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Border Collie Rescue - On Line - Shetland Tess

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This page is the Shetland Tess story

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Tess - a stray border collie bitch from Shetland
Tess had spent just over 4 months, from September 09 to February 2010, as a stray. Running wild on Staney Hill overlooking Lerwick on the Shetland Islands
This past winter has been particularly bad on Shetland, with heavy, prolonged, snowfall and temperatures down below -15c on some occasions.
Tess came to us on 15th March 2010 - this is what we know of her background before that date.
We understand she had been kept on a farm to be trained as a sheepdog but did not show any interest in herding so in September 2009, she had been given away to a lad to be kept as a family pet. Within a week of him taking her home, she had run off and in spite of all his efforts, she would not come back to him.
He organised family and friends and went out searching for her to no avail, so he notified Shetland Islands Council Dog Wardens.

Tess had gone missing on Staney Hill, high ground  overlooking the town of Lerwick on the main Island of the Shetlands. The uplands here are sparsely populated and there is plenty of room to get lost or stay out of sight.

In spite of efforts of dog wardens and many local people, Tess had vanished and remained out of human contact for long periods of time. On the odd occasions she was sighted, she stayed well out of reach, running away if people approached her.

It is difficult to say why she was so reluctant to seek out human company and contact as she must have been hungry and cold. There does not seem to be any indications of abuse, neglect or bad treatment in her past. It is possible that the reason she originally ran off was a desire to find her way home, and having got lost and confused became reluctant to allow herself to be taken in by a stranger.

Many dogs brought up on farms have little contact with humans other than those they live with so have a natural distrust of people they are not familiar with.

During this period she must have caught rabbits and other small animals for food, scavenged outbuildings, eating whatever scraps she could find. She must have found some sort of shelter because she survived the extremes of the weather and was not seen or heard for long periods of time between occasional sightings.

On the odd occasions when there was a sighting, Ian Taylor and Ian Isbister, both Assistant Environmental Health Officers for Shetland Council would drive up into the hills in the pick up, sometimes alone, sometimes together and sometimes with others, to try and coax her in.

Over the long months of winter a number of organised and spontaneous searches were carried out by local people concerned about the ability of a small dog to survive outside in the harsh winter environment of the Shetlands.

Tess managed to avoid all attempts to catch her (and most attempts to even spot her) until January 2010 when particularly severe weather, probably combined with the lack of any rabbits above ground to catch to eat, forced her down from the high hillside closer to human habitation in her search for food and shelter.

We are told that a local resident had left an over ready chicken on a door step for a short time (although we are not clear why!) and when they went to collect it, the chicken had gone. Later Tess was spotted in the distance and after that she was seen on several occasions hanging around. She was also heard at night, howling but would still not let anyone approach her.

She showed the will & ability to survive, gaining the respect of people who also had to cope with the harsh Shetland conditions, but the weather was not improving and if she was to be sure of surviving winter something would need to be done quickly.

Ian Taylor and Ian Isbister decided the only course of action left was to try and trap her. The Council agreed to the plan and they sent for a professional humane dog trap, which was loaned by Animal Health in Inverurie and the SSPCA helped ship it over from the mainland. Once in possession of the trap they placed it in the area she had been seen hanging about and baited it with some gammon.

It worked, she was hungry enough to go for the food and the trap sprung.

An interesting observation extending from this episode is her present reaction to dog crates. One would half expect her to be wary of them, having been trapped by one and loaded into a van - a situation she had spent 4 months avoiding. She also travelled down to us in a specially built flight case. But she is quite relaxed about dog crates. Happy to sleep in one at night, goes freely in and out of it during the day and will store her biscuits under her bedding in her crate, popping in to retrieve them when she feels like eating them. She is not stupid, on the contrary, but the experience of the trap has not left her with any lasting concerns.


It was now February 2nd, and having caught her at last, the first port of call was Lerwick Veterinary Practice for a check up. They were surprised at how well she had survived her time alone on the hills. She was a bit underweight (14.5 kg) , but fit and muscular. Temp 101.5.

It was noted she was in season (which may have been another reason she came down from the hills). it was also noted that she had a healed scar and loose flap of skin on her right cheek and lip, the result of some prey putting up a fight.

