21 December 2012

A Greyhound's Christmas Wish

Image: Greyhound wearing reindeer antlers
Stevie's Christmas Wish
© Susan McKeon, All rights reserved

I was playing about on photoshop with a photo of Stevie and it struck me that many a greyhound's wish this Christmas, would be to find a forever home, which is why I came up with my recipe for a 'pawfect' Christmas (if you can't read the 'recipe' in the picture, here it is below):

The recipe for a 'greyt' Christmas
Take a greyhound (or 2, or more)
Add a sprinkling of reindeer dust
Place into a forever home
Allow to settle in
Look forward to a lifetime of love

As anyone who reads my blog will know I'm a greyhound nut. After being dog-less for most of my life, I fell in love with the breed seven years ago and after giving Mina a home, went on to give two more greyhounds - Stevie & Jasper - their forever homes.  I'd love more greyhounds but we'd need to sell the car for a van, buy a bigger house and I suspect, if I did sneak one home, I'd need a new husband!

Greyhounds make 'greyt' pets

Each year in the UK around 8-10,000 greyhounds retire from racing.  There are a number of charities that rehome greyhounds including the Retired Greyhound Trust (RGT), Greyhound Rescue West of England (GRWE), Lincolnshire Greyhound Trust (LGT), Greyhound GAP and all of them do a marvellous job. However, there are many greyhounds in rescue kennels and rehoming charities this Christmas who are still searching for a home to call their own.

This post is an unashamed plug to highlight the 'greyt' companions that greyhounds make, after racing.  There are so many myths about this noble breed that often put people off adopting them, so with Stevie, Jasper & Mina in mind (along with all the greyhounds currently looking for homes), I hope to bust some of those myths & encourage you to think about adopting a greyhound...

Common myths about greyhounds

1.    They must needs lots of exercise
Err, no! Greyhounds are bred for short bursts of speed not stamina. Most are happy with two 20 minute walks a day, which means they're often suited to homes that may not have the time for very long walks each day.  They can walk for longer but their stamina should be built up before embarking on a lengthy walk.

2.    You can never let them off lead
Whilst it's true that greyhounds have been bred and trained to chase, it's not true to say that they can NEVER be let off a lead.
Like any dog, training a reliable recall takes time and every dog is different. Some greyhounds may struggle with recall but many can learn it (check out Mina's video below).

However, it is always better to err on the side of caution. If you haven't trained a recall - DON'T let your greyhound off the lead and expect them to come back when you call them!  Also, if you've not worked on impulse control, you'll find it difficult (if not nigh on impossible) to call a greyhound back to you when they're in chase mode.

3.    They can't live with cats or other small 'furries'
Really?!? Someone better tell that to my 3 hounds!  In all seriousness though, not ALL greyhounds are suited to living with cats or other small furries.  For some the chase instinct is so strong that it would be dangerous to place them in a home with another small furry.

All rescue/rehoming centres can advise you whether a greyhound is cat-friendly, cat-trainable or can't live with cats.Many greyhounds, with careful training, can adjust to life with cats, chickens and even rabbits!

4.    They must be aggressive as they wear muzzles
Again, this is another misplaced myth. Greyhounds are generally one of the least aggressive breeds (Duffy et al, 2008*). Aggression and a successful racing dog don't mix.They wear muzzles in racing to prevent any potential injuries (their skin is quite delicate)

5.    They're picky eaters because they are always so thin
Most greyhounds have a good appetite and they're naturally slim dogs (you should be able to see the outline of the last 3 ribs). Some greyhounds may be picky eaters - but many breeds can be picky.

6.    You can't train a greyhound to do anything other than run
Whilst most greyhounds won't have been taught any voice cues or basic 'obedience' training during their racing careers, that doesn't mean that they are incapable of learning new behaviours post-racing.

Each of my three greyhounds are different in the way they learn and in their capabilities (just like us humans)...

