The secret rural sanctuary where Northern Ireland vet and partner dedicate their lives to abandoned dogs
Strays can have a difficult life, but animal lovers Olivia Kennedy and Rob Durston provide a source of hope for some through their charity, as Una Brankin found out
Brown-eyed Lucy was a grumpy stray who didn't like other dogs, apart from the three which lived and worked on the farm that would provide her with a loving home.
For years Olivia Kennedy had been begging her father for a dog of her own, when she spotted the neglected patterdale-cross terrier roaming the roads near Lisburn.
The two became constant companions. And it's because of Lucy that dozens of other dogs have been saved by Olivia from a nightmarish existence of forced hunting and maltreatment.
There are 17 - mostly lurchers, greyhounds and Staffordshire bull terriers, all well fed and healthy - residing in former pig houses at Lucy's Trust sanctuary in an idyllic rustic setting (I'm not at liberty to say exactly where, for fear of wrecking crews trying to get their hunting dogs back or stealing the pet cats for prey).
"These dogs are starved and forced to hunt small animals," says Olivia, a vet. "They don't want to kill anything, but they're only fed after a hunt. They don't go out of their way to hurt other animals or people - they're not sitting there plotting how to.
"They're very different to us. I think they have souls, absolutely. If anyone deserves to have a soul, it's a dog. They're so intrinsically innocent and good."
Olivia and her partner Rob Durston, a talented Canadian photographer, have nine cats, four horses, a fox called Grace, 12 chickens and five pet dogs - including a three-legged Labrador - as well as the 17 sanctuary residents. There's some racket when I come to meet them and I have to leave my aunt's Jack Russell, who I'm minding, in the car while I'm having the grand tour, as there's a hyper one - very cute but ferocious - who would eat him and me if he got out of his pen.
Benny doesn't like strangers, but is very cuddly with Rob and Olivia. He lives beside the fox enclosure in the garden in front of the couple's Rocky Mountain-style wooden cabin, where they light camp fires and have barbecues - their only form of entertainment. They never take holidays and fret about their charges' welfare on the very rare occasion they go to a wedding or some other event.
Olivia's widowed mother Edna (74) lives in the family farmhouse close by.
"She doesn't like the barking but she's going a bit deaf, thankfully," Olivia laughs. "She and Dad were good enough to let me have the pig houses - they're called sweat boxes - when I started Lucy's Trust in 2010. My dad has passed away since, but he did live to see us up and running."
The only dog that doesn't bark at me is Larry the lurcher, who had his voice box removed by hunters so he'd make a quieter predator. Olivia came across all kinds of such horror stories while working as a vet in Moira and Lurgan for 10 years. Slim and pretty, she met Rob online in 2006 and they run the sanctuary together, working to past midnight most nights. They see the animals as their four-legged children; they'd be hard pushed to find the time for human ones.
"There's always somebody needs out for a widdle," Olivia explains. "And we had drainage people working here until after 1am the other night. We were left a legacy which is going to transform that wee wet field. It's been a pipe dream of ours for ages."
Poor, unwanted Lucy must have thought all her dreams had come true when Olivia, then 16, rescued her from the roads. But it took a lot of patient work to socialise the black and white mutt. "Lucy was a fab wee dog. I grew up on a farm with three farm dogs and was a typical wee kid, always asking for a dog of my own," Olivia recalls. "My parents would say: 'No, no - we have enough dogs'.
"Lucy had been straying around the area for three or four months. I spotted her and tried to get her to come in. She had behavioural problems and could be aggressive, but eventually she came to stay and she never left my bedroom.
"She was absolutely fine with our other dogs - they were the only ones she ever liked," Olivia adds. "She just put up with the other dogs I brought home. I remember bringing a stray Boxer who was ill and I was worried how she'd react.
"I took him out of the car and crossed myself, but she was absolutely fine. She seemed to know if anyone was terrified and she was very, very good with him."
At 18 Olivia went to university in London to study veterinary surgery. But she was so homesick for Lucy, she had to come back for her.
"The journey was horrible," she remembers. "I had no car at the time and I had to bring her over on SeaCat in a dog box. It was a disaster - it was a rough crossing and she was terrified.
"Then I had to get the train from Liverpool to London and she was terrified of the cage, so I sat her on my knee with my coat over her. The people beside me were good enough not to say anything but she gave a wee growl now and again, and I was going: 'Ssshh, sssshh, we're going to be caught!'.
"We shared a house with a friend in London who had a dog of her own, so that was lucky. She (Lucy) went everywhere with me. After I qualified, she would come out on calls with me."
Needless to say, Olivia was devastated when Lucy died from cancer five years ago. "I was completely heartbroken. My world had ended. She was my sidekick for so long and she had mellowed over the years," she says.