They wormed her, treated her with Frontline and vitamins and fitted a collar.

She went to the local pound and the dog wardens contacted the lad who had taken her from the farm to be his pet. Understandably he was reluctant to risk going through the same experience again and decided to sign her over to the Council so they could re-home her.


The Council pound where she was held was not a massive kennels, however she was not settling particularly well, would not eat from a bowl and was not eating the dog food provided and showing every indication of wanting to be off again.

They were faced with a dilemma. Tess had a nice nature but many social problems and needed rehabilitation and training before she could be re-homed. The Council was not empowered to provide such services and funding to keep her in kennels was not a bottomless resource. The only option was to find a dog rescue charity that would take her in and perform the necessary duties of care.

The other alternative would be euthanasia, a course of action neither they nor the Council were happy to consider. The irony of saving her from a death on the hills only to be put down because she could not be found a home was not lost on them.

They had all gained great respect and admiration for this little dog's spirit, her will to live and ability to survive against the odds.

Ian Taylor contacted the rescue on the mainland that normally took the dogs they could not re-home on the Island, but was told that in view of her problems they could not help Tess. He then tried other rescues further away with similar results, until one of them told him to contact Border Collie Rescue.

Ian phoned us at the beginning of March and told us her story. He did not put pressure on us and did not say that if we could not take her she may have to be put down, he simply told us about her and asked for our help.

We get dozens of calls a week from people needing to find new homes for their Border Collies and we always have a lot of dogs waiting to come in, however we try and give priority to dogs like Tess.

Over the years we have come to specialise in re-habilitating dogs with social problems and are fully aware that many rescue centres are not set up to provide such facilities and would consequently turn such dogs away.

It did not take us long to reach a decision and we agreed to take Tess in

Distance could have proved to be a problem, particularly as some of the travel required passing over a stretch of water!  Various options were discussed.

Initially, as soon as it was agreed we would take her, the priority was to make sure she was going to be safe from infectious diseases if moved to a new area, so it was back to the vet on the 4th March for the first stage of vaccinations and another check up to make sure she was fit to travel.

It was agreed that she would then remain in the pound for at least 7 days for the vaccinations to take some effect.

There was some concern as she had lost weight and condition in the kennels and it was obvious that the experience was stressing her. With this in mind, Ian Taylor approached the Council, backed by Jim & Fiona from Lerwick Veterinary Practice, to ask for consent to have her flown from Sumburge airport on the Shetlands to Edinburgh airport where we would arrange to collect her. This would greatly reduce the travel time involved and would be much smoother than using the ferry service, therefore reducing any stress she could experience on the journey.

To ensure safe travel a regulation standard air freight dog crate would be needed, but they are expensive, and the cost of having it returned to them empty also expensive, so they arranged for a local craftsman to build one especially for her which she could stay in until we got her to the centre in York.

During the time we were making the arrangements, we had sent them a microchip pre-registered to Border Collie Rescue and they arranged for the vet to implant it.

The date was set for 15th March and her ETA at Edinburgh would be 5.20 pm, allowing time for unloading and clearance to be ready for collection at 5.45 (ish).


Over the preceding days there had been many calls and emails between us and Ian Taylor on the Shetlands while we worked out options and finalised details.

We were gaining a great deal of respect for Ian as, in spite of a heavy workload, he was dedicating a lot of time and effort to get it right for this little dog. He had given us his home number and we knew much of what he was doing was outside working hours. His wife was also very understanding when we interrupted meals!


On the morning of the 15th we recieved an email from Logan Air confirming the flight arrangements and a little later a telephone call from Neil at North East Air Cargo, who were handling her transport, confirming arrival and collection times and what paperwork was involved. We sent the van off at 12 noon, to allow plenty of time, with two people, Nicki Oliver as 'handler' and Mike Cooke as 'driver'.

It is never wise to transport dogs with just a single person in case of any emergency or accident.

Tess was put aboard the plane at  around 3.15 and Nicki recieved a phone call from Ian Taylor on the BCR mobile to confirm she was in the air and on her way.