Mina, sitting pretty on her wobble board
Mina is the one who seems to enjoy learning the most. She can sit, lay down, stand, wait (until released) and stay (until I go back to her).  She's had a go at agility (until her canine catastrophe ways meant she had to retire) and used her lovely long nose in scentwork.  She loves trick training and does a mean retrieve and recall.

Stevie & me in the Official
Ahimsa Dog Training Manual

Stevie is very food motivated (which helped with training). He was 'cat-trainable' when he arrived with us and I spent a lot of time working on his impulse control around food and then the cat.  For a dog that used to think nothing of snatching a treat out of your hand, we can now put treats on his paws and ask him to leave them (and he will) before we release him to eat them. Stevie came to us with great recall and like Mina, he's really taken to nose work.

Jasper the greyhound with Tula the cat
Jasper & Tula

Jasper is the 'hardest to reach' of all my three hounds and although I've learned something from each of them, Jasper is the one who has taught me the most. His recall is improving, he's got a good wait and has grasped targeting.  I've also introduced Jasper to nose-work and he loves it too.

Greyhounds competing in agility & obedience

If you'd like to see how successful greyhounds can be in doggy disciplines like agility or competitive obedience, you really need to check out the marvellous Never Say Never Greyhounds blog.  Jennifer and her greyhounds excel at agility and the blog is a 'must-read' for any greyhound fan.

Greyhounds in the home

Most greyhounds adapt very well to life after the track. Their reputation as the 45mph couch potatoes is very true.  Most of the time they are very laid back (and could give Tula, the cat, a run for her money in the sleeping stakes). They're very affectionate and each have their own personality.

I can't imagine my life without a greyhound in it. To quote an oft used phrase:
"Greyhounds aren't my whole life, but they make life whole."

So, if you've ever considered offering a greyhound a home, I'd urge you to visit your local greyhound rehoming centre and go and meet some.  Be warned though, greyhounds are addictive and one is often not enough!

*Duffy,D. Hsu, Y. and Serpell,J.A. (2008) ‘Breed differences in canine aggression.’  Applied Animal Behaviour Science 114 pp.441-460

27 November 2012

Santa Paws is coming to town...

..aka 5 Christmas gift ideas for dogs (and their owners)

It's that time of year. The shops are full of Christmas decorations and Christmas carols can be heard everywhere. For many of us, our thoughts turn to presents and what to buy our nearest and dearest...including our four legged friends.
Image@ Two greyhounds wearing Christmas hats.

Call me mad (after all, I am known as the 'mad' greyhound lady in the village) but I like to give the hounds a present (or two) on Christmas day. I know they don't know what day of the year it is and why we give presents but why should they miss out?

Well, if you're wondering what to pamper your pooch with this Christmas, or are wondering what to buy a dog loving friend, wonder no more! I've got a super list of five ideas - all tested either by me or the hounds - that would make a great gift this Christmas.

1. Send a 'Secret Santa'...

Who doesn't love receiving a Secret Santa?  All the anticipation of wondering what the gift is and who bought it.  Well, there are a number of companies which provide monthly and one-off gift boxes packed full of toys, treats and presents for dogs and dog-lovers alike.  I've already blogged about Pooch Pack but for Christmas, thought I'd treat the hounds to a Fings for Fido Christmas box.

Contents of the fings for fido Christmas box
The fings for fido Christmas box
Fings for Fido is run exclusively by canines for canines. Red, Lola, Mitzi and Dexter are the canines responsible for running Fings for Fido and for choosing what goodies make it into the gift boxes.  I was lucky enough to order an advance Christmas box and get a sneak peek at what pooch pressies lay inside...

...and I wasn't disappointed! For £29.99 the box came packed with a good range of toys, treats, a Reg and Ruby edible Christmas card, a small spray of pet remedy (great for keeping canines calm), a Stag bar (well Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a reindeer of some sort) and the latest copy of Dogs Today magazine.

