Meet Helen and Gavin Cook the two-legged stars of The Dog House NZ

Helen and Gavin’s pet project is spreading puppy love through the nation

It’s just past lunchtime on a Tuesday afternoon when the Weekly chats with Country Retreat Animal Sanctuary owners Helen and Gavin Cook. Already they have been out desexing, vaccinating and microchipping dogs. They’ve also taken one pup for eye surgery and sadly had one of their own dogs put down.

Even during our interview, Helen pauses to take a phone call about a litter of puppies she is trying to rescue from the pound – and it’s not long before Gavin is pulled away to deal with someone who is trying to surrender a dog.

“A quiet day is when we only have feeding and cleaning,” tells Helen with a laugh. “Those days are quite relaxing!”

It’s a busy life, but one they wouldn’t trade for the world as long as there are animals that need their help.

Hound heroes: The couple’s days are a blur with so many mouths to feed.

It’s been eight years since Helen and Gavin, both 57, gave up their respective careers as a teacher and an HR manager to open their pet rescue. They had been fostering dogs for years, balancing the demands of full-time work with caring for needy animals. But they decided they wanted to do more to help.

They found a kennel for sale with a large plot of land next door and the Country Retreat Animal Sanctuary in Warkworth was born, with the intention of saving pregnant dogs and puppies.

“We found out that if a pregnant dog is surrendered, there’s a high chance that they are going to be put down because most facilities don’t have the resources and the people power to look after puppies,” explains Helen. “These poor dogs never get a chance.”

Through their work, Helen and Gavin regularly see the worst of humanity. Many of the animals have been badly mistreated – and even though they have spent nearly a decade caring for canines, it doesn’t get any easier.

“Some days it does really get to me,” admits Helen.

“I’ll go out on my quad bike and drive up the road to just blow it out of my head. That works well until I come home and find a new problem to deal with.”

The thing that keeps the committed couple going is the joy of seeing their rescues successfully re-homed.

“There are some days where I think, ‘I’m over it. I can’t take any more heartache,'” shares Helen. “But then I get a phone call from a family saying how much their dog has changed their lives.”

Continues Gavin, “We meet people who need company, or they have physical or mental health issues, and we see what happens when the right dog goes home with the right person. That’s what keeps

you going.”

Usually working behind the scenes, Helen and Gavin are stepping into the spotlight on the new TVNZ 2 series The Dog House NZ, which gives audiences a glimpse at the adoption process.

Helen admits she was apprehensive about doing the show. She is very protective of her animals and was worried that some people would sign on to the series simply looking for their 15 minutes of fame. But as soon as she met the prospective dog parents, she knew all of them were there for the right reasons.

“I grilled these people after they’d already been grilled by the producers,” Helen laughs. “But they were all so genuine. Some of them even asked if we could help them find a dog even if they didn’t make it on the show.”

It’s a strange calling considering Helen was terrified of dogs when she was a child. Both of her parents disliked animals and would always warn Helen and her siblings to be wary whenever they were around people’s pets. “My dad would always say, ‘Don’t go near that dog, it will bite you.’ I had a lot of fear instilled in me and I thought everything was out to kill me,” recalls Helen. “When I was seven, my nan gave me her German schnauzer called Judy and that’s when my love of dogs started.”

Helen never forgot her childhood fear and so, when her son Anthony, now 32, was rushed by a German shepherd when he was three years old, she was determined to make sure it didn’t tarnish his relationship with our four-legged friends.

“I didn’t want him growing up petrified of dogs – it’s not a nice feeling,” she tells. “I went out and got a mixed dog that looked as much like a German shepherd as I could find. Since then, we’ve always had lots of dogs in the family.”

Anthony and his sister Emma, 38, are now both parents themselves, and are passing on their love of animals to the next generation.

On their wedding day with daughter Emma.

“My grandson Nathaniel is five, and he loves coming over for sleepovers and helping me feed the animals and singing them to sleep,” says Helen. “I love seeing the grandkids grow up with dogs.”

Watch The Dog House NZ Thursday at 7.30pm on TVNZ 2.

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