The adventures of Sophie the rescue dog who now lives with the Bennett Institute's Director Diane Coyle, and podcast host Rory Cellan-Jones.
At about 3am on the Saturday before Christmas, an internet sensation arrived in our home.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the clearly nervous rescue dog, Sophie, just transported to us by a 72-hour van journey from Romania would not only take over our lives but also touch many, many other people.
Our much-loved old dog, Cabbage – also a rescue, and a family member for the past 14 years – had died last January. After some months, my husband and I decided it was time to adopt another, but had no luck with local rehoming centres, which have few animals available and long waiting lists. So on the recommendation of a colleague, we opted for a Peterborough-based charity, meeting our new adoptee by video. The charity handled the health and Defra checks, and dropped her at our home, one of a party of a dozen dogs being brought to their new homes in the UK.
Poor Sophie was terrified. She had never lived in a house before, didn’t know us, and the journey must have been a shock.
After an unsuccessful attempt to show her the garden, she dived behind one of our sofas. And stayed there.
My husband is Rory Cellan-Jones (Jesus College, 1977), who recently retired as the BBC’s technology correspondent and hosts the Bennett Institute’s Crossing Channel podcast series. He did what came naturally to him and started tweeting about the experience. Of course, animals and social media are a natural fit. Advice started pouring in. Some of it has been incredibly useful – we were at a loss as to what to do and actually also scared about the unexpected responsibility. An experienced trainer, Si, has consistently supported us online and has even visited the house. As I write, another neighbour has stopped by with a gift for Sophie, homemade sardine cake.
Although some of the advice has admittedly been less useful, it has been both astonishing and moving for us to see how viral the #sophiefromromania hashtag on various social media platforms has gone.
This little domestic story of fear, discovery, and slow progress has touched so very many other people.
Rory has been on multiple radio shows, the BBC’s Six O’Clock news, and will write about the experience eventually: we hope the story will have a positive outcome. Every meeting or conversation I have seems to start with questions about how Sophie is doing. An email today came from one of my colleagues in Italy: Sophie has made a major newspaper there. The comments are too many to monitor but are global.
It’s interesting to reflect on why Sophie has gone viral in this way. It’s well known that pets can assist with mental health and emotional support. It seems more surprising that somebody else’s pet could strike such a chord, and especially as it isn’t yet an obvious success story – we have quite a way to go before she’s settled and confident. Perhaps it’s the time of year, the post-Christmas gloom and dismal January weather. Perhaps it’s these troubled and uncertain times making a story of hope a welcome beacon.
Perhaps it’s Sophie’s own story, a stray with a rough start in life needing to find her own feet (or paws) and learn not to be afraid.
Perhaps it’s nothing more than being one positive story amid all the toxic things that are too easy to find on social media.
Whatever the reason, we recognise that we will need to let the thousands following the hashtag know how it goes. Sophie hardly came out from her safe place over Christmas and New Year: too many people in the house. This week saw a major step forward when she emerged from behind the sofa for a whole morning to watch my Zoom meetings and explore the kitchen: cue massive cheers online. There will be setbacks and unpredictable progress, and we (or at least Rory) will keep the world informed.
Eventually though the story will reach a natural end – which is when my thousands of new followers online will face the shock of realising that I normally tweet about economic policy. I hope at least some of them will have followed for the dog but might stay for the Bennett Institute research.