It must be said that Tess could not leave the Shetlands without causing a final bit of excitement. By one of those unusual coincidences that arise in rescue work, the man handling her departure and paperwork from Sumburge airport happened to be someone who had adopted a dog from us a few years ago. He was more than surprised to be confronted with a dog in a flight case with an address on it with which he was already familiar and contacted us later to express his delight in being part of the process that got her safely to us. So many people have been touched by this little dog and so many have played their part in her rescue.

Tess touched down without a hitch and was collected at the arranged time. By 6pm she was on the road down to Yorkshire. We have no photos of this stage of her progress, but Mike did get some video of her on the van at the airport and on arrival at the centre which can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

The initial impression NIcki Oliver got of her was that she was a friendly and quiet little dog who was obviously frightened and intimidated by her experience but was coping very well. Nicki has a quiet way with dogs and was able to coax Tess to the front of the travel crate and get a good look at her, even managing a tentative contact at the airport. She travelled back to Yorkshire without a murmur with Nicki speaking to her from time to time in a reassuring manner.

Having got her back to the centre - by that time it was 10.15 pm - NIcki climbed into the back of the van, shut the doors and got her out of the crate and onto a lead and then out of the van. An initial stop in the orchard to relieve herself and then into a small room in the house where her quarters were prepared for her.

An examination of the travel crate showed it to be dry and clean. She had not messed or chewed or clawed to escape. She seemed to have done very well.

Once in the centre it was obvious that she was very frightened and intimidated, seeming to freeze up initially, however after a few minutes with Nicki she had relaxed enough to wag her tail and take an interest in her surroundings. She was given a small meal and allowed to settle behind a mesh panel that allowed her to see what was happening in the room beyond while people kept her company until midnight before retiring to bed.

She spent the night quietly and the next morning NIcki took her out to our secure paddock area where she could be allowed off lead without fear of escape. As the photo opposite shows, she was very intimidated and spent a lot of the time skulking or laying flat on the ground trying to be very small.

It was decided that we would take the next couple of weeks very carefully and allow her time to get used to us and her surroundings before she was subjected to any assessments, external socialisation or contact with other dogs or new people - or even more photos. But she was to show us she was made of sterner stuff than we initially gave her credit for and she has made brilliant progress  - as the video below will illustrate.
Tess - a video case history
Our thanks go to all of the many who became involved in her rescue, but particularly to Jim and Fiona at Lerwick Veterinary Practice for all their work on her behalf and for seeing her potential, to Animal Health in Inverurie for the loan of the dog trap and to the SSPCA for helping to ship it over to the Islands and, last but not least, to Ian Taylor and Ian Isbister, Assistant Environmental Health Officers for Shetland who, along with Shetland Islands Council, showed consideration and humanity, going the 'extra mile' to make sure this spirited little dog has a chance of a secure future.
It is wonderful to see all these agencies working together to successfully bring this situation to a satisfactory conclusion.
After all Tess has been through and her obvious fight to survive, she has earned and deserves all the help we can give.
The video conclusion of Tess's story can be seen below the 29th March update or by clicking here
The therapy used on Tess, by Nicki in this video, is called the Trust Technique, To find out more about it, use the link below.
Trust Technique Website
A short version of the Tess story has appeared in The Scotsman
Shetland Islands Council webpage about Tess
Northern Echo Story
Tess has also been on Yorkshire, Tyne Tess and Scottish TV news - many people have phoned to offer her a home.

Update - 29th March onward


15th April 2010

Since the above video was broadcast on 29th March, Tess has made great progress and has now been with us for a month.

Over this last two week period we have gradually increased her intake and variety of food and now she will eat anything we put in front of her from her bowl (and is not beyond a little thievery to supplement her diet - old habits will die hard).

She gets two meals a day + little snacks in between and biscuits at night. Her snacks are wholemeal bread with low fat spread (for additional vitamins and oils). She is exercised gently and regularly to keep her muscle tone up. All in she has gained 2.5 kilos since she came into our care a month ago.

Her confidence has grown and although she will still start at a sudden movement or noise close to her, this is no longer blind panic, more of a reflex survival reaction. Noise, on the whole, does not seem to worry her much now. She takes absolutely no notice of bangs in the distance, gunfire or bird scarers and household noises that originally scared her now have little or no effect on her at all, other than to arouse and stimulate her curiosity.