Stevie greyhound plays with the santa tug toy
Stevie gets to grips with Santa
The toys included a 'Tug a Santa', 'Doggy lips' (I love these), a green rubber stick (for playing safe games of fetch) and an Ancol treat toy in the shape of a bone.  The hounds seem very taken with the box from the moment it arrived (they can sniff out a good treat when they smell one) and Stevie had the first game of tug with Santa.

I'd recommend the box for the sheer variety of gifts it provides.  As I have three dogs, there were more than enough toys for one each and even Jasper, with his four remaining teeth, was able to enjoy the treats and play with the lips and the rubber stick.

A Fings for Fido Christmas box costs £29.99 and if you order before 10 December 2012 delivery is guaranteed for Christmas.  You can order a Christmas box from: www.fingsforfido.com

2. Trim that tree with decorations that are good enough to eat...

Why should it be just us humans who can hang edible decorations on the Christmas tree?  Surely our canine companions deserve some edible (and well out of reach) delectable decorations too?

Reg & Ruby rawhide angel decorations hanging on tree
Reg & Ruby edible angel decorations
Well, this year I'm trying out Reg and Ruby's edible rawhide decorations.  I discovered Reg and Ruby a few years ago as their edible rawhide Christmas cards are available in my local Sainsbury's and I just couldn't resist buying each of the hounds a card.

Last year, the hounds were treated to a Reg and Ruby edible advent calendar, where each day you could cut off a small rawhide bone as the treat.  This year, I'm giving the decorations a go. They're very pretty angels and as of yet I'm undecided whether to hang them on the tree (well out of the hounds' reach) or display them on the mantelpiece.

Reg and Ruby products can be bought online from a number of retailers including - D for Dog.  Prices for the angel decorations start from £2.55, edible Christmas cards from £3 and the edible advent calendar for £7.99.

3.  Cookies for canines...

I love baking home-made treats for the hounds but in the run up to Christmas, when time is short, I just don't have the time.  I first came across Patchwork Pooch on Twitter and then met them at this year's Lincolnshire Show.

They are a local Lincolnshire company who hand make and bake gourmet dog treats.  There's even a gluten free range for dogs like Mina who can't tolerate wheat.  The bone shaped biscuits come in four flavours: original, cheese, chicken and beef and prices for a packet start from £2.55.

My local dog grooming salon - Fur Do's Salon - stocks Patchwork Pooch products, including the lovely Christmas jar above. I popped in to have Jasper's nails trimmed (his nails are more like hooves than nails) and came away laden with some packets of Patchwork Pooch biscuits and the Christmas jar. You can Patchwork Pooch biscuits and more from their website.

4.  We three books of dog training are...

I like a good read and certainly with my university studies, my bookshelves are now groaning under the weight of dog training and behaviour books. There are so many great dog books to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to start. Two new books have hit bookshelves this year: The Official Ahimsa Dog Training Manual by Grisha Stewart and What Your Dog Wants - 7 Key Skills of a Perfect Dog Owner by Karen Wild.

Grisha's book - The Official Ahimsa Dog Training Manual - is suitable for dog owners, trainers and breeders. It contains a great introduction to the science behind dog training and how dogs learn - in a very reader friendly way.

The book also introduces clicker training and explains how and why it works to such great effect with our dogs (and many other animals). There is a great section on dealing with problem behaviours including puppy biting and chewing, barking in class, separation anxiety and resource guarding.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to showing and explaining to the reader how to create good habits for their dogs, in a humane, force free way. Grisha often provides several different ways for teaching an exercise and plenty of advice to make sure both you and your dog succeed.

The book is available on Amazon.co.uk as a paper back and retails at £8.06. It's also available as an e-book (in Kindle, e-pub and pdf formats) for $9.95 from Dogwise.com

What your dog wants is written by Karen Wild.  It is an easy to follow guide to building a better relationship with your your dog and is split into seven key skills for dog owners: Comprehension, Communication, Understanding, Motivation, Stimulation, Awareness and Responsibility.

