Monday, 14 November 2011

Things I discovered at Discover Dogs

Early on Saturday morning I set out to get the train from Leicester to London, heading for Earl’s Court and the annual dog-fest that is Discover Dogs. ‘But wait,’ I hear you say, ‘surely you discovered dogs many years ago!’ And of course you’d be right, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there’s always more to find out.

One train journey complete with infant sickness in the aisle next to my seat later, and I was saying hello to a beautiful Irish Terrier who works as a Pets as Therapy (PAT Dog), while learning all about the great work of the PAT scheme.

My immediate mission was to head for the EzyDog stand and buy a replacement star flyer for Billy. It’s by far his favourite toy, but that didn’t stop him losing his on the park last week. It’s also very convenient for me because it’s a Frisbee that you can fold up and put in your pocket, leaving your hands free to handle your three dogs.

However, at an event like Discover Dogs there’s just so much to see, and it was only after spending some time at the PAT, Wildlife Trusts and various other stands that I made it to EzyDog – only to find out that the star flyer was the one thing they hadn’t brought with them. This was only a minor disappointment and a quick search of the other stands brought the discovery of a flexible rubber Frisbee that can roll up to fit into a pocket. Not so hard-wearing as the EzyDog star flyer, perhaps, but a good stopgap until I was able to buy a replacement online.

Fun and games with the assistance dogs in training
Education is the name of the game at Discover Dogs. Not only can you meet and learn about different breeds, but there were also seminars on everything from Reiki to puppy farming to ‘Why dogs are good for us’ as well as some great demonstrations for children about how to be safe around dogs.

Mary shows us how it's done
I stopped by the main arena to see Mary Ray demonstrating some trick training with her dogs. Mary is perhaps most famous for her ‘Dancing with Dogs’ routines but she is quite possibly the UK’s best canine obedience trainer too. Her dog Levi was in the recent Will Young video which, whether or not you like the song, is a pleasure to watch. Mary told us some great stories about the making of that video.
Inspired by Mary’s expertise I headed for her stand, where I found the best Whippet-proof treat bag I’ve ever come across. Whippets know that they have long, thin noses and that they can slip them into pretty much any pocket or bag to nick a treat. Billy is especially good at this but Charlie gives it a good go too. Not only is my new treat bag big enough to hold enough treats for a three-dog walk, it also has a spring-loaded opening. You can leave it wide open or snap it shut so not even the most determined Whippet can slip his nose in. As if that wasn’t enough, the inner bag can be detached and washed, and if it wears out you can buy a replacement inner without having to buy a whole new bag. ‘Mary,’ I thought, ‘you really do understand the needs of a dog-owner like me.’

In between my mini shopping sprees, I went to admire all the different breeds of dog that were there (including several stops with the Whippets). With so many British breeds now at risk of dying out, it was great to see them represented here and to get to know more about them. The Glen of Imaal Terrier and the Smooth Fox Terrier were especially delightful and the Dandie Dinmont Terrier never stopped wagging his tail at passers-by.

I always make sure I say hello to Southern Lurcher Rescue when they’re at an event. Not only do they do valuable work in rescuing and rehoming Lurchers in need, but they’re also a really friendly bunch who are great to chat to. I hugged a lurcher, picked up tips on holidays where more than three dogs are allowed, and I now know where to get some beautiful hand-made hound collars at a very reasonable price. Talking of holidays, I also made sure I stopped by the Dog Friendly stand. I’ve written a few articles for their Out & About magazine and it was great to say hello to the team.

At Discover Dogs the dogs really are the stars, and I indulged my dog-geekdom with a bit of celebrity spotting. I was very excited to see Ripley, the face of the recent Pedigree Adoption Drive campaign, and Sykes from Midsomer Murders (AKA Harvey from the Thinkbox ‘Every home needs a Harvey’ advert), who were lending their support to the Kennel Club Assured Breeders scheme.

A bit of fun dog-racing and some flyball-watching later, and it was time to head off home laden with my various purchases and free samples. I still don’t feel that I’ve seen everything there is to see at Discover Dogs and I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.

And as an added bonus, I met up with my fellow dog-walkers on the park this morning and was presented with... Billy’s star flyer! His friend Lola the Springer Spaniel had found it on Saturday, days after he’d lost it. So all’s well that ends well. It was a very happy reunion for Billy and he let Lola play with it too. We kept a very close eye on it this time though!

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Happy Birthday Charlie Whippet!

My lovely Charlie the Whippet is 13 years old today. He's a very special dog so I've dug out some photos to tell you a bit about him.

Charlie came from a very nice lady in Newark, who I contacted after Zephyr, my previous Whippet, had died. She was a responsible breeder who gave me a proper (though kindly) grilling to make sure I was a suitable whippet owner. After that we had a bit of a wait before a litter of puppies arrived. By the time they did, I’d moved to Reading to do my PhD and I brought Charlie home by train from Newark at the end of December 1998. He coped very well with the journey and got lots of admiring looks on the Tube.

