Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A jolly dog-friendly holiday in Pembrokeshire

Last week we piled the dogs into the car and headed off to explore the delights of Pembrokeshire in Wales.

Fargo, Billy and Stanley are old hands at holidays, but this was the first time Oscar the Lurcher had joined us. Oscar is a young dog who we adopted at the beginning of June from Southern Lurcher Rescue. A lot of the experiences would be new to him, so I planned to keep a close watch on him to make sure he behaved himself. I needn’t have worried though, he was a star from start to finish and he really enjoyed himself.

A growing number of holiday cottages welcome one or two dogs, but it’s still difficult to find one that will welcome four. We stayed at the Old Cowshed, a little cottage with a big garden in the village of Woodstock. It’s inland and quite isolated, but still within easy reach of Pembrokeshire’s lovely coast, so it was perfect both as a base for exploring the whole area and as a lovely, chilled-out place to come back to. We booked it through Coastal Cottages, which focuses entirely on Pembrokeshire and has a wealth of knowledge about dog-friendly holidays. They even sent us a booklet of good dog walks in the area.

Our travels took us to various beaches including Barafundle Bay, where a shipwreck scene was being filmed for TV. A small part of the beach was taken up with actresses in period costume lying in the sea (I didn’t envy them), and the beach was quite busy with spectators so we headed off for a lovely walk around the headland before stopping off for a drink at the Stackpole Inn nearby. 

We also visited Saundersfoot and walked through the old railway tunnels to Wisemans Bridge, where Winston Churchill watched troops practising for the D-Day landings in 1943.

We didn’t get to all the beaches in the area, but our favourite one so far is at Newgale – also popular with other dog-families, judging by the comments in the visitors’ book at the cottage. This being September, part of the beach still had dog restrictions in place, but there was plenty of room for us and we had a whale of a time. All the dogs enjoyed racing about on the sand and Oscar, who generally doesn’t care to step in water, developed a great love for paddling in the sea. We went back to Newgale a couple of times and I can’t wait to visit it again.

About five miles up the coast from Newgale is the beautiful village of Solva, where we found a very dog-friendly pub (the Harbour Inn) and restaurant (ThirtyFive - also a B&B) overlooking the harbour. Solva isn’t a very big village, but it expands as soon as you go for a walk around the harbour. Everywhere we looked we found more paths to explore and we enjoyed looking around the old lime kilns by the beach.

Pembrokeshire is known for its ancient castles, many of which allow dogs in. Carew Castle gave us plenty to explore, with its spiral staircases leading to magnificent views from the turrets. Our ticket included entry to the old mill too, where we learned all about flour milling. Like many dogs, Fargo wasn’t sure about the open-tread stairs in the mill, but he’s a brave dog and he soon learned to handle them.

We finished our adventures with a welcome pint at the Carew Inn across the road. 

The weather was warm all week and sunny for most of it, so Fargo coped well with his adventures. But he does have arthritis in his hip, so we limited the castle visits to one and the next day took it easy on him with another trip to the firm, flat sands at Newgale where he enjoyed a more sedate walk around the rocks and caves. 

The beauty of Pembrokeshire is that there’s plenty of opportunity to tailor your activities to the weather, your dog's arthritis or your own whims. You can walk all day up hill and down dale, or you can take it easy with shorter walks, for example around the old fort at Fishguard.

It was such a brilliant holiday we really didn’t want to come home at the end of the week. There's so much to do with dogs in Pembrokeshire that we barely scratched the surface. It's a perfect place for holidays with dogs and we're already planning a return trip for next year.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Along comes Oscar

Well, what a couple of months it’s been! Having lost my lovely Charlie I decided we had room for one more at Houndhead Towers. I wanted a large dog this time so that Fargo could pass on some of his lovely sunny big-dog ways. But I suspected that introducing a big grown-up might freak the Whippets out a bit so I decided a puppy would be best. I kept an eye on the rescues to see if the right dog would turn up.

I’ve always liked Southern Lurcher Rescue. I’ve met their volunteers at various shows and they’re a really friendly bunch of people. So I was delighted to find that they had three possibly-Deerhound-Saluki-cross Lurcher puppies in need of a home. I applied for the boy, passed the homecheck and a few weeks later took Fargo, Billy and Stanley to Colchester to meet Oscar.

Oscar is big floppy Lurcher pup – now maturing into a big, floppy Lurcher teenager. I think he was from a litter bred by someone who couldn’t sell the pups – one of the reasons why there are so many dogs in rescues now. Oscar had been in a foster home since then, so he was already being socialised with people and dogs, and he had a head start on his training. It was the best start he could have had, as a rescue dog.