The book is packed full with great colour photos throughout, which really help illustrate the topics. The Communication section contains a break down of how dogs learn and see the world, along with step by step instructions (and photos) for basic training.

The Awareness section helps the reader understand the needs of dogs at their different life-stages and the final section on Responsibility is packed full with sound advice on keeping your dog safe (and on the right side of the law)!

The book serves as a great introduction to owning, caring for and training a dog and would make a great Christmas present for a new dog owner. It is available on Amazon in hardback for £7.99 and £4.49 for Kindle format.  Signed copies are also available to order from Karen's website: www.karenwild.co.uk

Merle's Door, by Ted Kerasote, isn't a dog training book as such and may not be a book you have heard of (despite being published in 2007).  However, it is worthy of any Christmas stocking.

The book chronicles how Ted  found Merle -who was living wild - whilst on a camping trip to the Utah desert.  Ted had been looking for a dog to keep him company when their paths crossed.

It is a story of their life together and the author's reflections upon dogs in modern society and an increasingly urbanised world. Marley and Me, it is not.  It's 361 pages long and I found it a riveting read, which is why it is still on my bookshelf.

Reading it opens the door to another lifestyle completely - both that of Ted and Merle.  It certainly provides food for thought.

The book is available on Amazon in both paper back (£8.45) and hard back (£14.32) formats.

5. Rudolph (the not so) red nosed reindeer...

It wouldn't be Christmas without a Christmas themed toy for the hounds to try.  Each year I look for a new toy to try... over the years we've had a fat Santa ball, Christmas pudding tug toys, snowmen toys, penguin toys and even a turkey toy!

Mina gets to grips with a crunchy reindeer
This year I've found a reindeer toy with a bit of a difference. The dog it reindeer crunch is a toy that you can put an empty plastic water bottle in, which gives it that added allure (especially for Mina).  It's also got a squeaker in the head - just in case the noise of crackling and crunching the water bottle isn't enough to excite your dog!

Mina loved it (she's had a sneak test-run before Christmas, so I could write about it on the blog). How long it will last, I'm not quite sure - after all Mina is a squeaker seeker and destroyer extraordinaire.  It seems pretty robust, so we'll be keeping fingers and paws crossed that it lasts into 2013.

The Reindeer Crunch retails from around £4.49 - £5.99 and is available online at Seapets.co.uk

So, what's on your Christmas wish list?

I hope you've found some inspiration for Christmas gifts and if you've some other ideas of what would make great Christmas presents for hounds and their humans, please do share them in a comment.

05 November 2012

A break in the clouds for the black dog

I can't believe over a month has gone by since I last blogged about depression.  It's probably no coincidence though, as this month coincided with a trip to the doctor's which resulted in me being signed off work for 4 weeks and given a prescription for anti-depressants.

Since starting my blog posts and opening up further about how depression has affected me, I've been incredibly touched by the number of people who have chosen to get in contact. Some messages have been through the blog itself, others have been direct messages on Twitter or private messages on Facebook and some have just been good old fashioned 'chats.'
Jasper, the greyhound, a real life black dog
My real black dog - Jasper

One of the things that has really struck me from all these messages is just how many people 'suffer in silence' and that, unfortunately, there is still a great degree of stigma surrounding depression and mental illness.  I've had people telling me that I'm 'brave' for blogging about my experiences as they fear that if they blogged about their experiences or opened up to employers that it would damage their careers.  This saddens me.  Depression or mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, however I am well aware that stigma does still surround it and none more so than in the workplace.

The brain is a complicated and, arguably, the most important organ in the body.  Without a brain we cannot function.  Unlike other organs though, when things go wrong with your brain people just don't know what to say or do. If I'd had a kidney infection, heart problem or broken a bone in my body I'm pretty sure I would have received cards and flowers...but mental illness seems to put people off these gestures. (There were two notable exceptions to this for me and those people know who they are and how much their gestures meant to me).

