When the Stuart Halbert Foundation recently announced its latest round of charitable giving, major beneficiaries included Sage Gateshead (£500,000), Opera North (£150,000) and the Elderberries programme which combats loneliness among the old (£250,000).
Worthy causes all. But it was a smaller grant awarded by the foundation, set up by those associated with the Northumberland firm of Kilfrost, that has brought me to a noisy barn on a sheep farm north of Alnwick.
This is Shak, an acronym which stands for Safe Homes And Kindness. It is registered charity number 1125159 and it is the brainchild of 39-year-old Stephen Wylie whose sweatshirt proclaims its purpose starkly: “Saving Dogs on Death Row.”
Here it is not the sheep but the dogs making all the noise. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, bedlam. It would be like The Hundred and One Dalmations if it didn’t tilt rather more towards The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The sheep, I’m thinking, must have some alarming dreams - if dreaming is a thing sheep do.
“If you work here all the time you don’t notice the noise,” smiles Stephen, emerging through the barn’s metal door.
Later I learn that when he has finished here, where there are currently 49 canine inmates, he returns to a home that he shares with 12 other dogs.
“But only 10 of them are mine,” he clarifies. The other two are ‘on remand’, there being not quite enough room at the barn.
We live in a complex and often cruel world but many of us can lead relatively comfortable lives, leaving the worst complexities and cruelties for other people to deal with. People like Stephen Wylie.
He set up Shak as a place of last resort for dogs nobody wants... disturbed, aggressive and damaged dogs that the conventional shelters couldn’t hope to re-home.
You’ve seen Lady and the Tramp? Set alongside some of Stephen’s new arrivals, the Tramp would look like a cute lapdog.
Stephen has lots of horror stories - dogs abandoned to starve in scrapyards or others used as ‘bait’ to gee-up fighting dogs before a bloody bout. Beaten dogs, injured dogs, sick, neglected and half-starved dogs... Stephen has seen them all.
In his tiny office, he tells me: “The dogs that end up here have all been through a really tough time. We do find homes for some of them but it takes time - sometimes years. And if they can’t ever go into someone’s home, they can stay here with us.”
Inside the barn, with its rows of metal pens, the ‘death row’ comparison seems apt at first glance, a doggy version of the American justice system’s last port of call. But actually this is the very opposite. It’s a place of hope and rehabilitation.
A big rottweiler is barking at the bars and doing his macho thing when I walk in with photographer Paul Norris.
Minutes later I glance over my shoulder and he’s happily chewing a toy. The name plate on the pen says this is Bobby and he’s David’s. Young Shak employee David Russell, from Alnwick, dotes on him and the affection is mutual.
Stephen has driven a lot of miles since setting up Shak. “We built up a reputation for taking the dogs no one else would take,” he says.
Often it’s a call from a dog warden or a vet that gets him behind the wheel. A tip-off that an aggressive and unmanageable dog in Birmingham was to be put down the following day saw him driving half way down the country overnight.
After bringing the dog back to the North East, Stephen got bitten on the arm and shin while getting it from vehicle to pen. Then, having managed to get a lead over its neck, it took him two weeks to get it off again.
Stray dogs picked up by council dog wardens can be put down after seven days if they have not been reclaimed or re-homed. Many of these are docile and a danger to no-one. You might wonder why aggressive dogs should be given a special chance.
Stephen says: “The dogs we deal with have been through so much that you think, why should he have to lose his life? And we have had a lot of success stories. Dogs, when they come here, soon realise there’s no pressure on them and we’re not going to hurt them.”
Stephen tells me about Henry the bull mastiff, “the most emotionally shut-down dog I’ve ever seen.
“We think he’d been living wild in the woods near Blanchland. He had been a big strong dog but he was emaciated, the skin hanging off him. He wasn’t aggressive, just terrified.
“He sat there with saucer eyes but when I went in the pen with a shovel to clear up some mess, he went mental. He was trying to climb the walls. It was obvious he’d been hit with a shovel.
“Eventually we got a lead on him and now he goes out.”
One of the Shak stars is Doyle, a giant German shepherd who loves nothing better than to dribble a hard ball around the silage pit cum exercise yard behind the barn.
For eight years he and his brother, Bodie, were professional intruder deterrents in a scrapyard in Halifax. “Then the scrapyard was closed down. The owners took what they wanted, chained up the dogs and left them with no food and water.
“A guy who’d used to work there was throwing scraps over the fence for them but eventually he got on to me and asked if we’d take them.”
Stephen recalls that they were quite fierce when they arrived at Shak.
What we see now, as Doyle relentlessly biffs his ball, is the result of years of patient care and attention. Bodie died of old age after an unlikely spell of peaceful retirement.
“Once they realised they didn’t have to guard anything any more, they relaxed,” explains Stephen.
Having grown up in Whitley Bay and then Bedlington, Stephen used to run a mobile phone business with a partner.
But he had always loved dogs. He owned a rescue dog called Shak, a German shepherd cross, which collapsed and died suddenly of a cancer-related illness. “I’ll be perfectly honest,” he says. “I didn’t take it very well at all. He was only seven and in his prime.”
Stephen sold his share of the business and started working at a cat and dog shelter and helping the RSPCA. When he heard the kennels in the barn had become available, he set up Shak in memory of his dog and to provide a service that wasn’t available before.
With the help of David, fellow employee Melissa McCaig, from Amble, and a host of volunteers, he runs Shak according to necessarily strict rules.
The dogs can run free in the yard but elsewhere must be on leads. Dogs will be taken from official sources but not from members of the public because, says Stephen, “you would be surprised at how many people’s kids suddenly become allergic to dog hair”.
It happens that we are talking just after Beverley Concannon, whose four dogs killed 14-year-old Jade Lomas-Anderson in Wigan, pleaded guilty to causing the animals unnecessary suffering.
Stephen, a self-confessed “softie”, says: “You have to draw the line and say what happened to that poor girl was extreme. That shouldn’t happen. It was a tragic event.”
Concannon’s four dogs were shot by the police.
But if Stephen’s achievements at Shak tell you anything, it’s that we get the dogs we deserve. In every case he describes, the dog in question has been a victim of human cruelty.
Here it’s the good side of human nature we see, reflected in the impeccable behaviour of dogs that were once a danger to themselves and others.
That is surely what impressed The Stuart Halbert Foundation which awarded £5,000 to help with the considerable expense of sustaining Shak.
You can find out more about Shak at www.shaksafehomesandkindness.blogspot.com and the Stuart Halbert Foundation on www.stuarthalbertfoundation.org.uk