Friday, 26 November 2010

Charity focus: Leicester Animal Aid

Leicester Animal Aid is a charity close to my heart as well as my home. The charity rescues and rehomes more than 550 dogs and cats each year from its rescue centre in Huncote, Leicestershire. But now it’s struggling to fund this valuable work.

The recession has affected all of us, and many people have had to tighten their belts. Throughout 2010, Leicester Animal Aid has seen a considerable downturn in donations. Now the charity is in a vulnerable financial position and has made an urgent appeal for help.

“As we approach the end of 2010 we are very concerned for the future of the animals that, through no fault of their own, find themselves without a home and are in desperate need of care and support,” said the charity’s Chairman Anne Martin in a statement earlier this year.

If you’d like to help Leicester Animal Aid, there are many ways to do it. You can make a regular or one-off donation, adopt or sponsor a rescue dog or cat, or donate essential items such as dog food, cat litter, bleach, washing powder, sterilising fluid or bin liners to the centre.

Leicester Animal Aid works hard to ensure a bright future for dogs and cats in need. Here’s hoping it gets the help it needs to continue its good work.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Give us freedom to roam

Back in the day, I used to be able to take my well-behaved dog into many shops and pubs in the city centre. He loved being involved in my day-to-day life and he was brilliantly socialised because of all the people he met in different situations. Then more and more businesses started shutting dogs out, often citing fictitious health and safety rules as the reason. There are still some excellent businesses that allow dogs on the premises, but in the vast majority of places dogs just aren’t welcome.  

I hate leaving my dogs at home every time I want to go somewhere that isn’t a specific ‘dog walk’. When I worked full time in an office I had to leave them at home while I went to work, when I went shopping and for any social occasion that took me out of the house. For anyone that wants to enjoy time with their dog, that balance is clearly wrong. So I’m really glad to see a groundswell of opinion asking for dogs to be welcomed in the workplace.

Notably, Lily’s Kitchen, which has opened a pop-up doggy diner in London until 23 December, is campaigning for dogs and their owners to be made welcome in UK shops. Customers at the diner have been signing the Freedom to Roam petition, and now it’s available online for those of us who live too far away to get to the diner. Lily’s Kitchen cites some interesting facts:
·         In Britain, dogs are generally far less welcome than they are in other nations, such as France or Italy. They’re increasingly banned from pubs, restaurants, and even some parks and beaches.
·         Despite what we’re often told by business owners, the Health and Safety Executive has not produced any guidance relating to dogs in the workplace as health and safety law does not specifically prohibit them.
·         Leaving a dog at home, in the car or tied up outside the business premises is not ideal – if they’re left home alone they get lonely and can develop behavioural issues; left in the car, they can quickly overheat and die; and left outside they can become targets for thieves.  

For me, another key factor to consider is how much extra business the UK’s dog owners would bring if their furry friends were made welcome on the premises. Especially in a challenging economy where shops are struggling to compete with online retail, it can’t be wise to alienate such a huge chunk of the consumer population.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The joy of Woofbark

When it comes to internet forums, I tend to be a lurker. I might find the discussions interesting, but it takes something special to lure me out of my shell to take part. Recently, Woofbark has achieved this feat.

Launched in 2010, Woofbark is run by two web developers who believe that business should be fun. While walking their dogs on the hills one day, they decided they’d like to build a website around their shared interest in dogs, which would incorporate the kind of social networking tools that have ensured the success of various forums and sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The result is stunning – a friendly online community where dog owners can share photos, ideas and resources – or in the words of the developers, ‘a free website for everything related to dogs’.

Woofbark stays true to that promise. Whether you’re new to the world of dogs or you’ve got years of experience, you can find out about anything you need to know. There’s an easily searchable list of dogs for rehoming, and Woofbark uses Twitter to make sure news about these homeless hounds reaches as many people as possible. You can find links to companies that supply the products or services you need, or take part in the discussion forums where, over the past week alone, topics have ranged from the money-saving virtues of a value duvet as a dog bed to Jonathan Ross’s new puppy, and the dog poo wormery.

For me, the true beauty of Woofbark is that it’s been developed with great skill, and with its users in mind. While it would be possible to spend a whole day exploring the site, most people don’t have the time for such a luxury. Thanks to Woofbark’s intelligent design, dedicated subject forums and ease of navigability, you can easily find what you’re looking for and spend as little or as much of your time on the site as you like.

Woofbark invites its users to explore, ask questions and drive the future development of the site. Its developers are open to ideas and feedback on what users like, dislike or would like to see on Woofbark. It will be interesting to see how this community develops over the coming months.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Happiness is a new fence

The fence men have arrived! Even as I type they’re putting in the second panel and post to close the gap between my garden and the one nextdoor.