Oscar is one of those dogs who seems to take everything in his stride. The first thing he did when we got him home was to collect all the dog toys from inside the house and put them in a pile in the garden. Though no one is 100% sure about his age, I think he was about four months old. He was smaller than the whippets and spent a lot of time chasing Stanley around, biting his legs.

That was a couple of months ago. Now Oscar is taller than the whippets and still growing. All his adult teeth have come through and he’s finished his first course of puppy classes, in which he’s been an absolute star (apart from weeing on the floor every week for the first three classes!). He gets on really well with all the other dogs and he doesn’t bite Stanley’s legs as much as he used to.

As he’s growing up it’s important not to over-exercise Oscar and put too much strain on his joints, so he often goes for walks with Fargo, who needs a more sedate walk because of his arthritis. Fargo is a very sociable dog, so Oscar gets to meet a lot of other people and dogs on those walks. I also sometimes take him out for a run about with Billy and Stanley and, when he isn’t too busy chasing Stan, he’s even started bringing toys back to me so I can throw them again. In the evenings we all go out together and he’s learned to walk very nicely on the lead with the other dogs.

I love having Oscar around, he was exactly the right dog to bring into our house and he reminds me a bit of Charlie at that age. He’s very beautiful and, although he can be a cheeky monkey, he’s generally well behaved. He loves a game with the other dogs and he doesn’t leave anyone out. But he loves to sleep too, and in the evenings he settles down really well and I don’t hear a peep out of him (apart from some comedy snoring) until the morning.

I’m so glad I was able to give Oscar a home, and that rescues like Southern Lurcher Rescue are there to make sure other dogs like him have a home to call their own.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Cooking for dogs

Anyone who knows me will be able to tell you that I’m not best friends with the cooker. I have no confidence with cooking and, probably partly because of that, I really don’t enjoy it. But lately I’ve been cooking up a few wholesome treats for the dogs and I’ve loved every minute of it. So what’s brought about this transformation?

It started during my visit to Crufts earlier this year. One stand I always make sure to visit is Lily’s Kitchen, the place to get wonderful food and treats such as the beautiful Bedtime Biscuits, a perennial favourite with my lads. But this year, something else caught my eye – a beautifully designed book called Dinner for Dogs, written by Lily’s Kitchen founder Henrietta Morrison.

Now, I know that one is never to judge a book by its cover, but this one looked so nice that I couldn’t help taking a look. However, I wasn’t sold straight away. As I explained to the very helpful lady on the stand (I’m sorry I’ve forgotten her name), despite my difficult relationship with the kitchen, I like the idea of making my own dog treats because you never know what goes into the ones you buy. But having looked at a few recipe books for dogs, I’ve often been disappointed both by the intricacy of the recipes and the frankly unhealthy ingredients (large amounts of salty parmesan cheese, for example, or a recipe that included mixed dried fruit but neglected to warn you that raisins are poisonous to dogs). What I want, I told the lady, are simple, healthy, idiot-proof recipes that can be prepared quickly.

Never fear, said the lady, this book will give you those. So I took a closer look and immediately saw that she spoke the truth. So I decided to go out on a limb and buy the book. The people at Lily’s Kitchen really believe in what they do and, more importantly, they understand the reservations of people like me. So the lady I was talking to grabbed hold of the book’s author, Henrietta Morrison and got her to sign it for me with a personalised message of encouragement that made sure I didn’t just go home and leave the book on a shelf.

A couple of months down the line, I’ve tried a few of the recipes and I haven’t been disappointed. I know that dogs (especially mine) are easy to please when it comes to food, but it has to be said that my Super Fish Cakes were a triumph. My Peanut Butter and Buckwheat Kisses literally went down a treat and, since they’re not the sort of thing you give too many of in one day, I rolled some of the same mixture out to make smaller biscuit treats for taking out on walks. During the hot bank holiday weekend, I made Peanut Butter Pops to cool down my sun-worshipping whippets. And last weekend, as we were celebrating Fargo’s 10th and Billy’s fourth birthdays, the dogs enjoyed some Celebration Cupcakes.

The brilliant thing about these recipes is that I know exactly what’s gone into them. The book contains a wealth of advice about diet, with tips on what grains, vegetables and herbs to use and guidance on the calories, protein and fat content of each recipe. It suggests substitutions for certain ingredients if you want a variation on a theme, and I’ve even been able to experiment successfully by adding some grated carrot here and there. Everything I’ve made from the book has smelled divine as it comes out of the oven too, which is a pleasant change from many shop-bought products.