When I've been talking about depression to people and trying to help them understand how it impacts on me, I've gone back to likening the brain to a computer. Our brains are often referred to as the computers for our bodies and as most people use computers I use the following analogy to try and explain how depression affects me:
"When I think of the brain, I like to think of it as the operating system for my body - a bit like Windows on your PC.  If you get a bug on Windows (or whatever operating system your computer uses), it's likely that it will impact on all the other software. Excel might not add up numbers correctly, Word may be a bit slow, PowerPoint may just keep simply shutting down. You wouldn't just think 'oh, it will right itself, or snap out of it' - the chances are you'd install an anti virus programme to sort the bug out. 
"To me, depression and mental illness is that 'bug' in the operating system.  It wont' go away by itself.  Medication is what works for me - it rights the chemical imbalances and my operating system (gradually) returns to full functioning capacity."
Sun shines through the clouds
A break in the clouds of depression
Depression is often alluded to as a dark cloud that permanently blots out the sun, or a fog that envelops everything.  Certainly for me it is a combination of both.

However, thanks to the medication and time off work, there is now a chink in the clouds of my depression and the sun has shone through for me.

I can't pretend that I felt immediately better or that the medication kicked in super quickly - I didn't and it didn't.  In fact, for the first three weeks I felt pretty horrendous. My depression seemed to worsen along with increased bouts of anxiety and interrupted sleep - all side effects of fluoxetine (better known as Prozac).  My concentration levels were zero and only seemed to return, albeit slightly, around the three weeks' mark.

After returning to see my doctor, I was signed off for another week to allow the medication a chance to kick in.  I am so glad that I had this extra week, as suddenly the meds did seem to be working.  The black clouds and fog began to lift and I started to feel more like my 'old self.'

As the medication has now started to work, it has made me realise just how long my depression had been growing.  I can see clearly that I was probably suffering from mild depression for a good 12-18 months before it became more severe and prompted me to seek help.

I am now back at work and have been very open with colleagues about the reason for my absence.  Generally, the response has been one of understanding and kindness and even more people opening up to me that they too have had personal experience of depression.

I realise it's still early days and that medication may not be the answer for everyone however, it is the answer for me.  I'll probably be on the medication for a good 6-9 months. I've learned from (bitter) past experience that coming off anti-depressants too early can have disastrous consequences.

I'd like to finish this post with a reference to the great charity that is SANE.  I came across SANE through social media and have found their posts, website and service so helpful.  They tweeted for people to share their messages of hope for better mental health, so I decided to share my message of hope and was humbled to see that SANE had used it.

"Do not be ashamed of depression or seeking help. Acknowledging it is the first step to recovery."

SANE tweets and messages of hope for better mental health
SANE message of hope

When you are in the depths of despair and depression taking that first step is scary - I've been there - but once you take it, the future isn't so scary anymore.

Mental health organisations that can help:

SANE, Mental Health Charity - http://www.sane.org.uk/
MIND - http://www.mind.org.uk/
The Blurt Foundation - http://blurtitout.org/
The Black Dog Tribe - http://www.blackdogtribe.com/

04 November 2012

Product Review: The Pooch Pack

Who doesn't like receiving packages and gifts through the post? Not many people I suspect. Personally, I love receiving packages through the post and the anticipation of what goodies may be lurking inside. Now, even our dogs can experience this and, if you choose so, on a monthly basis too!

Introducing the 'Pooch Pack*'

Just like a magazine subscription, there's not much that you can't get delivered to your door on a monthly basis. Pooch Pack is a gift subscription service for dogs (the name is a bit of a giveaway really)! You can choose to have a one-off  delivery or subscribe for 3 or 6 months and then sit back and wait for a box of doggy delights to arrive.

Each box contains 5-6 products that have all been specially selected to appeal to the most discerning of dogs (you can specify the size of dog when ordering, to make sure products are suitable).  So, when I was offered the chance to try out a Pooch Pack, I jumped at the opportunity.

