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Everyone saw the worst in them - she made them a home
The chaotic mission to give abandoned dogs love and care
By Mollie Simpson
In a farmhouse in a rural part of Salford, Milo is wearing a tight red jumper and lounging by a wood burning stove. He has a solid barrel chest, slick hair and a slightly pinched face. Outside the door, Emma Billington is laughing. His ears prick up, and as we walk in, he runs over to give us both kisses. Emma hugs him to her knees, giving him a little scratch behind his ears, and then he turns to me for a stroke. He looks up and rests his chin on my knee, his eyes little black moons.
He wasn’t always this trusting. Milo was picked up as a stray, then moved to a dog pound in the UK. As a puppy he had a sweet temperament, but he also displayed some odd and erratic behaviours that indicated he viewed people as threats rather than guardians. After seven days at the shelter, Milo’s name was on a list of dogs waiting to be euthanized — a last resort for dogs that are believed to be past the point of rehabilitation. It was Emma, the founder and director of Dogs 4 Rescue, a dog sanctuary in Salford, who rescued him from his fate. Some time later, he was adopted by a local family.
Five years later, the family surrendered him back to Emma, citing a deterioration in behaviour. Milo spent some time as a foster dog, living for short stints with various foster carers, but he showed signs that he was anxious and didn’t feel safe. Emma eventually decided he was too much of a risk, and that he would stay at the sanctuary permanently.
Of the 40 dogs living at Dogs 4 Rescue’s sanctuary, a farmhouse along with two acres of land near Eccles, many of them associate humans with frightening experiences and spent their formative years in cages or being repeatedly bred for cash. Emma affectionately calls some of them “tricky” or “cheeky”, but acknowledges there are difficult dogs in our midst. “If they are frightening dogs, it’s because they’re frightened,” she says emphatically. She will never write a dog off. What we see as bad behaviour in dogs, she seems to understand as a consequence of trauma, or dogs being mismatched to their environment.
We’re standing outside in the fields where Milo’s best friend Akita, a white bulldog with pink gums, is reared on her hind legs, barking loudly. She is badly traumatised, fully deaf and partially sighted: when she sees shadows, she suspects danger. She has been known to bite, so she’s a “sanctuary dog”. Like Milo, this means she won’t ever be rehomed, but will stay where she feels safest.
Emma’s perseverance with Akita is a testament to her extreme patience. Over the last nine years of running the dog rescue, she and her team have taken in, rehabilitated and rehomed nearly a thousand dogs. Some come from dog shelters, or “pounds”, in the UK, and others have come as far as Bosnia, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus. “Romania’s stray dogs issue is a by-product of the communist regime that ruled the country until 1989 under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu,” says one website, explaining that after rural workers were moved to the cities to work in state industries, many had to give up their pets in order to live in flats, meaning that hundred of thousands of strays have been breeding ever since.
The main part of the sanctuary is occupied by a dozen or so surly dogs who cohabit in harmony. Most of them are uninterested by my presence, wandering over to the other side of the garden to lounge in a spot of bright sunlight. Some are wearing festive jumpers, others run towards silver bowls clattering on the ground filled with hearty Christmas dinners: Yorkshire puddings, a dollop of mash, a handful of peas, carrots, cauliflower florets, chicken, vegan sausages and roast potatoes. “That’s a proper present,” Emma says, explaining you can buy a friend or family member a gift donation towards a dog’s Christmas dinner, and receive a fun video of them enjoying their special banquet in return. “Much better instead of something rubbish, like soap, or whatever.”
While Emma shows me around, a dog starts to grumble at me. Stuart, also known as Grumpy Stu, is wearing a camel coat and his ears are pricked up. “Oh, come on, don’t be nervous,” Emma says. “She’s nice.” Grumpy Stu is unconvinced: he lurks behind us while we explore.