"She never actually bit anyone, we always had her muzzled in public. She just hadn't been socialised. I don't know her origins but I saw a dog the spitting image of her at Ian Moore's clinic in Moira once. I think she was a litter-extra, left on the road."
Both Olivia and Rob were horrified by the recent case of Hank, the dog seized by Belfast City Council for looking like a pit bull. In Olivia's 10 years of veterinary practice she treated hundreds of pit bulls and Staffies, none of which were aggressive. She was never bitten and the only dog she ever had to put to sleep for behavioural issues was a Labrador. It was eight months old and a ball of fear, and very aggressive. Its owner thought it was funny - she had watched Marley & Me and thought the dog was just being naughty," she says with a roll of her eyes.
"There are no such thing as bad dogs, just bad people - that's well known in veterinary circles. It was very, very sad about Hank. British legislation doesn't work. It was knee-jerk, not well thought out.
"But Hank did a very good job of getting media attention and there's a clamouring among MPs now to get the law changed. The Ulster Unionists have been very vocal. I'd urge people to write to their MP and get on board. Just to show them there's public support."
Lucy's Trust works closely with an excellent animal behaviourist, Cherie Part (www.partdoguk.com).
"Our focus is now to try and keep dogs where they belong - in their own homes, and Cherie helps us greatly with that, and also with ongoing behavioural work with any dogs we rehome and any problems that may crop up," says Olivia.
"I've known Cherie for a few years, and she really is great at what she does.
"We hope in future to be able to offer more help to owners who are struggling with their pets, and help them to manage their dogs and keep them where they belong.
"We are also hoping to start a harness exchange in the near future, when funds allow, whereby people can give us their outdated prong/choke collars and we can replace them with a proper front clip harness and show them how to fit and use it properly, the aim being to improve the welfare of the dogs and allow their owners to enjoy walking them."
In an effort to raise awareness about the plight of dumped dogs, a growing problem here, Rob recently 'abandoned' Olivia in the wilds for the day with a Go Pro video camera to record her journey, in which she mimicked what she believes happens when an animal is dumped by their owner, and goes looking for them.
The resulting video, showing Olivia avoiding people and cars, like a stray dog would, is extremely poignant.
"We aimed to try and highlight what it is really like to find yourself totally alone. Not knowing where you are, or when you will eat again, or even where you can take refuge if the weather turns bad," says Rob.
"Olivia didn't know when she would be picked up during her journey. There are so many dogs that are dumped year on year, day on day, week on week, across the UK and Ireland, and across the world, and nobody really thinks about what goes on in their wee heads, what do they experience when they realise my owner's gone and I'm here. There are no reasons to dump a dog.
"If we can make one person think twice before taking that lead off and driving way, then we've done our job."
Rob and Olivia will be attending the forthcoming rally against Northern Ireland's controversial dog breed laws organised by Hank's owners. The legislation led to another family pet, Lennox, being put down in 2012.
Donations to Lucy's Trust can be made by Paypal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lucy's Trust: a happy, healthy canine haven
Lucy's Trust was formed in "memory of the best dog in Ireland" in 2010, initially in response to the growing need for rescue space for dogs from Craigavon pound.
Run by vet Olivia Kennedy and her partner Rob Durston, the charity has changed over the years to become predominantly a sanctuary for dogs who cannot be rehomed due to behavioural issues, or those which are in most need of a rescue place, and/or assistance to overcome their difficulties to become happy, healthy dogs once again.
Rob and Olivia pride themselves in providing a stimulating and enjoyable environment for the dogs who find sanctuary with them. The dogs are kept in pairs where possible, allowing them to have constant companionship.
Due to the bite history of some of its residents, Lucy's Trust cannot accept volunteers at the sanctuary for insurance reasons. However, it can be supported in other ways - it constantly need duvets, blankets, sheets, toys and treats, and donations of these items are gratefully received.
It is also always in need of help to raise funds so that it can keep the dogs healthy by purchasing a consistent nourishing diet and also to upgrade facilities so the dogs can get as much out of their time there as possible. Lucy's Trust cares for the most overlooked dogs, in the belief that all dogs matter, regardless of their history, breed or behaviour.
It undertakes to help the dogs in greatest need of rescue space, currently mainly lurchers, greyhounds, Staffordshire bull terriers and also behavioural cases.
Lucy's Trust is a 'no kill' shelter: any dog that finds its way there has a home for life, as Olivia and Rob do not believe in putting a healthy or curable animal to sleep.
All of the dogs are fully vaccinated, microchipped, neutered/spayed and wormed and defleaed before leaving the sanctuary.
Lucy's Trust can be contacted on Facebook, or by email email@example.com, and followed on Instagram lucys_trust