It didn't take long for it to arrive, or for me to open the box to discover its contents...

Pooch Pack contents
The Pooch Pack

Included in the box were:

I was impressed by the simple, yet effective, packaging (plain and very sturdy cardboard box, with a Pooch Pack sticker and orange shredded paper - just enough to protect the contents) and I loved the contents card with its QR codes (these really appeal to the marketer in me and make it super easier to get to the suppliers websites).  However, the real proof in the pudding isn't what I think of the box and its contents, it's what my three greyhounds made of it.

Discovering the doggy delights

It didn't take much encouragement for the hounds to get stuck in (quite literally) to the Pooch Pack and its contents.

The hounds investigate the Pooch Pack
Jasper, Mina & Stevie investigate the goodies
Something in the Pooch Pack is making Mina lick her lips
Something's making Mina lick her lips

The Dublin Dog Roxxter

Mina tries out the Dublin Dog Roxxter
Mina gets to grips with the Dublin Dog Roxxter
One of the things that hit me when I first opened the box was the strong smell of vanilla.  I couldn't fathom where it was coming from until I had a look at the Dublin Dog Roxxter.  I have to say I did find the smell a little off putting and wondered why the dog toy is scented with vanilla - is it for human or hound benefit?  Anyway, it didn't seem to deter the hounds. I've not seen a treat dispenser like the Dublin Dog Roxxter before, so did wonder how effective and attractive it would be to my greyhound gang.

Well, so far, it's proven to be a hit. Both Mina and Stevie have taken it in turns to dislodge treats from it. The only thing is, the treats need to be relatively small to come out - larger treats get stuck and aren't as easy to dislodge as they are from other well known brands of treat dispensers.

Doggie Patisserie

Bone shaped Doggie Patisserie training treats
Doggie Patisserie Treats
The Doggie Patisserie treats have also proven to be a hit - both with the hounds and me! They're made from just five human-grade ingredients:  wholemeal flour, oats, honey, peanut butter, semi skimmed milk and baking powder.  They look and smell delicious and as the content card said "Human grade ingredients only so if you're felling peckish, you can nab one too!" I did! I can confirm they are rather moreish and the hounds may have to 'fight' me for them!

Soopa Pets

Soopa Pets Papaya and Sweet Potato Dog Treats
Soopa Papaya & Sweet Potato Treats
I'm always on the look out for treats that my snaggletoothed hound, Jasper, can eat.  He only has his four canine teeth left so traditional chews aren't really suitable.  There were two bags of chews included in the box - papaya and sweet potato.

The treats are 100% natural, as well as being wheat and grain free (another big tick for me and for Mina).  Jasper seems to be able to eat them quite well, although he definitely prefers the papaya over the sweet potato.

The other goodies

So far, I haven't had a chance to try out the other goodies. I already have several poop sack dispensers, that attach to leads, so I'm not sure whether the Doggee is for me.  The Pooch and Mutt Bionic Biotic looks good and the package provided with last Mina for one month.  The Scruffy Chops shampoo smells lovely but a shampoo for the hounds isn't needed at the moment, so I'll have to wait to try it out.

Subscribing to Pooch Pack

If you'd like to find out more about the Pooch Pack and getting one of your own delivered, simply visit their website at www.PoochPack.co.uk  Prices start at £19.95 for one month's supply, £18.95 per month if you subscribe for 3 months and £16.95 per month if you subscribe for 6 months.  Delivery is free.

Overall impressions of Pooch Pack 

I have to say the Pooch Pack did impress me.  It has introduced me to some products that I would never have known about and/or considered trying such as the Dublin Dog Roxxter and the Soopa Pet treats. Personally, I would have liked to see another dog toy rather than the Doggee (sorry Doggee) but all in all the contents didn't disappoint.

I think a Pooch Pack would make a great Christmas or birthday gift (you can purchase a one-off box, if you don't want to subscribe) for a dog loving friend, or if you're feeling generous it can be a gift that keeps giving for as many months as you choose.  I have a sneaking suspicion that it may well be on the hounds' Christmas and birthday wish lists...