In the week since the fence blew down, Billy the whippet has actually been pretty good about it. He’s looked through the gap a few times, perhaps with a view to making his way through at a later date, but the makeshift barrier I constructed from garden furniture seems to have done its job. It has meant extra vigilance on my part though, just in case he makes a break for it.

Perhaps because I’m a dog-owner, I’ve always been partial to a good fence. And with a keen explorer among my pack, the sight of this sturdy wooden barrier where once there were rotted slats and holes makes me sigh with satisfaction.

So, hooray for the fence men! Even Billy seems to appreciate their work and kept his barking low-key while they were in our garden.

Charity focus: Southern Lurcher Rescue

Wandering around Discover Dogs last weekend, I stopped for a chat with a lovely bunch – some human, some canine – from Southern Lurcher Rescue.

Southern Lurcher Rescue receives no government funding and relies solely on donations from the public and the good will of its volunteers. There are no kennel facilities and all the dogs live with volunteer foster carers until a suitable home can be found for them.

As its name suggests, Southern Lurcher Rescue is based in the south of the UK, although it extends fairly far north when needed. Its volunteers are dedicated to rehoming lurchers, most of which have been given up from home environments. And ‘dedication’ is the operative word – the volunteers I met are lurcher-mad. They make gifts, cards and accessories to raise funds for the charity, donate their design skills for its publicity materials, and they wear their heart on their sleeve – sometimes in the form of lurcher-themed tattoos.

This is without doubt one of the friendliest, most inclusive rehoming charities I’ve come across. Whether you’re a lurcher owner, you think you might like to give one a home, or you’re just interested in learning more, they’ll make you feel welcome and answer all your questions.

Learn about lurchers
  • Lurchers have been around for over 400 years. They were originally bred for hunting, but their friendly, gentle and intelligent nature has made them increasingly popular as a family pet.
  • Anything goes with a lurcher - they're hardy dogs that can be smooth-haired, broken-coated or rough-coated. They come in any colour and a wide range of sizes from whippet to deerhound.
  • It’s no wonder that lurchers attract such devotion – I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that isn’t stunningly beautiful, and like many running breeds, they’re gentle souls who like to cuddle up on a cosy bed (or your settee) after a burst of energy.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The future's green for Leicestershire dog rescue

I’m ridiculously excited at the news from Dogs Trust of a new rescue centre opening up in Leicestershire. Not only that, but it will be a green rescue centre.

Ever since I started pestering my parents for a puppy many years ago (back when Dogs Trust was known as the National Canine Defence League), I’ve felt that there should be a centre in our county. It may have been because, anxious not to encourage me in my canine obsession, my parents said that our nearest rescue centre in Kenilworth was too far away for us to get to. I’m sure they wouldn’t have taken me even if there was a centre on our street, but that hasn’t stopped me feeling in some way cheated by the lack of a Leicestershire Dogs Trust. Well, good things come to those who wait, and now we’re getting a state-of-the-art green rescue centre where I hope many a lost or abandoned dog will find comfort, safety and a new home.

And the environmentally friendly approach to the centre’s construction is also a subject dear to my heart. Leicester was Britain's first Environment City, so it’s fitting that the centre should be constructed with a low carbon footprint in mind. In fact, I’ve recently become increasingly aware that my dog-ownership probably significantly increases my own carbon footprint, which would otherwise be fairly low. As I explore ways to ‘green’ my own dogs, it’s encouraging to see Dogs Trust grasping the green nettle and tackling the issue.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Discover Dogs: Toys, treats and travel

Discover Dogs was a great chance to get all my questions answered about various doggy products, try some free samples and, of course, spend some hard-earned cash. Here are my best buys from the show.
I stopped by the Dog Friendly stand to grab a copy of ‘Pubs, Beaches and Days Out’. I take my dogs on holidays around the UK and they love the beach, but as we live in the land-locked Midlands we have to travel quite a distance to get to the sea. It’s no fun to reach your destination and find out that you have to travel even further every time you go out because your dogs aren’t welcome anywhere nearby. This book will give me a guide to pubs and beaches where the dogs will be welcome, including details of any restrictions so we’ll know where to go for a nice, relaxed holiday with plenty to do.

Next, a trip to Dogs’ Den where I found the recyclable, stuffable, tossable and tough Tux toy by West Paw Designs. This wasn’t the cheapest dog toy I've ever bought, but it looked as if it might stand up to Fargo the labradoodle’s formidable chewing skills so I splashed out. It turned out to be brilliant value for money. As soon as I got it home all the dogs went crazy for it, and it immediately became Fargo’s favourite toy. I gave it to him yesterday and he went and fetched it as soon as he finished breakfast this morning. It’s incredibly durable – Fargo’s chewed it like a pro and it’s not showing a single sign of wear and tear.  It’s also dishwasher safe and it floats – an invaluable property if, like me, you’ve had a dog that likes to take his toys in the pond. I haven’t even put any treats in the toy yet, as the dogs seem to love it just as it is. It’s a great toy that will last many years.

