The First Lady of Collie Rescue
If you have anything to do with the agility circuit, you cannot have missed hearing the name Valgray. One very fiery lady called Val Phillips (‘Auntie Val’ to her dogs) runs Valgrays Border Collie Rescue. This petite, blonde human dynamo has done more for the welfare of collies than most of us can imagine. Heather Noddle had a long chat with this tenacious lady who is responsible for some of the best known dogs in the sport.
Little wonder either, that there was general agreement from the queue under the tree about one of the most worrying things that can happen to you at an agility show: suddenly, gently, you feel your arm being firmly gripped. In conspiratorial tones, Val’s voice reaches your ear. 'Come and look at what I’ve got in my van.' It’s nothing to do with looking at etchings and it’s certainly not a request. It’s an order of the nicest possible sort. Val is a single-minded, driven, re-homer of dogs; in her line of business, she has to be. You know, with that peculiar blend of a sinking heart and a rush of excitement, that you are a potential target destination for yet another homeless collie. 'No, no, no, no-no-no-no-no-no-no NO, Val. I’m not looking in your darned van again.' But resistance is futile, and she knows it. Five minutes later, you hear the words falling out of your mouth, unbidden, 'Oh, alright, I’ll have him/her/it/them.' (Delete as appropriate.) You’ve got a bit less space on the fireside carpet, your spouse has got one more reason to file for divorce and Val’s got another space in her kennels to take another lost soul from next month’s collection van. It was a routine the entire queue -bar one- knew only too well. And as we said, for him, acquiring his first Valgray was purely a matter of time.
lifetime of dogs
On leaving school, Val trained and worked as a veterinary nurse. Her interest in Border Collies grew and by 1978, when she set up Valgrays Border Collie Rescue, Val was already an experienced Obedience and Working Trials competitor.
A top handler
Many of these qualified for Olympia on more than one occasion (one year Val qualified three dogs for the semi-finals) and several also competed in agility at Crufts. This achievement is all the more impressive when you realise that five of these six dogs were rescues. Val admits that she doesn’t compete nearly as much these days. ' I’ve rehomed all the ‘good’ dogs onto the agility circuit – all I’ve got left to work with are the ‘bad’ ones in my kennels!' she adds with typical dry humour. In the next breath she’s offering to rehome her daughter even though 'She’s not KC Working Trials registered, because she hates working!' (Find me a teenager who does…)
In 1995 Val topped her agility career when she was invited to judge the range of agility finals at Crufts. Along the way she has qualified as a member of the Federation of Dog Trainers, Canine Behaviourists (FDTCB), a member of the Institute of Professional Dog Trainers (MIPDT) and is an Agility Club Approved Instructor. She’s been on the Agility Club Committee, the Kennel Club Agility Liaison Council and more recently was appointed a Kennel Club Field Officer. It’s a formidable background to one formidable lady, who takes her beloved collies very seriously.
in a name?
At shows, Val can hear a ‘Valgrays’ name being read out in the placings from miles away, and her conversations are often punctuated with long pauses whilst she listens intently for evidence of her rescue dogs doing well on the circuit. 'My ears always prick up and I say quietly to myself ‘Great!’ ' It may be said quietly, but the rare smile on her face and the occasional involuntary punch of the air speak much louder.
The situation is as bad as Val has ever seen in 22 years of rescue. Summer 1999 saw a previous all-time high for homeless collies, but in the New Year calls reached a peak of 35 a day from people wanting to rehome their dog. Other specialist collie rescue organisations reflected the same picture.
It seemed that as fast as one avenue of collie provision was highlighted and reduced, another opened up. Last summer much of the problem was due to the downturn in the fortunes of the farming community, which resulted in working homes no longer being able to support their upkeep. Farm collies were being abandoned or shot and rehoming centres were swamped with record numbers of dogs. Not all the calls at this time were from farmers. Many came from people who, reacting to publicity, had tried to help the situation by buying farm dogs and placing them in a domestic pet environment. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t working out. This January saw a different problem when the popularity of a ‘talking’ collie on a children’s TV programme coincided with an epidemic of unwanted young dogs. Val commented 'It was like 101 Dalmatians all over again. One little girl, aged about four, told me she had been disappointed with the dog because she had expected it to talk.'
In an article in a Sunday newspaper, the TV company denied any connection between the programme and the irresponsible purchase of pets. In fairness to the TV company, no one programme can be held responsible for the problem in its entirety. It takes two to tango; the parents who bought the puppies and the breeders who sold them must also shoulder their fair share of the blame. Wherever you apportion blame for a problem like this though, it’s still people like Val who get to pick up the pieces.
Val is a dedicated single parent and is also devoted to her own, ill mother. Her ailing Transit van is on first name terms with the boys of Green Flag Rescue, and she is by her own admission, 'just crazy about my dogs.' You wonder where she gets the energy to keep going. Her sheer grit and determination however is not without personal price, her forthright no-nonsense manner does not endear her to everyone. Occasionally bandaged, her hands are scarred from close encounters with antisocial canines; her soul too, must be battered from encounters with equally antisocial humans.
Thankfully in 1999 alone, many hundreds of dog lovers did just that and took on a Valgray dog. A large proportion went to agility homes. Another rare smile crosses Val’s face. 'These dogs do have such a great life now. Many success stories are to be told around the show circuit.' One of the few times that the vast extent of her work comes to light is at the annual presentation of trophies for the ‘Valgrays Agility Dog of the Year’.
Dog of the Year
Valgray dogs have been rehomed to some of the top handlers in the country and are performing at the very highest levels in agility. Others are simply just happily working their socks off for their new owners, at whatever level of agility they happen to have attained. The Junior award was the most memorable as Bethany List (right) is only eight years old. Remarkable!
Val positively puffs up with pride with each trophy handed out. After the presentations I watch as she walks away into the crowd. Progress is slow, for every few yards she is stopped by handlers accompanied by their Valgrays dogs, keen to pass on progress reports and updates. I once asked Val how many dogs she had rehomed over the years. 'Oh, Christ knows' was the typically frank reply. And without being irreverent, I suspect He probably does. There are very few people out there working as hard for the welfare of ‘mans best friend’ as Val and the fact that she doesn’t have time to count her successes is the least of her problems.
'It obviously isn’t financially rewarding, but seeing these dogs happy again is, Val says. My telephone never stops ringing and what really galls me is the number of dogs that I have to turn away. My ideal is to get this rescue service financial support, to make it work on a larger scale. If I sit and do nothing, nothing will be done. My father used to say to me ‘If you don’t ask you don’t get, but at least if you ask, you have tried.'
Val’s father was a man of powerful words, his daughter is a woman of powerful deeds. I think back to that long line of handlers sitting in the shade of a tree, waiting their turn in the ring. If someone had shouted ‘Hands up, who’s got a Valgray?’ we’d all have been sitting there with our hands in the air looking like a disorganised Mexican wave. It seems to me that Valgrays Border Collie Rescue is doing a lot more than just trying. For the thousands of dogs - collies and otherwise - it has placed with loving homes over the last two decades, it has most definitely succeeded.
Phillips can be contacted by post at Valgrays Rescue Service
Heather Noddle lives in Berkshire with her husband, two daughters and four border collies, two of which are Valgrays. 'Come and see what I've got in the van,' said Val. 'No, no, no, no, Val, I don't want another bloody dog...oh, all right. I'll have him!' You know the script!
Heather has competed in agility for over ten years and is an Agility Club Approved Instructor and Judge. She trains at Wallingford Dog Training Club. Whilst not dogging, she is a teacher and freelance author.
Photo of Heather: Gary Trotter (ISF)