Charlie's other name is Silkstone True North, but I called him Charlie because when he was chewing a toy, his facial expressions reminded me of Charlie Chaplin. When Charlie was young he had a dark blue face and white paws. Here he is at three months old with my Irish Wolfhound crossbreed, Murphy. Charlie thought Murphy was the best thing he’d ever seen. When he wasn’t play-fighting with him, he was sleeping on him (Murphy was like a big soft rug). Murphy was very patient about it all.

Charlie was the greediest puppy in his litter and he was a chunky pup, full of mischief and quite difficult to train in recall. We had a few hairy moments, such as him running into the road and standing in front of a bus – I swear he was laughing at me too – but we got there in the end when Murphy and I taught him that retrieving a Kong so it could be thrown again was one of the most important things in life. As Charlie grew up he became much more reliable, and since then I’ve always taken my dogs to puppy training classes so we can get the basics in place among other dogs in a secure environment.

When he was younger, Charlie liked to run until he dropped. But one of his key skills has always been chilling out. It’s a quality I’ve always admired in him and I’ve tried to learn from it. I kept this photo on my desk when I had a stressful job and it helped to remind me that Whippets know what's important in life.

Charlie’s blue face turned a distinguished grey when he was a couple of years old. I think that like people, some dogs go grey early on while others don’t. A lot of people think Charlie is much younger than he is because they never knew him with his blue face. He’s also lost his white socks as the hair on his fawn legs has turned white. Most people don’t know about the socks, either.

When Murphy died in 2003, I let Charlie say goodbye to him. He sniffed Murphy's body before embracing life as an only dog. He did miss Murphy, but he didn’t seem to mind being the only dog apart from the fact that he hated being left alone with no canine company. In the end, it was only a few months before Fargo joined us. You wouldn't believe from looking at him now, but Fargo was a very small puppy. He loved Charlie as soon as he saw him, but Charlie really couldn’t be bothered with Fargo for a couple of weeks because he didn’t think he was big enough to play with. That soon changed though and they became very firm friends.

I took Charlie to agility classes for a while and he really enjoyed them. He still enjoys jumping over logs and stuff when we’re out for a walk. All the trainers at the class said it was amazing how much he kept eye contact with me. He’s like that. He likes to pretend he’s really independent but actually he wants me to be nearby. He likes us to work as a team.

We pottered along happily for a long time, going on holidays to Wales and stuff like that. When we moved to a bigger house we were joined by Billy the Whippet, who was 13 weeks old. Charlie pretends that he can just about tolerate Billy, but they love each other really. They enjoy wrestling each other and you’ll often find them curled up together too.

Then in summer 2010 – disaster! Charlie lost the use of all his legs due to a compressed spinal cord and ruptured disc. He had the tops taken off some vertebrae in his neck and had to learn to walk again. He didn’t like his stay in the vet hospital and he went on hunger strike. He lost a lot of weight and looked really ill. It took weeks to get him standing up again, but gradually we got him walking even though he had a weak left foreleg which he dragged on the ground a bit.

Now, though, Charlie is transformed. Fargo had a cruciate ligament operation this summer and had to go to physiotherapy and hydrotherapy. I mentioned Charlie and the physiotherapist suggested I brought him along. It turns out that he’d been compensating with his strong legs and letting his weak legs get even weaker.

After Charlie's very first swim in the hydrotherapy pool he was like a different dog and now, a couple of months later, he’s much stronger. He picks up his left foreleg nicely and he really enjoys his walks. I get really excited when I see him walking so well and he’s more confident too. He even starts games with other dogs on the park! He can get a bit stiff and we think he might have some arthritis in his lower back, but he's healthy, happy and enthusiastic (especially about treats). He leaves most of the running to Billy now, but he has been known to break into a sprint, especially when he sees one of his friends on the park. That's another reason that people think he’s much younger than he is.

Today, Charlie will have a swim in the hydrotherapy pool before spending the rest of his birthday chilling out at home. He’ll get lots of treats and then, as it’s Firework Night, we’ll settle down to watch a film. He probably won’t see the film as he’s never been interested in TV and anyway and he’ll be curled up under a blanket on the settee. But it will help to make sure he doesn't get worried by any firework noises from outside. Whatever he does, I know he'll enjoy his birthday and I hope he'll have many happy returns.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Things that go bang...

What with Bonfire Night, New Year celebrations and any number of other reasons for bangs and flashes, this time of year is a nightmare for many dog owners. In a perfect world I’d like to see fireworks restricted to organised events. But fireworks must make a lot of money for the people who sell them and I suspect that restrictions are unlikely to be enforced any time soon. The problem is that we dog-obsessives have to share the world with people who aren’t really bothered about them – in fact, they might like fireworks more than they do dogs, or they might simply not know about the effect fireworks can have. We have to find a way to live together, and that means helping our canine friends to cope with the annual season of loud noises and flashing lights.

