More dogs are being adopted from abroad following a lockdown boom in demand for pets. But many owners are not prepared for the fallout from the traumas the animals have suffered. By Sophie Morris


Reggie was found on a roadside near Bucharest in Romania, along with his six siblings, in 2015. It was estimated that he was about six months old by the time he was rescued - his mother was a feral street dog and never domesticated. But for Reggie, the second chapter of his life would turn out to be quite different from that of his parents.

Olivia Staves and her partner, who live in the UK, adopted Reggie and brought him home. It wasn’t plain sailing - it took them over 30 minutes just to persuade him to step through the front door. “He was a very nervous boy, fearful of the big, bad world. I’d say he’s still a work in progress,” says Staves. “But he bonded with us pretty easily. With rescues, they tend to fall in love quickly, but then might want to protect you. He’s very wary of traffic and new people, but we have our inner circle we can throw him into.”

Eight years on, Reggie is the picture of health with a glossy blackand-white coat, brown eyes and a white tip on his long tail. In photos, he appears to gaze at his adopted humans with a look of love and loyalty (not that any of us really know what’s going inside a dog’s mind).

Reggie’s experience mirrors that of a dog now making national headlines: Sophie, also from Romania. The mongrel moved into the home of Rory Cellan-Jones, a former BBC technology correspondent, and his wife, the Cambridge economist Professor Diane Coyle, on 17 December 2022. Sophie has quickly found internet fame and a place in the hearts of British dog lovers as Cellan-Jones and Coyle share her progress online with the hashtag #SophiefromRomania.

Sophie is a feel-good story with thousands of dog lovers and famous faces (including radio DJ Nick Grimshaw and newsreader Sophie Raworth) watching her tentative progress. As with Reggie, Sophie’s story isn’t straightforward. She lived in a barn before beginning her 72- hour journey to the UK. For the first few weeks, she spent her time huddled behind a sofa, lured out from time to time with morsels of meat and cheese.

The number of dogs brought into the UK via adoption has risen steeply in recent years. According to the Government’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the number of commercial imports of dogs, cats and ferrets, which includes but isn’t limited to rescue animals, almost doubled from 41,313 in 2018 to 78,299 in 2021. We know that 66,952 of these imports were dogs.

The national appetite for dog ownership soared during lockdown when more people were working from home: research from the Pet Food Manufacturers Association found that 3.2 million households gained a pet during the pandemic. That gave us a total of 12 million dogs across 19.3 million families. But why the uptick in dogs from abroad?

Homes like the Battersea shelter in south London have long been synonymous with dog adoption. Founded in 1860, Battersea cares for more than 8,000 animals a year (including 5,000 dogs) and the average pipeline to rehoming for a dog is just 35 days from start to finish. But increasingly people are turning to adopting dogs from overseas.

Cost is one factor in motivating people to “adopt not shop” - the price of many breeds doubled during lockdown (Pets4Homes found that the average cost soared to £2,237 in 2021, then fell back to £1,329 by 2022). But the age and breed of rescues available in the UK does not always match the ideas of would-be owners. And, compared with a global supply chain, the number of dogs available to rescue in the UK is limited.

For less than £500, you can rescue one from another country where there’s an almost constant supply: unneutered stray dogs can reproduce at an astonishing rate. If left there, thousands of dogs end up in “kill shelters”, with many living out their short lives in terrible conditions before being euthanised. The Manchester-based rescue organisation Dogs4Rescue has defended the import of these dogs, saying wouldbe dog owners simply don’t want the breeds that make up the majority of the dogs available in the UK, like Staffordshire bull terriers.

This cottage industry of overseas puppy imports has sprung up since 2012 when the UK harmonised its pet-movement rules with the rest of the European Union. Although Brexit has added some red tape to this process, dogs available from Corfu, Cyprus, Spain, and from countries further afield such as Thailand, are all brought up with a simple Google search.

Social media has also made it easier for us to find and fall for these dogs. A survey of 3,080 rescue owners by the veterinary journal Vet Record found that social media was the most common way to find an animal from abroad. There’s no need to get in the car and drive to Battersea when websites have tempting picture galleries and profiles to browse from home.

The Vet Record survey also found that the strict requirements for adopting from a UK organisation were a barrier. The vetting process for international dog rescue can be less strict - some organisations carry out home visits as standard but others will take your word for the home you can offer a dog in need.

Cellan-Jones said they looked for a rescue in the UK but found nothing suitable. I also signed up with a few agencies back in 2020: in my defence, I had started looking before the lockdown rush. We had a certain type of dog in mind - a young dog and nothing too big. In the end, we were only offered one puppy and my husband didn’t fancy it and that was that. It really felt like there were more good homes looking out for a new dog than there were dogs in need.

I wonder how the organisations that rehome from within the UK feel about the outside competition. “We help all dogs that need our care,” a Dog’s Trust spokesperson assures me. “However, rehoming from other countries is not without risk. A large number of these dogs are free roaming or strays, meaning they may struggle to adapt to a UK home environment and which may result in challenging behavioural issues.”

