I drove 3,000 miles to fetch a rescue dog…then it ran away! It was an odyssey like no other, and for KATE SPICER, it was a journey that tested her sanity

  • Kate Spicer was told her Lurcher Wolfy may live another two or three years
  • Writer who lives in London, decided to get another dog to help her anxiety 
  • Ibizan warren hound Blanca, tried to escape during their journey from Spain

My beautiful lurcher, Wolfy, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure a few weeks into the first lockdown. Medication for life and we might get another two or three years, said the vet.

Around me people were losing lives, livelihoods and basic freedoms. I was gutted, but knew I was lucky. We’d give Wolfy a good final few years. My dog has defined not just my personal life but my professional life, too. In 2019 I wrote a bestselling book, Lost Dog, on how adopting him had helped me sort some bad habits and find purpose in my life. The book was optioned by a Hollywood producer, a writer started work on the script as we went into lockdown, and last summer Netflix bought the screen rights. There’s every chance it will become a feature film. Wow! What a dog. He has been my shadow for six years, I adore him.

I knew I’d miss him for ever, but the pain at the inevitable death of a pet is part of love and life I reasoned. Yet, as the year went on my mood changed: an anxiety was rising in me due to many things, like missing and worrying about my parents and siblings, and fretting about work and finances, but it was an increasing obsession with the end of Wolfy’s days that had me lying awake at night, heart pounding.

Kate Spicer who lives in London, travelled to Spain to fetch an Ibizan warren hound named Blanca, after her Lurcher Wolfy was given two or three years to live. Pictured: Kate with rescued B

Big existential question marks hung in the air: ‘What’s the point of me?’ If I drank more than a glass of wine to escape the drudgery of my thoughts, I was disproportionately ill. I spoke to a shrink, tweaked my HRT, tried acupuncture. I felt a bit better, but not much.

My hunch was that the cure was to get another dog.

In a lull between lockdowns, last October I went to Ibiza, where a friend told me of a woman with a podenco (Spanish hound) that needed rehoming.

Juliette Smeet fosters dogs waiting for adoption. Among the dogs that greeted me at her Dog Space was this pink-nosed, white-faced girl with a skull the shape of a bicycle seat. She had huge bat-like, tawny, speckled ears and piercing amber eyes. This was Blanca, an Ibizan warren hound. I would call her Bufo or B for short.

As soon as I met B I knew she was a special dog and that she would fit well into my life with Wolfy. But Juliette wanted time to ensure I, and London, was right for this highly sensitive hunting dog that knew only life as a stray or in a cage. I promised to do preparation and to spend time with her so she would not be traumatised by being shipped to London to a complete stranger.

Back home I shared pictures of her with friends and family, who were far from universally pleased for me. They all said one, two or all of the following: ‘Ah, she looks beautiful/huge/a handful.’

My boyfriend was thrilled. Our shared passion for Wolfy had been a great bonding aspect of our 11-year relationship. During tough times, it had held us together.

The inevitable happened. Red tape. Brexit meant I could not ship her back without obstruction; Covid had ended direct flights out of Ibiza, so her journey would be a tortuous two-day trip in a box, while a DEFRA change in animal transportation laws meant the number of vans available to take her through the Channel tunnel was reduced.

Costs were insanely high, or the journey time inhumanely long.

Kate drove her 15-year-old Mini Cooper to Portsmouth, before embarking on a 30-hour ferry to Santander on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Pictured: Kate and B, with Wolfy on the right

All the signs suggested I should give up. Instead, in early December, I messaged Juliette saying I would fetch the dog myself.

I knew driving 3,000 miles was impulsive and childish. I knew I wasn’t in a great state of mind. I could hear the voices of disapproving others in my head: ‘She did what?! During a pandemic!? Shouldn’t be allowed!’

But I wanted to give B a home; I wanted something to nurture; and I wanted some relief from the constant noise of this pandemic.

For a week before I left, I spent hours on Google Maps and ferry timetables. I took my first coronavirus test, topped up by a new one every time I crossed an international border.