So, it’s safe to say that I’m now a convert. The recipes I’ve tried are quick and easy to make and it’s great to know exactly what goes into them. I can whip up a batch of biscuit treats at the weekend and use them as training rewards throughout the week. And although my dogs generally eat a complete dried food at mealtimes, it’s nice to be able to make them the a special meal now and again too. The dogs love it when they know I’m making treats for them and there are loads more recipes I want to try over the next few months.  It turns out that this is one book that’s every bit as good as its cover suggests and it’s what a reluctant cook like me has been crying out for – thanks Lily’s Kitchen!

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Dog-leg diary: not again!

Where dogs' legs are concerned, I find that no news is generally good news. So I haven't written a dog-leg diary for a while because there hasn't been much to report on the dog-leg side of things. Although the winter weather caused some stiffness for Fargo, we countered that with steady exercise, regular trips to the physiotherapist and dips in the hydrotherapy pool. All was well.

But recently Shahad, our physiotherapist, noticed that Fargo's left hind leg is stiff and he's not putting all his weight on it. I must admit that for all the attention I pay to Fargo's legs, I hadn't noticed this. It's quite a subtle change in his gait and it's most obvious when he walks very slowly. Shahad's expert eye detected it though, and he also pointed out that Fargo has started to lose some muscle condition on that leg. As a result, we're off this Thursday to see the vet and get Fargo's leg checked out.

Of course, there can be many reasons for lameness in dogs. But I can't help thinking this could be the return of the dreaded cruciate ligament issue. Fargo had TPLO surgery for a ruptured cruciate ligament in his right hind leg almost two years ago and I know it's quite common for the problem to affect both legs eventually. If his other ligament has gone then that probably means another operation.

However, there's no point in worrying about it before we know. We'll see what Thursday's appointment brings and focus on the positives. Because of Fargo's regular physio appointments, I know we've spotted the problem as soon as we could and that he hasn't been suffering in silence for weeks. Thankfully he's insured so he can have any treatment he needs and, whatever the problem is, it's good to know we'll be seeing a vet who is an expert in this field. And if Fargo does need surgery and the extensive rest that follows it, hopefully we're heading for a warm, dry summer so he can chill out in the garden and sniff at the world going by.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Goodbye to a dear old friend

At the end of January this year we had to say goodbye to the wonderful Charlie Whippet, who was 14 years old. It was unexpected and he declined quickly, so at least I know he didn't suffer and the vet came round so he could die on the settee at home where he belonged, being cuddled by me.

Losing a beloved dog will always be a horrible experience and, although I know Charlie had a good long life and I did everything I could for him right up to the end, it rather knocked me sideways for a while. But I still had Billy and Stanley Whippet and Fargo Labradoodle to look after, and that helped. It was very sweet to see how, as I kept the routine going and watched them adjust to their loss in the weeks after Charlie's death, they all looked after me too. In those moments when I really started to miss him it was a real comfort to be able to take them out to the park where, in forgetting their troubles in play, they helped me to feel happier too.

Charlie and me had many adventures together and I'll never forget what a great travelling companion he was. There were some hard times - most notably when he was paralysed and had to have spinal surgery in 2010 - but we pulled through that together and his gentle, patient bravery was an inspiration. Charlie bounced back from that, albeit with a bit of a wobbly gait, and I know he really enjoyed his life right up until his final illness.

We'd had a great holiday together in Cornwall over the New Year and, after we got home, Charlie had enjoyed trotting around in the snow. I'll never forget the sight of him wrestling with the other whippets just a couple of days before we lost him. Being a lot younger, Billy and Stanley always recognised that they were fitter and more agile than Charlie so they wrestled with him on his terms and were never too rough.
So, although the sadness of losing Charlie will never quite go away I have lots of happy memories, from bringing him home as a chubby puppy back in 1998, through his crazy adolescence (he could be a right tinker back then), and then his growing into a splendid adult and a beautiful old gent.

He was a trusted friend to me and a role model to the young Fargo and, later on, to Billy.

More recently, Charlie had a very positive steadying influence on Stanley, who came to us as an anxious 18-month-old foster dog but who settled in so well we had to adopt him. Stanley turned out to be quite similar to Charlie in personality, and I think he recognised that they had a lot in common. Charlie used to like to sleep on his own, but I'd often find him and Stanley curled up together like two peas in a pod. And I can still see Charlie's influence on Stan, who is much calmer than he used to be and is able to take things in his stride without getting anxious.

So although Charlie's no longer around, in some ways he lives on for us. I'll always miss him, but when he pops into my head my first thoughts are always happy ones. It was a privilege to know Charlie and I'm so glad I was with him through all the stages of his long and happy life.
Charlie, Stanley, Billy and Fargo