Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Product review: A Dicky situation

The Dicky Bag - a revelation
The Dicky Bag has come as a revelation to me. As a dog-owner of some 25 years and currently with three dogs who like to do extra poos if possible while out for a walk, I’m no stranger to dog-poo-related anxiety. I always pick up after my dogs, but the big question is, what do you do with your bag of doings if there isn’t a bin nearby?

Do you put it in your bag? I certainly wouldn’t recommend it – at best, it smells and at worst, a hole in the bag could spell disaster.

Do you carry the bag of poo in one hand until you find a bin? This leaves you with only one hand to use for dog leads or anything else you need to do and often results in a rather jolly swinging action that makes you look as if you enjoy carrying bags of poo around. Recently, a bag I was carrying caught on a roadside bramble and burst, so I had to pick up the poo all over again. Not nice.

Do you walk around with it for a bit and then decide to throw it in a bush? You’d be surprised at how many people do this, and conservation volunteers can testify to how horrible it is when they’re trimming the hedgerows and unwittingly catch a bag of poo, spraying it all over themselves. Please never do this.

The answer to the poo dilemma seems so simple that it’s a wonder nobody’s thought of it before – what’s needed is an airtight container that you can use until you find the poo bin. Preferably one that can also store your poo bags and a small bottle of hand cleanser.

I’d seen the Dicky Bag in various magazines and it seemed like a good idea, but I also had some questions.  Was this just another fad? Would it be big enough for the output of my three dogs? Is it really airtight?

The Dicky Bag stores bags and hand cleanser in its lid
I found out the answers to all these questions when I visited the Dicky Bag stand at Crufts, where the company owners were happy to talk about the problems faced by dog-owners and give realistic advice on how the Dicky Bag can address them.

So, is the bag airtight? I’ve been using mine for a couple of weeks now, and it does indeed seem to hold in any smells. It will itself start to smell in good time, I’m sure, but that’s OK because it’s washable.

Is it big enough to cope with the load? I got realistic advice about this from the people at Dicky Bag, and I bought the large size. It’s coped admirably with a three-poo load and it’s good to know that, if I’d had more or bigger dogs, there’s an extra-large size that could cope with their output too.

Is it just a fad? The answer is an emphatic no – although it does come in a variety of different patterns and colours with an optional shoulder strap, so you can make sure you’re on-trend. I bought my Dicky Bag thinking that I’d use it mainly for holidays and walks in the country. I live in a city and we’re never far from a bin on most of our daily dog walks. Only after I bought the Dicky Bag did I realise quite how much I’d been retracing my steps to get to the nearest bin, or how much I hated carrying the bag of poo even for a short time until we reached the next bin.

And when I finally set up my dog poo wormery this spring, I can empty the contents of the Dicky Bag into that when I get home from walks (as long as I use starch-based bags). I can’t recommend the Dicky Bag highly enough. It’s the most useful product for dog owners that I’ve seen in years.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Product review: Give a dog an antler...

Fargo the Labradoodle is a professional-class chewer. It’s surprising in such a gentle dog. Present him with a rope bone and he’ll chase it and toss it about without harming a fibre. But he can make short work of any plastic toy or rawhide chew that crosses his path.

Fargo - a professional-class chewer
Even worse, he and the Whippets have a bad habit of fetching themselves a stick from the log basket to gnaw on when I’m not looking. Sticks are not suitable chews for dogs because they can splinter and cause injuries, so I have long been in search of something that the dogs will like as much as a stick, without the health risks.

I’d read about the Stagbar, which is essentially part of a deer’s antler and, according to its manufacturers, will last a long time without splintering or chipping. ‘Aha!’ I thought, ‘this might just do the trick.’ So at Crufts last Saturday, I went in search of these magical treats.

Billy: 'Don't even think about stealing my Stagbar!'
The manufacturers claim that Stagbars wear down slowly and contain important minerals. They don’t smell and they won’t leave a mess on your carpet. I can only take their word for the mineral content, but the dogs certainly love them, and after several chewing sessions they’re showing very few signs of wear and tear.

They were an instant hit with all three dogs and this very afternoon, they’ve all spent a happy hour or two chewing away. While I still have my suspicions regarding the stick-theft, I’m happy to report that log-basket raids are definitely on the decline.

The Stagbar is not a ‘boredom buster’ to keep your dog occupied while you’re out of the house. Like any dog chew, they’re not to be left with your dog unattended. In fact, they’re so popular with my dogs that they can lead to some competition – I had to intervene the other day when Charlie the Whippet decided he wanted Billy’s antler as well as his own. But I work from home, and I can vouch for them as a way to keep the boys out of mischief while I get on with some writing.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Crufts 2011

I spent a happy and exhausting Saturday at Crufts 2011, which proved to be a great opportunity for finding out about every aspect of dog-ownership.