I was ready enough, and on December 8 I packed up my 15-year-old Mini Cooper, drove to Portsmouth and left on the 30-hour ferry to Santander on the Atlantic coast of Spain.

I’d treated myself to a premium cabin (£130) and the voyage was unexpectedly delightful, like being on a deserted ghost ship with free canapés.

As I drove from the west to the east coast, crossing through forests, mountains and arid high planes, I had a precarious sense of naughty freedom. As I drove, I’d get lost in thoughts that I was doing the wrong thing.

Sometimes I got geographically lost, too. Forget the scenic route, I just hammered down motorways. I stopped one night in a hotel outside Tudela, a medieval town where Covid restrictions had removed any warmth, hospitality or, indeed, evidence of life.

Kate admits she wasn’t in the best state when she arrived at Juliette’s, where she was due to stay before taking B home

After four days of travel I arrived at the port in Deia on Majorca with a renewed respect for long-distance lorry drivers.

Here, for the first time, a slightly menacing port official asked for my Covid test results.

‘Why are you going to Ibiza in el pandemia?’ he said, with contempt and sarcasm.

‘Because I am going to fetch a dog,’ I told him.

‘Why you buy a dog in Ibiza? You don’t have dogs in UK?’

‘Because no one in Spain wants her and if I don’t take her she will be killed,’ I said.

This wasn’t entirely the truth, but true enough to shut the guy up. The Spanish attitude towards their indigenous hunting dogs is abhorrent — estimates suggest 100,000 a year suffer hideous deaths, many of them by publicly celebrated hanging when their hunter owners are done with them. (Their ‘training’ is sadistic, too, involving starvation and torture).

The ferry arrived in Ibiza around 9pm. Having driven about 700 miles in two days, I was not in the best state when I arrived at Juliette’s, where I was due to stay to get to know B before taking her home. Juliette told me, grumpily, that I was late.

I was shocked, but apologised, pointlessly British and polite. We had not got off to a good start, and over the next few days my fragile mental state crumbled further.

B was gorgeous, loving, sweet, funny, gentle, but also wild, wilful, shy and fast. Juliette picked over my poor dog husbandry skills and questioned everything I did. I panicked, making stupid mistakes. Juliette said: ‘I think you are a very insecure person; perhaps you re not strong enough for Blanca.’ I felt like I was being taken apart on some reality TV show.

Kate said B vomited continuously on their journey, as her satnav directed her up winding mountain roads instead of the motorway 

After six days on the island, I walked B to the car. She hated cars, and was frightened, pulling away from the Mini at the end of her lead. This strong pull would become very familiar to me.

Juliette kissed her and I realised she’d also fallen in love with B — no wonder I was not good enough. I forgave her harshness then: I know what it is to love a dog. In that moment, truthfully, I didn’t think I was good enough either.

‘Don’t lose her,’ said Juliette. ‘Promise you’ll send her back to me if you can’t cope.’

‘I won’t lose her,’ I said.

Everyone advised a crate, but a dog that’s a metre from paws to ears doesn’t fit in a crate in the back of a Mini. Instead, I put the back seat down and attached her lead to a hook in the roof.

She stood there drooling, ready to eject the first of many pints of vomit. For a while she stood, tail fearful between her legs, eyes the picture of misery and terror. Then — the relief — she lay down. She still looked desperate and sad but she was, at least, safer.

Setting off on the long journey home, I felt a weight lift. B and I could start our life together now.

I would make mistakes but also do good by her, I knew it.

I decided to return through France and after the nine-hour ferry to Barcelona, my satnav took me, not via the motorway, but up winding mountain roads through the Pyrenees.

B vomited continuously.

When her stomach was empty, she carried on with a frothy fishy-smelling bile and I nonsensically apologised constantly as I concentrated on the dark, twisty roads.

She had no idea what was happening, but I hoped she might slowly learn that I would protect her, feed her and we were a team.We stopped at a small hotel in the Pyrenees, and when I took her out for a wee, she immediately shot off, dragging me after her at a swift trot on the lead.