I had to pay a visit to Lily’s Kitchen. I don’t live in London so it’s not practical for me to take my dogs for a trip to the brilliant Lily’s Kitchen Diner pop-up store which is open in London until 23 December. So I thought I’d take home some Lily’s Kitchen organic treats for them. My dogs love all treats, so I knew they’d have no problem trying new ones – but they absolutely love these. The Organic Cheese and Apple Treats are a big hit. For a ‘biscuit in the house’, I’d like it if they were available in a larger size for my medium- and large-sized dogs. But they’re the ideal size for use as training treats and, since dogs go crazy for them, they’re an effective blackmail tool. The real winners are the new Organic Bedtime Biscuits, which are made with probiotic yoghurt, honey, chamomile and passion flowers and are designed to help your dog settle down when it’s time for bed. My three don’t need any help settling down for the night, but they do love these biscuits – in fact, they smell so nice I wish there was a version for humans.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Responsible breeding: don't get sold a pup

At Discover Dogs last weekend, I was glad to see the Kennel Club providing clear information about campaigns that are close to my heart. In particular, the campaign to put an end to puppy farming must have struck a chord with anyone who was at the event to find out which breed of dog they’d like to own.

With so many unwanted dogs and puppies needing homes, there are many arguments for adopting a rescue dog. But whether they hope to show their dog or ensure that its parents have had all the relevant tests for hereditary conditions, many people will want to buy a puppy from a breeder. I’ve had a mixture of dogs from rescues and breeders, though I think my next dog will probably be a rescue. And I know from experience how easy it can be to unwittingly support irresponsible breeders, and how important it is to make sure you don't.

Years ago, after the death of my first dog, I went looking for a whippet puppy. I did my research and phoned an established breeder to find out if any litters were planned in the near future, but I was given such a hard sell that alarm bells started ringing. I was pressured to buy a six-month old puppy that hadn’t been taken, and told that if I came to see any puppies and didn’t buy one, that would make me a time-waster. I know that responsible breeders will often offer to take a puppy back if its new home doesn’t work out, and that can explain why an older puppy might become available from them. But this breeder’s attitude made me suspect that the supply of puppies was far outstripping demand, and that raised issues about their health and welfare. Sadly, I soon found out that I was right – a few months later, more than 50 whippets were rescued from the breeder, having been kept in appallingly over-crowded conditions and the breeder was banned from keeping dogs.

My own story had a happier ending. Following my conversation with this breeder I contacted another, reputable breeder who welcomed the grilling I gave her as much as I welcomed the fact that the puppy I wanted from her hadn’t even been conceived yet. This breeder had a good reputation in the show world, and would make sure she had a list of people wanting puppies before she bred a litter. It was reassuring news. She questioned me about my experience with the breed, my previous dog and why I wanted a puppy.

Thirteen years after those phone calls, I’ll never forget my experience of dealing with two very different breeders, or the lessons it taught me. I still have the dog I bought from the responsible breeder and he’s a stunner. I hope all the rescued dogs were rehomed, and that they’re enjoying life to the full with the people who adopted them. But I remember that at the time, despite my misgivings, I had to resist the temptation to take one of those puppies from the first breeder – a decision that would have helped to perpetuate the suffering of many other dogs.  

Friday, 12 November 2010

Fence gap brings whippet-related challenge

Ever the opportunist: Billy

It’s been a dramatic night for weather, with a detrimental effect on dog-proof gardens. The garden fence has finally succumbed to the forces of nature. It’s been battered beyond repair by the wind and Billy the whippet, escape artist extraordinaire, is very interested in the opportunities offered by the six-foot gap that’s opened up into our neighbour's garden.

We’re waiting for the fence man to arrive, but I think he’s likely to be rather busy today so it won’t get mended straight away. In the meantime, I’m working on an emergency barrier using garden furniture and the like.

I hope it works because this afternoon I’m off to London, leaving the dogs in the care of my other half who’ll have to chaperone Billy in the garden while I visit a friend and then spend tomorrow at Discover Dogs.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Kong - a cause for celebration

I’ve just got back from the park with the dogs and I’m so happy – Charlie the whippet had a good game of fetch with his Kong for the first time since he had is spinal surgery in June!

Chuffed - Charlie
Charlie’s always loved his Kong – it’s a Cool Kong on a rope and he’s had it since he was young. It was a brilliant help in teaching him recall, which can be a challenge where sight hounds are concerned. He and Murphy, a wonderful wolfhound cross I had at the time, were very particular about only retrieving their own Kongs, and it’s been the only toy he’s really wanted to engage with since then. He’ll sometimes run after another toy but he’ll never bring it back once he’s realised it’s not his special one.