Whippets - they're great
As an admirer of sight hounds, it was great to wander around the benches and show rings and surround myself with whippets and wolfhounds. But for me and many others, Crufts wasn’t all about show ring. I spent a lot of time saying ‘hello’ to different breeds, finding out about the crucial work of service dogs, talking to the many welfare organisations that help dogs in need, watching the agility events – and of course, doing some shopping (it couldn’t be helped).

It was great to see so many charities at the event and to know that so much is being done to help abandoned dogs and to provide canine help for people who need it. In addition to those with their own stands, charities also took guest spots with TV vet Marc Abraham, who was playing host to the Oldies Club while I was there. I really appreciate older dogs and I’m a big fan of this charity, so it was lovely to say hello to the volunteers and dogs. At the moment I’m in no position to take on another dog, whatever its age, but I had a chat with them about my own oldies, and I came away with some good advice based on their experiences.

Having kept dogs for more than 25 years, the one thing I’ve learned is that you never stop learning. I could have spent an entire day at Discover Dogs, where I chatted to breeders of every kind of dog. As responsible breeders, they were determined to make sure that any puppy of theirs went to a well-informed, responsible owner. They were keen to discuss the breed’s health and welfare issues, and to answer questions about the possibility of adopting a dog from a breed rescue organisation.

You may have seen the RSPCA’s open letter to the Kennel Club this week, in which it criticises the TV coverage of the show for suggesting that all the dogs were healthy and happy when some of them showed signs of exaggerated breeding. I share some of the RSPCA’s concerns, and its letter was a reminder that the problems identified in recent reports on dog breeding can’t have been eradicated in just two years. Clearly there is more work to be done, but I was encouraged to see that so many breeders are serious about producing healthy dogs.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

PAW Report gives food for though

I’ve been reading the PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report 2011, which assesses pet wellbeing in the UK. Dog, cat, and rabbit owners answered questions about the five animal welfare needs: environment, diet, behaviour, companionship and health – and the bad news is that many pet owners aren’t even aware of these needs or how they should be met.

For some reason this doesn’t surprise me. We are indeed a nation of animal lovers, but it’s tempting to show that love in a way that isn’t healthy for our animals – and so far, there doesn’t seem to be enough information out there to tell us what we're doing wrong.

Take food and treats, for example. Many dogs love food, and we love feeding them. It’s part of our bond with them, but it can be the source of huge misunderstandings and even huger pets. The PAW Report says that over the past four years the percentage of overweight dogs has risen from 21% to 35% - and at this rate nearly 50% of the UK’s dogs will be overweight by 2013.

I let a friend feed my dogs once, having told him how much food to give them – then I was horrified to see that he’d given them three times as much food  because the amount they’re normally fed ‘didn’t look like much’. I was astonished at his reasoning, but it made perfect sense to him and I can see how easy it can be to overfeed an animal if you only look at its diet through human eyes. My dogs would eat until they burst if you let them, but this wouldn’t make them happy or healthy.

Diet is just one of the five welfare needs and as such, I don’t think it should be considered in isolation. For example, I’m sure there’s room for compromise on the amount of treats given as long as the animal gets enough exercise to burn off the calories. But if they don’t get enough exercise or companionship (23% of dog owners say they leave their dog home alone for five or more hours on a typical weekday), then food can become a disproportionate focus for both dog and owner. Food might be the main thing a dog has to look forward to most days, and despite having a good general knowledge about their pets’ needs, some owners might be tempted to ‘treat’ them to snacks in an effort to compensate for the lack of a good walk after a long day at work. It’s an easy trap to fall into.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t treat our pets – but perhaps we need to think differently about what constitutes a treat. Like many other pet owners, I like to indulge my dogs. I even try to do something special for their birthdays and for Christmas. But every time I think about what they might like, I come up with the same answers. If they get a ‘present’, it will be something they need like a new bed or a replacement for a well-loved, worn-out toy. But whether or not I buy them a gift, I know that part of it is really for my own pleasure. What the dogs really want is a ‘special day’ based on their normal routine – that’s their usual meals and an extra long walk with a good chasing game thrown in, followed by a nice biscuit or chew and a warm bed when they get home.

As the PAW Report points out, more information is needed to make owners aware of their pets’ welfare needs. Britain is known as a nation of animal lovers, and I think that most pet owners aren’t deliberately cruel. But their kindness can be misdirected and whatever the reason, the results are the same.

Although the Animal Welfare Act was introduced in the UK in 2006, giving all pet owners a duty of care to meet the welfare needs of their pets, the PDSA says there is currently no overarching means of identifying, assessing, monitoring and improving the wellbeing of companion animals. The PAW Report is aimed at taking the first step towards achieving this.

I’m glad to see that the PDSA is making this a priority over the coming year and I look forward to seeing more information for pet owners about the needs of their pets.