*Disclosure: I was provided with a free promotional Pooch Pack to review .  I have not been paid for my views and all views expressed are my own.

02 October 2012

D-day for the black dog

When you have depression, telling someone (or anyone) how you feel can be daunting. It can be a difficult step to take as there is still a fair degree of stigma and misunderstanding about mental illness.

Shrouded in fog
(Photo by: Simon Lawrence at Dreamstime.com)
Friday of the week before last marked D-day for me.  The D in question could stand for so many things... Depression itself, Daunting, Diagnosis, Doubt, Doctor's appointment and even Disappointment.  In my previous post - Chasing down the black dog - I blogged about my decision to go and see the doctor.  I've recognised that my symptoms are at the stage that needs help; if I ignored them any further I would most certainly allow the fog of depression to envelop me completely and this is something I want to avoid.

Whilst I've blogged openly about my own experiences of depression and shared my views through social media, I hadn't spoken to my family (with the exception of my husband), friends, employer or colleagues about its recurrence...until the week before last.  Over the years I've had varying responses when I've told my family, friends, colleagues and employers about my depression.  Mostly, they have been supportive, and only occasionally have I had to counter some of the ignorance and stigma that surrounds mental illness.

A few days prior to my doctor's appointment, I told my CEO about the reason for my appointment.  My CEO was amazingly supportive and understanding, expressing concern and reassuring me that I should listen to the doctor's advice - even if it meant time off work. I told my colleagues too and although they may not have been 100% sure how to react, they too were supportive.

I found telling my employer meant that a huge weight felt like it had been lifted from my shoulders.  All I needed to do next was to turn up for my doctor's appointment.  My usual doctor has left the practice so I was seeing a doctor that I have only seen a few times in the past.

My doctor was very understanding and a her view, thankfully, coincided with mine - my depression is purely down to an imbalance of the chemicals in my brain and medication will help restore and stabilise the correct balance.

On top of prescribing medication, she also signed me off work for a few weeks. This is something I had wanted to avoid but in order to recover and to allow the medication to work, this period of rest is necessary.  My employer, husband, family and friends have all been very understanding and having taken the step of telling people and seeking help, I do feel that the fog which surrounds will begin to lift.

It's still early days with the medication as they take several weeks to become effective.  During the first week I did suffer with a number of side effects - the only one of which is welcome is the dulling of my appetite! However, as this may lead to losing some weight, so it's something I can easily live with...every cloud, eh?  I still struggle with some things and realise that the medication needs time to work - there is no magic wand that simply make my depression vanish.

So, as much as it's a cliché, I'm taking each day as it comes. Some days I'm fine and want to engage in 'normal' activities such as walking the dogs and speaking to friends; other days I'm not.  These are the days when I watch favourite films and snuggle up with the hounds. I struggle with the guilt I feel on these days for generally feeling useless but am lucky that my husband is very supportive (which at times makes me feel even more guilty).

At least by letting people know, it does mean I don't have to hide behind a mask everyday.  It doesn't, however, mean I need to be treated with kid gloves either - just some understanding that I may not be to up my 'usual self'. You can't catch depression by talking to me but you may gain some understanding as to what it means to live with it.

If you're reading this blog and think (or know) that you have depression, please don't think you're alone. It does affect 1 in 4 of us and there are so many organisations which can help.  Taking the first step of telling someone can be scary but once that step is taken, it is (albeit another cliché) a step on the road to recovery.

Organisations that can help:

SANE, Mental Health Charity - http://www.sane.org.uk/
MIND - http://www.mind.org.uk/
The Blurt Foundation - http://blurtitout.org/
The Black Dog Tribe - http://www.blackdogtribe.com/

17 September 2012

From a whisper to a bite - Pushing a dog too far

Many, many years ago before I knew any different I thought Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, understood dogs.  I used to watch the Dog Whisperer and even bought his book - Be the Pack Leader...Fast forward several years, university studies, many read books about dog behaviour and training, lots of dog seminars, and dog training courses and I realise I was duped. If you're still a fan of Cesar, read on...