It takes a while for Grumpy Stu to trust me. Which is fair enough: he’s been here for nearly ten years, and I’ve been here for just over an hour. Eventually, he seems satisfied that I’m not a threat: that is, he literally sniffs me out, sticking his bony head into my thigh and inhaling. After that he decides I’m okay: he lets me stroke him and I find myself tickled by his faux-gruff nature. I’m not alone, either. If you looked at Dogs 4 Rescue’s very popular Facebook page, you’d be forgiven for thinking Grumpy Stu is the Mariah Carey of the dog world, so in demand that he has to limit his public appearances, such is the overwhelming nature of being a celebrity dog. He even has his own LinkedIn profile, where he is described as “businessman, entrepreneur, agony uncle, king of my sofa”.
Hanging out with a dozen surly dogs in a field on a sunny day is such a pleasantly pointless activity it feels like something everyone should do once, like going to Paris. As it’s a cold winter day, we sadly have to spend most of our time inside — I take a seat in Emma’s office to chat more about her work. The room is warm and smells faintly of wet earth. Jamie, one of the charity workers, hands me a tea made with oat milk.
There’s no doubting Emma’s commitment to the sanctuary. When she graduated from university, she moved back to her parents’ house in Manchester. She started working as a computer programmer, a job she says made her feel lonely and unhappy. When she tried to close her eyes to sleep at night, she would hear an animal crying out in distress.
She found Lucky, a skeletal, sweet Staffie with olive eyes, tied to a rope outside her neighbour’s house. Her owner suffered from mental health issues and was using her to breed, and selling the puppies on for £20 each. Emma started to walk Lucky every day, and spent her annual leave sitting with her in the garden and playing. At work, she spent every day thinking about Lucky, and wondering if she could save her. The daily walks became a solace to her when she was battling through a miserable job.
Then one day Lucky wasn’t there. She knocked on the door and was told that she had died. She was taken off the chain, and she used the chance to run to Emma’s parents’ house to find her, but Emma wasn’t there. Lucky was run over on Washway Road in Sale.
The grief was immeasurable, but it was also a spur to change. Emma realised she couldn’t allow other dogs to suffer the same fate. She quit her job, bought an old van off eBay and started a dog walking business, with the dream of slowly building up towards a dog rescue.
An old farm repossession in Salford came up: the market had slumped, and no one wanted it, but it was the perfect space to create the dream sanctuary. The requests for her to save dogs came thick and fast, and at times the sob stories have felt overwhelming. But mostly, it’s become a life that is, while chaotic, threaded with absolute joy. “I thought I was saving them,” Emma tells me, taking another sip of her tea, “but really, they’re saving me every day.” She is skilled at raising money for the centre and her work is also funded through her side hustle, the Daycare 4 Dogs centre in Wythenshawe, which cross-subsidies Dogs 4 Rescue.
As with many people at the more fanatical end of the animal-loving spectrum, there’s something a bit mad about Emma and her sprawling rescue project. Recently, she moved out of the farmhouse and bought a caravan to sleep in so the dogs could have more room. She has often found it hard to say no to requests to take in destitute chickens and geese, which has recently expanded to include a turkey, pigs and a lamb. She grew attached to one lamb in particular and they would occasionally share a bed or cuddle on the sofa while watching TV.
“People would come into the kitchen and after a while they’re looking at this thing on the couch going… ‘is that a lamb?’” Emma remembers, smiling mischievously. “You can tell they’re thinking ‘it has hooves, it doesn’t look like a dog…’ And you just forget, because you’re so used to being around these things.”
Out of context, this all probably sounds slightly unhinged. But while some people see difficult animals, Emma sees creatures that are misunderstood and worthy of empathy and love.
Dogs 4 Rescue stands out for these moments of patience and care. Emma’s sense of responsibility to them has only strengthened over time — her biggest ambition yet is to secure more donations so she can move her dogs to an idyllic 41-acre site. The land has already been purchased, but she needs plenty of investment to make it into a home for the dogs.
Outside, the dogs are still lounging, their eyes slowly blinking as they doze off. Others have their chins raised high and eyes closed to avoid the harsh glare of the sun. I wish them an early Merry Christmas and leave hoping that people will come forward to give them a home.