Haven for service dogs

Retired police canines can now enjoy the good life at a special ‘retirement home’

After a lifetime dedicated to the protection of humans, retired police service dogs can now enjoy a life of leisure at a canine retirement home, of sorts, in Port Alfred.
Johann Wilhelm and his wife Lynne own and manage Retreat 2 Eden – an unusual rescue centre in the Southwell area of Port Alfred, which aims to change the usually sombre story of retired police service dogs.
“Many people have the romantic notion that service dogs are adopted by their handlers but, sadly, that is not usually the reality, although there are exceptions,” Wilhelm said.
“Too often the service dog’s reward at the end of its useful life is death at the end of a needle or gun.”
But every now and then, there is a happy ending to the furry tale.
The aim at Retreat 2 Eden is always to re-home wherever possible, but Xiro was a particularly challenging case – that is, until fate stepped in in the form of Richard and Fyrne Goveia of Cape Town.
The retirement of Xiro – an 11-year-old Belgian Shepherd police dog – was the start of an incredible journey involving hundreds of kilometres of travel and a group of remarkable people.
“Luckily for us, Xiro was not aggressive, merely asocial when it came to other dogs and, for that matter, humans,” Wilhelm said.
“When she was donated to us we were forced to keep her in a large enclosure away from the more rowdy youngsters, whom she did not get along with.
“She did not trust easily, was nervous and sensitive, yet deep inside she yearned to be loved and give her all to her humans.”
It took Wilhelm, who has no formal training in animal behaviour and recovery, about two weeks to get Xiro to warm up to him. But eventually she began soaking up the all-encompassing love he has for all his animals.
Outlining how Xiro’s incredible journey started, Fyrne Goveia said the breeder from whom she bought her Belgian Shepherd, Nikao, had alerted her to the dog’s whereabouts and history, and the possibility of adoption.
“At first I refused pointblank as I had just lost an ex-police dog I adopted 10 years ago.
“It took me three months to get him to come inside the house, but gradually we built up an incredible bond.
“I was heartbroken by his death,” she said.
“But my heart kept nagging me and, after a long phone call to Johann, I was sold.
“Obstacles were thrown aside and we set off on the long journey from Cape Town on January 23 with Nikao in tow, to introduce him to [Xiro].”
And so the, at times, difficult journey began. It was one that did not just involve a lot of travelling, but also the uncertainty that lay ahead. Would the two dogs get on, or would it be hate at first sight?
To find out, the trio stayed at one of the few pet-friendly holiday homes in Port Alfred for three nights, spending the first few days at Retreat 2 Eden, before Xiro finally joined the family at their base for the final night of the stay.
“It wasn’t easy. Xiro had never been inside a house so we spent quite some time with her in the garden before taking her to the beach, also for the first time in her life,” Goveia said.
“The beach walk was an uplifting outing for all of us. Xiro's tail was up in the air and she was prancing like a queen.”
But then came the hard part, she said.
“Having never been into a house, and having stressed quite badly, it did not go well, but Xiro finally curled up in a quiet corner. “It was a huge day for her. “Xiro finally ate a little meat before going to bed in the downstairs room. Where, I might add, she promptly jumped on a low kiddies bed!
“The boy slept on the queen bed with us all night – something that had never happened before.”
By the middle of their first week back in Cape Town, Xiro had been to the vet and was doing remarkably well, Goveia said.
“She has arthritis and is going blind, but we will deal with all of that as it comes.
“In the meantime, she is settling in well and even getting a bit cheeky. While I may have had reservations at first, they have disappeared.
“If such an opportunity arose again, I would do it again in a flash!”
K9 hereos' refuge
Retreat 2 Eden was founded on a sprawling 43ha farm six years ago with the aim of not only taking in the usual waifs, strays and cruelty cases, but also to honour dogs which gave the majority of their lives to the service of mankind.
And so, the K9 Hero Programme was born.
“These dogs are life’s unsung heroes. But not at Retreat 2 Eden, where many of our residents are former service dogs,” rescue centre owner Johann Wilhelm said.
By and large, the majority of them pretty much have free range and they all get along, with the exception of the odd scrap, which is hardly surprising in view of the fact that around 80 animals live at Retreat 2 Eden at any time.
Some dogs, however, are just too aggressive to be integrated and this is where community support comes in.
“With the aid of Rotary, the Lions and Interact in Port Alfred, we were able to build two large enclosures which are currently home to Caesar and Phantom, two beautiful German shepherds, which are slowly learning to lose their aggressive streaks,” Wilhelm said.
“But this particular case was not easy – and I bear the scars to prove it.
“Early into his stay, Caesar wanted to go into the house, so I blocked him with my leg. He turned on me, biting my wrist down to the bone.”
Despite this, Wilhelm stands firm.
“These dogs’ lives have been saved by community involvement. I will continue with their rehabilitation until they can be released to mingle with the other dogs.”
While the K9 Hero Programme’s aim is to socialise and re-home the dogs it is not always possible and certainly Caesar and Phantom will see out their days at the rescue centre.
“When dealing with ex-service dogs, in particular, there are many aspects to be considered. They know nothing other than the aggression that is often demanded of them,” he said.
Running such a venture comes at huge expense to Wilhelm and wife Lynne, who have sunk their life savings into the farm which, until recently, was 100% funded by the selfless couple, who do not even draw a salary.
At this stage, through community involvement, the centre in now only 87% funded by the couple, with donations from the Port Alfred community, including cricket balls for Caesar and Phantom and offcuts of food from local restaurants, helping to ease the burden.
“At this stage, one of us always has to be on the property, which means that Lynne and I have never been to the beach together. For that to happen would be really special,” he said.
For more information visit the Retreat 2 Eden page on Facebook...

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