Once she had settled in and was confident with Nicki and Mike at the centre, we started to gradually expose her to more people. Her accommodation in the house was a small room that looked out onto the 'dogs room' which is a large through room where people and dogs come and go all day.

The door to this retreat has a metal mesh panel that fits it and allows dogs inside to see what is going on. At the back of the room is a deep shelf, under which is a covered crate where she (or other dogs) can go if they feel the need and have a sense of security being enclosed in a den like environment.

This facility allows shy dogs to see what is going on but feel protected from it. If they feel insecure they can go to the crate and watch from the back of the room. If bold they can watch from the doorway. The mesh panel works two ways, it keeps the dog in and, as far as the dog is concerned, it keeps threats out.

Tess has responded well to meeting her first 'new people' because she has been able to observe then first from this secure area. When they come face to face, they are not unfamiliar. This has helped her accept them more rapidly.

From this she has graduated to meeting total strangers without fear. In the pictures above / left she is meeting a young lad she had never met before and enjoying it.

For the first couple of weeks we would not allow her free run off the lead outside of a secure area. This is advice we give to anyone taking on a rescue dog so we would be daft not to follow it ourselves.

She has been allowed to run free in the secure paddocks and grazing areas, and has displayed no inclination to leave Nicki's side so we have been able to allow her a great deal more freedom in the last two weeks.

She frequently accompanies Nicki on her rounds as she works in different areas of the centre and has complete free run of the place, although we would not (yet) leave her outside unaccompanied.

This additional freedom has allowed her to broaden her experience with other dogs by meeting every one of them currently at the centre. It has also allowed her some additional experience of meeting people in different situations by coming into contact with other volunteers as they go about their work with the other dogs.

As she has got to know the routines she will sometimes run ahead and wait for Nicki to catch up but when she reaches a place where there is a choice of direction to go in she will wait until she sees which way Nicki is going to pick and then carry on. She has become quite adept at predicting where Nicki is going next.

This behaviour is interesting in that she only displays it within our centre's boundaries. The photo on the right shows her leading Nicki over to the quarantine area to feed the dogs there.

Her behaviour off the lead outside the centre is different.

We are lucky in that there are a lot of farm tracks around the centre where dogs can be taken on longer walks and Tess has done many miles on the lead, and now off the lead. Outside of our own area she walks close to, and slightly behind, her handler as can be seen in the photo below.

She has adapted her behaviour in these different situations herself as she is aware that Nicki is more concerned about where she is outside the centre than inside.

It really is an indication of her willingness to adapt and please her handler - a typical Border Collie trait. At heart she is a very obedient little dog who just wants to get it right.

She has had two sheepdog assessments so far. She is obviously very familiar with sheep and will walk through a field of them without a glance left or right. If asked or prompted she shows that she has had some basic sheepdog training as she will do a light little outrun and will adopt the 'pose' of the working dog and 'eye' the sheep.

It is clear this is more a wish to please than a drive or desire to herd or work livestock. Really she would rather not bother - she would prefer not to and she has no real drive or incentive to herd. It is easy to see why she was deemed a non worker and offered as a pet.

Great, if that is her choice we will be happy to go along with it!

We are approaching other formal assessments carefully, trying to gauge the speed of her passage through rescue to fit the time it is taking her to develop her confidence. This is not something that should be done quickly on any dog - unless you are going to base your conclusion on incorrect assumptions. An inhibited dog will not behave normally and it is normal behaviour we need to see.

There has been a fair bit of grooming going on, an experience she seems to enjoy and which has helped her bonding.  Also, inside the house we have been acclimatising her to various household appliances, most of which scared her when she first came across them.

TV is fascinating to her. She has now seen both sides of the camera as a TV crew from the Yorkshire Television 'Calendar' program contacted us about doing an article on her story.

We briefed the reporter, Mike Hill, before he arrived with a cameraman to film her. We were unsure as to how she would react to the equipment and to two total strangers.

It turned out that Mike was quite a tall man - and the cameramen was not small either! Big tripod with big black camera and a microphone in a big furry wind shield. They were both very sensitive to her and the initial introduction was conducted outside and very carefully. Within minutes she had accepted them and was running around the orchard more or less ignoring them.

