin says. "But we do know that these dogs absolutely adore their owners and the owners absolutely adore their dogs. So it's a wonderful symbiosis and we just want to keep the dogs healthy." Another program, called the Freedom Project, provides temporary foster homes for the pets of people escaping domestic violence.
Dogs Trust has also been working to encourage landlords in both the private and public sectors to allow pets into their rental homes, since financial hardships have forced many dog owners into non-dog-friendly housing situations.
"We like to think we're on the side of the dog," says Baldwin. "They do so much for humanity, from teaching children with autism to helping youth offenders and prisoners, to serving as guide dogs for the blind and hearing dogs for the deaf. It's quite incredible, the list of things dogs do for humans, and it's right that we treat them with respect and dignity."
Baldwin has been moved by the letters she's received from parents observing the dogs' ability to improve the demeanor of children with autism and their capacity for bonding. She's also found unlikely outlets for placing Dogs Trust's charges. "I was interviewed by Eamonn Holmes on 'Sky News.' And he said, 'Do you think I'd make a good dog owner?' I thought it could have been a publicity stunt, but he came back with his family and they just re-homed a dog."
Baldwin penned the slogan "A dog is for life, not just for Christmas" back when she worked in the charity's public relations department, in response to the many puppies given as gifts and later neglected by owners who don't bother to train them. "The puppy bought at Christmas, by the spring, is out of control. And then big bouncy dogs come pawing through our doors."
In fact, for those who want to help the cause but can't commit to a full-time companion, the organisation offers the chance to sponsor a dog for just £1 a week -- visiting rights included.
Baldwin has long championed the health benefits of dog ownership: "Dog owners go to the doctor less. They live longer. They're happier people. Why don't we all have dogs?"
For more information on Dogs Trust, visit dogstrust.org.uk.