It doesn’t help that for each of us and for our dogs, fireworks can bring very different experiences. Whether it’s due to poor socialisation as a puppy or a negative experience in adult life, dogs can grow fearful of the loud noises made by fireworks, and if their fear isn’t addressed it can get worse. As with people, some dogs are naturally more nervous than others, and despite the fact that the firework season seems to bet longer every year, this isn’t a constant source of noise that a dog can gradually get used to. I’ve also found that a dog who had no problem with last year’s fireworks can still be taken by surprise when the bangs begin again after a peaceful, firework-free spring and summer.

Unfortunately, one of the most effective ways to ensure a happy dog – plenty of exercise – isn’t always an option for helping to keep them calm at this time of year. As soon as darkness starts to fall the fireworks come out, and whether or not my dogs are afraid of fireworks when they’re in the house, I don’t want them coming across one while out for a walk. So at this time of year the evening walk is a cautious affair. Early morning is the best bet for a good walk, but not for all dogs. Even at this time of day I’ve heard the odd firework being let off, and I’ve seen some dogs reacting fearfully to the noises.

Having owned fearful dogs in the past I know how easily fear can build into panic, and how distressing firework fear can be for both humans and dogs. It can be difficult to know what to do. Many of us will have been told not to respond to our dogs’ fear reactions and to carry on as if there is nothing to be scared of. But if you’re faced with a terrified dog and with the odd loud bang making you jump out of your own skin, how can you pretend to your dog – who is a master at reading body language – that nothing is wrong? Common sense comes in the form of a very helpful factsheet from Dogs Trust, which includes advice on how to help puppies grow accustomed to the noises they’ll hear as well as tips on dealing with a dog that has grown up to fear the fireworks.

Diffusing the firework fear
I know from my own experience that, as the Dogs Trust advises, acting as if nothing is amiss can work wonders if the dog has only recently begun to react to fireworks. My own dogs are pretty calm when the fireworks are going off, but they can be taken by surprise now and again and I’ve found that as long as I’m calm around them they will settle down again. If the noises are particularly bothersome to them, I’ll distract their attention with a game or a bit of reward-based training so they stop worrying about the noises outside. That’s fine for dogs like mine because they’re more surprised than frightened by the noises and I’m able to direct their behaviour and stop their surprise from escalating into fear.

However, many dogs have a serious fear of fireworks, and I’m really glad to see that Dogs Trust advises owners to give those dogs attention if they need it. We care so much for our dogs, who wouldn’t want to comfort them when they’re frightened? As the factsheet notes, dogs who are very afraid will be too scared to see such interaction as a reward so, contrary to some advice I’ve had in the past, giving the dog attention will provide some comfort, rather than reinforcing fearful behaviour. A key point here is not to force the dog out into the open if that’s not where it wants to be. The Dogs Trust advises that it’s essential to “try to find out what helps [the dog] to cope and be sure to let him do this – e.g. letting him hide under the table – don’t try to coax him out, if this is where he feels safest – he’ll come out when he’s ready and then you can praise him.”

Advice such as drawing the curtains and turning up the volume on the TV hits the spot for me – that’s what we always do in my house on bonfire night and I’ve found it works a treat. Having made sure the dogs have been outside to go to the loo before it gets dark, we’ll be settling down to watch a film with loud noises in it as the dogs don’t seem to mind if the noises come from the TV. (Fargo particularly recommends the second film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – I don’t know why, but he loves it!)

I hadn’t come across a couple of the other tips in the factsheet, although these make perfect sense to me now I’ve read them. They include:
·         Keeping internal doors open, as closing them can make the dog feel trapped
·         Feeding a stodgy high-carbohydrate meal in the late afternoon, such as well-cooked white rice, pasta or mashed potato with cooked chicken, turkey or white fish, as this can help to make the dog feel more calm and sleepy in the evening.

As many of us know from experience, even these measures aren’t enough to reassure some dogs and a longer-term approach may be needed. There is a growing range of options to help ease the anxiety of firework season – CDs to help accustom pets to loud noises, dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) diffusers, calming herbal remedies or the Thundershirt to name but a few. Different approaches might work for different dogs and if you’re using a product like DAP or a noise CD, you need to begin some time before the fireworks start. If your dog tends to get very frightened it's important to discuss the options with your vet or a qualified dog trainer to find the best approach.

There is no 'quick fix' for a fearful dog, but I think that with concerted effort it is possible to help make this time of year less stressful for our canine friends. The Dogs Trust factsheet offers some great advice which my own experience tells me is worth listening to. I wish I'd known these techniques years ago when my first Whippet was shivering with fear as the fireworks exploded overhead, but at least I've been able to apply some of them with my current three dogs, who are able to be pretty laid back about Bonfire Night. I hope the information is useful to you, and that you and your dogs have a calm and relatively peaceful firework season.

** Charlie Whippet (in the photo) isn't actually afraid of fireworks, which is good because his birthday is on 5 November!