They got the footage they required and took away some of the footage we had filmed previously. The following day her story was broadcast on Yorkshire, Tyne Tees and Scottish TV.

She was loose in the house when one of the broadcasts went out and came rushing into the dining room from the sitting room where the TV was on. She was obviously excited and we followed her back into the sitting room and saw her on TV.

At first we thought that she had recognised herself, but quickly realised she was reacting to the sound of Nicki's voice coming out of this box and the sight of Nicki on camera being interviewed. She looked from the screen to Nicki with obvious puzzlement. You had to be there to appreciate it!

Curiosity is one of her great driving forces and it has helped a lot in speeding her rehabilitation. Although she may be wary of the 'unknown', often her curiosity gets the better of her and she has to work up the courage to investigate.

In the picture opposite there is a young Spaniel in the crate in the back of the car. She knew something was going on but could not see from the ground. Eventually she worked up the courage to have closer look and satisfy herself as to what it was. Just a Spaniel. Once she knew she ignored it.

She is quite a serious dog and does not seem to have learned to play. When other playful young dogs try to engage her she simply backs off and eyes them with mild amusement. She does have a sense of humour and reacts positively to laughter and chuckling. She is slowly warming to invitations to play.

She has also found her voice at last and will greet us in the morning with a throaty 'urrffing' sound which she uses when she is excited or if she wants to attract attention.

Other examples of her 'need to know' have been caught on camera. The picture on the left shows her balancing on Mike's knee in the office to see what he was doing on the computer. Below shows her exploring and investigating the dining room.

In the house she has been clean and careful, although she would steal food if she could. Having said that, if we eat in front of her she does not demand food from us and will not try and steal food from other dogs bowls - however if our old Dot tries to steal food from her bowl, she defers to her and allows it.

This is a great improvement on the little dog that guarded every morsel with its life when she first came in.

Another aspect of her broadening experience is life outside the centre. We are remote and quiet and in order to show her more of life she needs to get out and about a bit. She has travels a long distance, but in crates, so we have taken her out in the van a few times and into Stamford Bridge on a couple of occasions where she has been able to meet people outside the shops, see them walking on the pavements and see the traffic on the main A166 road as it passes through. It's very clear that she has had some experience of being inside a vehicle before she came to us and she really enjoys travelling around, looking out at the world passing by.
Nicki has given Tess a couple more short sessions of the Trust Technique to keep her relaxed, receptive and boost her confidence and self reliance. Tess has responded very well and her progress has been so good we are considering potential homes for her from applications on our lists. We feel pretty confident that if her progress continues at this pace she will be ready in less than a month. Whoever we pass her on to will have to be capable and prepared to carry on as we have, gently and carefully guiding her to self confidence and independence yet creating a wish within her to bond and value their friendship and company. They will be rewarded..

So after a long day exercising, learning new things, having new experiences, eating, meeting new people and ignoring the sheep, Tess likes nothing more than to get her head down, have a snooze and relax in the company of friends, secure and confident no harm will come her way and tomorrow - she can do it all again.

We received this email from Hazel Holland, resident of Shetland, on 23rd April.

I am just another Joe Bloggs who lives in Shetland.  I was driving from the country into Lerwick to do my shopping one January morning and passed a poor, sad, scruffy dog peering at me through a fence. Such sad eyes, I just could not forget that wee face.  On the homeward journey I parked my car, got the piece of meat I had bought, climbed over the fence and started to look for my sad friend.  No luck.  The following day it was snowing so I just had to go back and have another look, dragging my husband, the meat, a blanket and a box. We hunted all over and still no sign of my friend.  Unwillingly we went home.  I have never forgotten his soaking wet wee face.  Would you believe it, weeks after, I opened the Shetland Times and there was my dog, with a name, Tess and her full story. What a relief!  Now I have discovered your web-site and there, again, is Tess.  How fantastic everyone has been, so generous with their time and money. Thank goodness there is still good in this world, I lose heart sometimes. You have given so much patience and time with Tess she looks a different and very happy dog, and at last I can sleep at night in peace knowing she was saved and living the life of Riley.             Sincere thanks to everyone involved.            Hazel  


The video story of Tess from April 2010 onwards is below and includes an interview with her new owner after she was re-homed.
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