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.

It was a very hot day indeed; far too hot in fact for an agility show. An extraordinarily long queue for a class watched in dismay as the ring party lapsed into a protracted tea break. With silent resignation the queue relocated itself to the shade of a very large tree nearby, sitting around its wide trunk in a deceptively disorganised heap of humans and dogs. By the time half an hour had passed, the population of the queue was quite well acquainted. After forty-five minutes, some were almost related. Such a queue is not an uncommon occurrence in agility, but this particular one stands out in my memory for the conversation that ran through it and eventually united it.

Mine's a Valgray, too
The topic of conversation, which started at the head of the queue, was not in itself unusual because it was about dogs and in particular the dogs we were queuing with. Mine was a ‘rescue’ collie (from the NCDL, as it happens.) In having an all-white face he is fairly unusual and inevitably attracts attention, firstly for his looks and subsequently for his legendary titbit-locating-and-scrounging abilities.

The lady sitting behind me was having her trouser pockets expertly emptied by my professional scavenger so I commenced my well-worn monologue of apology for my thieving hound. The lady, however, seemed quite at ease with having her pockets picked so the conversation turned instead to her collie lying patiently beside her. Her collie was also a rescue, but from Valgray Border Collie Rescue. I have two Vallgrays collies as well, and chuckling, we compared notes on how we had found ourselves owning extra collies we previously neither realised we wanted nor needed.

Hearing this, the lady behind the lady behind me, joined in because she had a Valgray collie too. So did the man behind her, and the lady behind him. Beyond her was another lady who had a Valgray, although not a collie. It was a hairy sort of crossbred mutt with character oozing out of every bristly fibre, but a Valgrays nonetheless. The lady behind her also had a Valgray but it was retired, as had the next lady down. And so it went on.

Like a game of Chinese whispers, the Valgrays conversation spread down the queue snaking its way around the crowd. And so it gradually emerged that of the 30-or-so people sitting under the tree that afternoon, there was just one who did not own a Valgrays dog. As if an alien had materialised amongst us, we all turned to stare at this unfortunate man who had not been so blessed. 'It’s okay,' offered a voice, soothingly. 'It’s just a matter of time.'

If you are anything to do with the agility circuit, you cannot have missed hearing the name ‘Valgray.' Look on any results list and the chances are there’ll be a Valgray in it somewhere. Look on the league tables in the agility magazines; listen to the class presentations at shows. (Look in my lounge!) You’ll find a Valgray.

From the Valgray Scrapbook

Benji was about to be put down by the RSPCA who considered him beyond hope. Val was his last chance. He has been rehomed recently .

Bess (at the back) has been rehomed to an agility home in the last few months.

Val rescued Heather's Tiggy (Valgrays Tigs the Terror) as a tiny puppy from filthy conditions on a farm.

An unenviable task
Val doesn’t waste much time smiling but then in her job she doesn’t often have much to smile about. Once a month a vanload of homeless collies is ferried to her door from all over the country and she has the odious task of selecting the tragically few that she can take in to her limited kennel space. It is like playing God. For those she chooses, she will find permanent, loving, working homes. For those many more that lack of space forces her to turn away, the prospects are grim. They will have to take their chances in national rescue centres where the particular needs of an already-distressed collie can rarely be met. Driven to mental extremes by the boredom of kennelling and the legacy of past problems, many will be destroyed. Val admits to lying awake for hours, wondering what happens to the dogs she can’t take in. Faced with such a regular task, little wonder that the public face of this most genuine of dog-lovers is usually inscrutably but firmly set.

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.

Val Phillips with Motor MouseA lifetime of dogs
Her parents ran a family business called ‘Valgrays Pet Store’. Bucking the trend of the day and concerned for the welfare of animals, the family prided itself in selling pet provisions but not the animals themselves.  During this time Val’s parents bred and showed Samoyeds and later Border Collies. The Affix ‘Valgray’ (constructed from their children’s names) was registered just after the war.

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 agility people today link her name exclusively with rehoming dogs, but agility history reveals that Val has been a highly successful agility competitor too. Since 1978 she has worked no less than six dogs at Advanced level, each one of which has qualified for Olympia. Motor Mouse CDX (see left) won the Pedigree Chum Agility Stakes in August 1980. Other dogs that qualified included Motor Girl, Tessa Tees of Valgray, Valvicks Border Bess, Rockswood Fillie of Valgray and Valgrays Marmaduke Gingerbits who died recently, setting a record which she believes has only been equalled by Mary Ray.

Val running Cree at Crufts '83></font></b><font size=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.

What's in a name?
It was Val's mother Dot (pictured right with Val and her brother Graham) made up the Valgray name, combining her two children's names - Val and Graham. Following the death of Val's father in 1991, the Valgrays affix transferred to Val and her mother. At that point Val decided to use the name to register not only the collies she bred herself who have Valgrays as a prefix, but also every dog the service helped to rehome (who have Valgray as a suffix.) 'It helps a great deal in keeping track of the dogs, especially at shows, in prizegiving,' she says.

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.

Pet rescue
With the assistance of a small team of dedicated friends and helpers, over the years Valgrays Border Collie Rescue has expanded to eight branches across the country. The centres have a combined capacity for up to 1,400 dogs but amazingly this is nowhere near enough. Whilst the nation celebrated the 2000 Millennium, all the centres were full and a further 300 dogs were on a waiting list.

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.

Homes wanted
The vagary of fashion and agricultural economics aside, there is a constant stream of collies in need of rehoming. The popular public perception of the breed is that they are born ready-trained. It’s not surprising that the public has come up with this idea. Even experienced non-collie handlers on the agility circuit, surrounded by these dogs most weekends of their lives, are prone to propagating the same myth. The truth is that collies are born with a phenomenal capacity to learn and if you don’t fill that sponge of a brain with the right things pretty quickly, it will just as soon sop up all the wrong things instead. Collies are specialist dogs that in the last 30 years have been brought from the sheepdog world into the pet dog world. It is not automatically an easy or trouble-free transition.

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.

Labour of love
For its entire existence, Valgrays Border Collie Rescue has been run on a purely voluntary basis. It remains Val’s dream to put her rescue service on a firmer financial footing and to obtain extra land on which to build a rehoming centre which would simultaneously rehome more dogs and offer to educate more people about responsible ownership. In practical terms however, vaccinating, neutering, worming, micro chipping, retraining where necessary and finally rehoming consumes all her limited funds. Her plea is the same as that of so many small charities who must constantly overstretch their capacities. 'So many dogs need assistance. They are being dumped, put in pounds, locked up in kennels. I need bigger facilities, funds, blankets and food. I know I could help more dogs if I had enough money or some land near me in Surrey that I could use for the dogs. I just need someone with a heart to come forward and help.'

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’.

Bethany ListValgray Dog of the Year
This year the awards were presented at Wallingford DTC’s Agility show in April at Newbury Showground.

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.

Sperratus of Valgray 'Sid''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 meIf 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.

Val Phillips can be contacted by post at Valgrays Rescue Service
20  Trenham Drive, Warlingham, Surrey  CR6 9RU
or by phone on 01883-624513.

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)

I had been reading the article 'Hands Up Who's Got a Valgray'. It was lovely, funny and moving. Good sight, informative and entertaining. Very well done.
Carol Podmore


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