However, when the right Kong’s involved, Charlie will go crazy for it. He only has one speed for chasing it (super-fast), and he gets wildly excited by the prospect of a game. The problem is that since his operation he’s had to learn to walk again and he’s not as steady on his feet as he used to be, especially his left front leg. So on the odd occasion when I’ve tentatively tried to give him a game with the Kong, he’s tended to miss his footing while running and topple over onto his shoulder. It was really sad to think that perhaps, at 12 years old, his Kong-chasing days were over.

But today, we found out that they’re not. His running gait looked a bit like he’s from the Ministry of Silly Walks, but he was sure footed and as fast as he wanted to be. I’m chuffed to bits and he’s a very happy dog.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Dog tooth check: Charlie’s tartar

Charlie’s got dog breath. Well of course he has, he’s a dog. I mean he’s got ‘dog breath’ in human terms – rank-smelling and with a heavy build-up of tartar, the sort of stuff that can cause gum disease and won’t come off with a toothbrush.

His teeth were fine, if a bit yellow, at last year’s health check – in fact, they were pretty good for a 10-year-old dog. They’re still strong now, but their condition seems to have deteriorated quickly since his operation in June. At his health check in August this year, the vet was far less satisfied with them, noting a build-up of tartar. Normally, this would mean a scale and polish for Charlie, which is done under general anaesthetic. This time, the vet didn’t want to put him through another surgical procedure because he had major surgery just a few months ago.

What to do? Despite Charlie’s health issues, there’s the possibility that if his teeth don’t improve, surgery might become the only option. I know many other dog-owners will be in the same position, so I searched the internet for advice, and I came up with what appears to be one of those ‘miracle’ products. ‘PlaqueOff’ is a food supplement that claims to soften the tartar build-up until it just scrapes off either with the help of a toothbrush or when the dog is chewing.

I’m naturally sceptical of miracle products. Manufacturers make such bold claims about what they can do, and it’s easy for a simple-minded soul like me to be bamboozled by ‘the science bit’. This time, though, I found a large number of rave reviews from users of the product.  According to the instructions, results can be seen after 3-8 weeks of use. Quite a few of the user reviews said that their dogs’ teeth were good as new after three weeks, although this would obviously depend on how bad they were to start with. As I haven’t got many alternatives and it only cost about £10 for a 60-gram pot, I thought I’d give it a go.

We’re now four weeks into our trial (day 31) and although I’ve not seen any miracles yet, I'm pretty sure it’s working. Charlie’s teeth were pretty tartared-up, so it might take longer to see results than with some other dogs. But the tartar is gradually starting to rub off and his breath, though still a bit doggy, isn’t as bad as it was.

Maybe after 12 years of use, Charlie’s teeth will never be pristine. But if this product can save him from having dental surgery it will save me a lot of worry as well as money. So:
·         Will Charlie’s teeth come clean?
·         Will he avoid dental surgery?
·         How long will it take?

Watch this space to find out.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Charlie the wonder whippet

Today is Charlie the whippet's 12th birthday, and it's extra special because he's had a tough year. In fact, during the summer there were times when I wasn't sure he'd make it.

Charlie exploring the garden on his recent holiday
In June, Charlie collapsed in the garden and lost the use of all four legs. We took him straight to the emergency vet who confirmed him as quadriplegic, probably due to a neurological problem in his neck.

My vet referred Charlie to Dovecote Veterinary Hospital in Castle Donington for an MRI scan the next day, to see if it would be possible to operate. The scan revealed a prolapsed disc and some other conditions in the vertebrae of his neck, which had compressed and damaged his spinal cord. He had major surgery ,the same day to remove the tops of his vertebrae and decompress the cord.

Unfortunately, Charlie refused to eat for most of the six days he spent in hospital. Whippets are already naturally slender dogs, so Charlie was a worrying sight, but luckily he started eating properly again as soon as we got him home from the hospital. Then we began a long process of rehabilitation.
As he recovered, Charlie had to reroute his neural pathways so he could first roll upright, then stand up and learn to walk again. For the first couple of days I had to drain his bladder using a catheter because he couldn't go to the toilet for himself - that was a new skill for me! Then I had to take him into the garden and hold him upright whenever he wanted to go to the toilet. But he wanted to move around for himself and he gradually got stronger. As the vets constantly reminded me, his recovery would be slow because he's not a young dog - but although it took over three months of hard work to get him properly walking again, the time seemed to fly by.

Charlie's been signed off by the physiotherapist at Dovecote and he's just come back from a short holiday in Wales, where he enjoyed his walks with the other dogs. He's still slightly unsteady on his left front leg, but he doesn't let that stop him running about.

So, happy birthday Charlie. I think we'll celebrate with a quiet night in though, away from all the fireworks.