From scavenger to celebrity

People in Shetland are now able to follow the incredible tale of Tess the Border Collie online at www.bordercollierescue.org thanks to the dedication of her new carers at the Border Collie Rescue Centre, in Yorkshire.

Her story features in a video on the charity’s website where Tess has become something of a celebrity.


Tess spent the winter living wild on Staney Hill, Lerwick. She survived prolonged snow falls and extremes of temperature by scavenging for food scraps and eating rabbits. After four months on the hill and numerous attempts to bring her down she was eventually trapped by SIC environmental health dog wardens in February. She was taken into the care of Mike Cooke and Nicki Oliver at the specialist centre two weeks ago.

Mike believes that Tess has made remarkable progress. She is now mixing well with people and the other dogs. She has even put on a kilo of weight. However, as Mike explains: “Her remarkable story is that she survived one of the harshest winters Shetland has seen for years.”


Tess was originally a working dog but she was not a natural herder. She was given away as a pet but escaped within a week. Mike thinks that she probably had a reasonable relationship with her first owner as she shows no signs of having been badly treated.

When she escaped from her new owner Tess was probably thinking of going “home” but was unable to identify where that was. “She become confused and frightened and took to scavenging,” Mike says.


When the dog wardens eventually caught Tess it was clear that she needed specialist rehabilitation and training before she could be re-homed. They had to find somewhere quite unique. They contacted Border Collie Rescue when they were told that the centre had the necessary experience and resources to care for Tess.

Tess flew to Edinburgh in a specially constructed air freight container where Mike and Nicki picked her up and her full recovery in Yorkshire could begin.

“Tess has a lot of spirit. She was very timid when she first arrived. She was practically feral and did not like people. She hid away. The video shows a frozen, terrified dog but within minutes she is seen wagging her tail,” Mike explains.

Border Collie Rescue was established informally in 1976 and has been a registered charity since 1995. The organisation specialises in taking in Border Collies but will care for all working dogs, rehabilitating them in a peaceful rural setting.

The charity has strong connections with Scotland. Indeed, half of their work is north of the border and they are currently looking for premises for a new Scottish centre which they hope to establish within the next year. Dogs come to the centre for many reasons and there is a high intake of unwanted pets but Tess’s story is rather special


When Tess arrived in Yorkshire she was very scared and felt threatened around the other dogs. As Mike explains this is because she was used to fending for herself and she expected them to steal her food, they were competition for survival.

Incredible turn around

Mike and Nicki initially thought that it would be several weeks before Tess could spend time with the other dogs or be introduced to new people, but that proved not to be the case. As the video shows (www.bordercollierescue.org/tess/index.html#), Tess is already mixing well and even eating with the other dogs. She is also relaxed around people. So, why the incredible turn around?

Mike thinks that is down to Tess’s plucky nature. “Curiosity is Tess’s saving grace. It enables her to be adventurous”, he analyses.

But, of course, Tess’s progress is mostly due to the dedicated work of her handlers. The rescue centre uses some simple but very effective forms of rehabilitation. Nicki, in particular, has worked very closely with Tess.

When dogs arrive at the centre they are taken to a quiet space where the handlers spend time with them. This can involve simply lying on the floor beside the dogs, often in silence. Eventually the dogs start to relax and stop feeling so vulnerable. In time they become calmer and will eventually become comfortable enough to fall asleep.

Once the dogs have slept in close proximity to a person and realise that nothing bad has happened to them then a sense of trust is established and this can build quite rapidly.  Tess feels secure and safe around Nicki, indeed, she “sticks to her like glue”. Now, when Tess sees that Nicki trusts other people and dogs, then she knows that she can trust them too.


Having spent months fending for herself Tess was used to a diet of rabbits and other small animals. She was certainly not accustomed to eating dog food, nor to having her meals from a bowl. To begin with the centre fed her ox heart and kidneys. Gradually, they introduced a bowl and slowly started to mix dog food in with her the more familiar diet of her wild days. Now she eats heartily and has put on a kilo in weight.

Clearly, Tess has made remarkable progress in a very short time and Mike does not think that it will be long before she has fully recovered and finds a new home. However, he stresses that they take a very flexible approach, and “each dog takes as long as it takes.” Tess spends time with the other dogs in the secure paddocks and orchards around the centre and has even had her work ethic tested.

“We have a flock of sheep that allows us to assess each dog’s natural drive. However, it does not seem that Tess is destined to be a sheep dog. Our initial assessment is that she will make someone a wonderful pet,” Mike says.

By allowing each dog to express its natural character the centre can find homes that fit the dog’s strengths and these can be in a variety of settings. Some become working dogs on farms whilst others work with the police or search and rescue teams. Many become family pets.

It is the natural spirit of these dogs that inspires people like Mike and Nicki to continue to have the dedication to work with them and find them new homes.

Mike sums it up on the charity’s website when he tells Tess’s story, “After all Tess has been through and her obvious fight to survive, she has earned and deserves all the help we can give.”

Border Collie Rescue at Richmond, North Yorkshire can be contacted by phoning 0845 604 4941.