Indeed, Staves, who works at the Wild at Heart Foundation, the organisation that brought Reggie into her life, says: “Bringing a rescue into your home is almost like dropping an alien on earth. I advise potential owners to lower their expectations, and then they can enjoy it when something positive happens. It’s important not to go into rescuing a dog from another country with the same expectations as you would for a pedigree dog from a breeder or even a UK rescue.”

Other owners like Alex Agertoft credits Kip, whom he adopted via the Romanian Rescue Appeal in September 2020, with carrying him through a rough time after losing his job to Covid. But Kip, a beautiful sandy-brown dog with a white chest and a bushy curled tail, has had problems. He initially socialised well and attended doggy daycare, until an altercation with a whippet left him cautious and reactive around other dogs.

Agertoft now struggles to find care for him and walks him on a lead in quiet spots. “It’s the luck of the draw,” he says. “Some rescues are going on to be therapy dogs. Ours is highly anxious - he’s currently on Prozac - but that could happen with a purebred Labrador from the greatest breeder in the UK.”

Kip was found with his litter and mother in a churchyard. “You might get an adaptable dog who slots easily into your life,” says Staves. “But you have to think of the circumstances the dog came from. If the mum was a lifelong street dog, there’s deep-set trauma there and those fears are channelled through to the pup.”

Even though Staves says she has found the dog of her life, she admits she should have given it more thought. “Romania is historically one of the countries whose dogs take a bit longer to acclimatise, as a lot of them are born from street dogs and are herding or guarding types of breed.

We work with some fantastic people over there, but it’s known that Romania lacks animal welfare regulation. In Greece the mothers are often owned pets, who might have been kicked out once they became pregnant.”

Rachel Holland got two rescues within a week of each other, Lupo from Greece and Ruby from Romania, nine years ago, when she lived in London. “I didn’t feel very prepared,” she recalls. “I got conflicting messages and I didn’t feel like the process of evaluation was very thorough.”

Holland and her partner at the time were both self-employed but the dog care fell more to her.

She had imagined she would be able to take her dogs to work as a fashion stylist, but that wasn’t possible.

“Ruby came with a lot of issues. She would attack Lupo, bark at people in the street and wouldn’t leave the house for walks.”

Although Holland wouldn’t be without them now and jokes that they have an extremely good quality of life, she cautions against jumping into anything. “As much as I love them, it has been a burden. It has really impacted my life and prevented me from doing a lot of things. If you have the time and space and energy, I’d say yes, get a rescue. But if you’re young and working, maybe not.”

Behavioural problems are something to safeguard against - they can have real consequences. In January, four-year-old Alice Stones was killed by a dog her family had reportedly rescued just weeks prior to the attack (there is no suggestion this dog was from overseas). Tragic outcomes are not exclusive to adoptees but as the number of dog-owning households grows in Britain, violent altercations are increasing. In 2022, 10 people died in dog attacks in the UK, more than twice the number of any other year since 1980.

There are also examples where getting a rescue is a hugely positive experience: Katia Orendain from Margate takes her rescue Django into the nursery she runs for time with the children. Django is a handsome black dog with chocolate brown eyebrows and paws whom she adopted from Cyprus in 2018 with her partner, Jonathan. Django was cuddly and affectionate from the outset.

Although Django’s temperament has been ideal compared with other rescue stories, health problems have been ongoing. Before his first birthday, he began to struggle on walks and it was discovered he has severe hip dysplasia, and has since had two hip replacements. Each operation cost around £4,500, but thankfully they had pet insurance. “He’s such a special dog,” she says. “We’re so happy to have had five years with him.”

Diseases are another problem. Last August a woman in Stoke-on-Trent had to put down her five dogs after contracting canine brucellosis from a dog she had briefly fostered from Belarus. Wendy Hayes was successfully treated with antibiotics and the Government suspended commercial dog imports from Belarus, Poland, Romania and Ukraine for several months.

As economic times get tough in the UK, the pool of potential adoptees will probably rise again. The Dogs Trust took a record number of enquiries from people who felt they had to give up their dog in 2022, with many citing cost as the deciding factor. The return to more typical working patterns has also contributed. As soon as it was announced that most Covid measures would be lifted in July 2021, Dogs Trust recorded a “significant spike” in owners investigating rehoming.

Wild at Heart no longer brings dogs into the UK, says Staves, but many other organisations continue to do so. “We didn’t want to bring more dogs into the country when thousands are having to rehome here,” Staves says. But she maintains that the positive stories of adoption can be life-changing. “I would never be without Reggie, and it makes you a better person, more empathetic,” she says. “Adoption is what the general public loves, the happy ending.”

Sophie, the dog adopted by the BBC’s former technology correspondent and his wife, Diane Coyle, was found dumped in Romania and brought to the UK by a rescue organisation. She is around one year old.

Since her adoption just before Christmas Sophie has become a social media star as the couple share her progress on Twitter with the hashtag #sophiefromromania.

Sophie had never lived in a house before, so was very nervous. Thousands followed as she was eventually lured from her hiding place behind the sofa.

Advice poured in, with one professional dog trainer following her progress online making a visit to their home.