Kate said she became mildly traumatised and began to lose confidence in her ability to own B, one morning during her four days’ respite 

She is a very strong animal. I tried to lure her back with treats. When that failed I picked her up, all 28kg (over 4 st) of muscle and bone, and carried her up a hill that would make a great red ski run. My back hurt, I stank of sick, I was fearful and exhausted.

The dog felt the same, but was even more baffled and afraid.

I rerouted to stay with my friend’s mother, Doreen, in rural Lot, southern France, to gather my strength.

I needed to calm down. It might be steadying for B, too. Fat chance. B was incredibly gentle and good in some ways, but also frightened and with extremely acute primal instincts. I simply didn’t have the command, knowledge or confidence to make her go where I wanted.

Dragging just made her stick harder. Often, I carried her. Combined with all the driving, my back hurt more every day.

One morning during our four days’ respite, when I took my poor confused girl outside, she led me forcefully to the nearby forest. To a hunting dog, a forest is a powerful stimulus. I couldn’t let her go in there. I turned back to the house, but her paws drilled into the ground.

She was like a skinny white oak tree, going nowhere while I sat on the grass, unable to coax her back, unable to cry for all the adrenaline in my system. By now I was mildly traumatised, had lost all confidence in my ability to own this dog and was having something approaching a polite breakdown.

I had a phone session with a London dog behaviourist, who gave me advice on reinforcing what I wanted B to do with my body language and how to use food effectively as a lure. She was practical and kind. That helped.

But it got worse: that night, B escaped. I blamed myself, entirely. I didn’t know that podencos are the Houdinis of the dog world.

Kate admits she blamed herself when B escaped, revealing the dog had opened two doors including one with a lock 

She had opened two doors — one, I kid you not, with a lock.

As we searched in the darkness for a streak of high-speed white, the shame I felt at the stress I was causing Doreen, at failing B, at the overwhelming idiocy and hubris of the trip, was sickening. Juliette’s last words echoed over and over. I could not have hated myself more.

In the end we went back, put mince at both doors and waited. While my head was screaming, my gut told me she would come back.

We sat for an hour, knuckles white, then I felt a ghostly presence behind me. There was B, covered in fox poo, looking at me cautiously.

I crouched down and said soothingly: ‘Hello Boof’. She moved closer. We double-locked the doors and gave her some cat food (which she loves). Doreen and I hugged and cried.

That awful moment of escape, which could have been the death of B, made me realise I needed a lot of dedication and training skills with this animal, but . . . she wanted to come back. She didn’t want to leg it. She hopped on the sofa and slept.

I stayed another 36 hours before bundling B in the car and setting off.

As we approached the UK, on December 21, the country was closing down due to the new Kent variant. The M20 was shut, with queues of lorries trying to make it home for Christmas. Getting back, with B, felt like a miracle.

It’s now more than two months later. It has taken both of us that long to recover our confidence, but the training is going well with the assistance of an expert in podencos.

It took me a long time to find her but her advice is extraordinarily effective.

Kate revealed B (pictured) now sleeps a lot at her flat in London and has started bonding with Wolfy in their dog-to-dog way

We know it will take time — a year she said, but it’s worth it.

B enjoys her life and loves to play. She and Wolfy are slowly starting to bond in their dog-to-dog ways, and sometimes curl up near each other. At home, in my London flat, she’s easy and sleeps a lot, like an extremely large cat. (I am writing this with her asleep at my feet with her favourite toy, a revolting furry orange thing, under her paw.)

Outside? That’s a different matter. Her razor-sharp senses overwhelm her. It is my job to learn how to control my dog while also giving her a good life. And to daily brush mud off my bum and knees.

From her fat pine cone paws to the tops of her huge pink conch ears, from the tip of her whip tail to the black centre of her dinosaur eyes, I love her, and in her doggy way, she loves me back. The start of our life together was bonkers. But today, my heart, head and gut tell me I have done the right thing. I feel good.

Many people have decided a dog is what they need to cure the pandemic blues. Make no mistake, dogs can be very hard work. They are a commitment, but that commitment has been very good for me.

However, it’s not all about me.

I cannot fail her, or my darling Wolfy. B is a challenging, serious dog; she is not a cockapoo, but as Doreen said: ‘You do like a challenge, don’t you, love?’

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