National Geographic is screening the last ever series of the Dog Whisperer and the trailers are now hitting TV screens.  One of these is a trailer showing Holly – a Labrador Retriever – who is showing resource guarding around food.  This trailer has already caused quite a stir (no doubt what the TV producers wanted) and has been blogged about very eloquently and succinctly by Nicole Wilde on her blog Wilde About Dogs. Nicole is a great dog trainer and author, her methods are humane and her books are easy to read, practical and grounded in fact and the science behind reward based training methods.

There’s no doubt that Cesar has great communication skills but they’re definitely not with dogs – he often seems to be blind to what dogs are very clearly communicating to him. The video trailer shows Cesar working with Holly to ‘cure’ her of her food guarding…the result?  Extremely uncomfortable and upsetting viewing and a bite to Cesar himself.  One more dog with a bite history…one more dog labelled as dangerous due to out-dated, ill-informed and downright unnecessary training methods.

After 20+ years of working in the PR/media/marketing world, I should know better.  TV programmes are edited a certain way, journalistic bias does exist and in TV land it’s all about ratings.  With the Dog Whisperer programmes, strip away the veneer, editing, emotive music and voice overs and what I’m now left with is a bitter taste in my mouth and tears in my eyes when I see his ‘rehabilitation’ methods in action.  

What amazes me most is that Cesar is heard saying “I didn’t see that coming.”  Really?  I think most pet dog owners could see how upset the dog was and that a bite WAS likely to happen.  Rather than give Holly the space she was asking for, Cesar continued to posture, intimidate, threaten and invade her space.  Any other person would have backed off.  Holly was so clearly showing every warning sign and communication signal in a dog’s repertoire to say ‘leave me alone’… ‘I’m uncomfortable’ … until - in Cesar’s eyes and without warning – she had no choice left but to bite.

Fear, intimidation, coercion and the causing of pain have no place in dog training – ever.  When Cesar says a dog is ‘calm submissive,’ it is really Dog Whisperer code for a dog that has shut down and cannot function.  Cesar often uses flooding techniques when he’s working with reactive/problem dogs.  He continually exposes them to the very thing they are afraid of, with no let out until, in his words, ‘they’re calm submissive.’  I’m pretty sure if you trapped me in a room with my worst fear, with no escape route, and kept exposing me to more and more of the very thing I’m afraid of, I too would become ‘calm submissive’.  I would shut down both mentally and physically to block it out.

In Holly’s video he’s dealing with food guarding.  Let’s look at a human analogy…I like my food, I don’t mind sharing it (most of the time) if I’m asked.  However, if I’d just ordered my favourite pizza, taken a bite and then the waiter came and whipped it away, I’d be a tad confused and somewhat miffed.  If he brought it back and say, I had another few bites, then he took it away again – with no warning – I’d start to feel a little angry (and be making a mental note never to go that pizza restaurant again). I’d probably be trying to ask him why, or covering my plate/holding onto it whenever he walked by.  If this scenario was repeated over and over again during the course of the evening, I would reach the end of my tether and make a scene, or resort to physical abuse as a last resort.  So why would a dog react differently?

Holly's food guarding issues could have been dealt with through a behaviour modification programme, using counter conditioning and desensitisation techniques.  It may not make for the most exciting TV viewing but it would certainly not push Holly over her threshold to bite and, given time, it would make approaches to her food bowl non-threatening and therefore eventually eliminate the need to act aggressively.

If there’s any time that the ‘please don’t try these techniques at home’ warning is needed, it’s with this show.  These techniques won’t make the problem go away. They may seem to work but more often than not they will just suppress the unwanted behaviour, and another unwanted behaviour will take its place.

There are plenty of organisations within the UK that have qualified dog trainers and behaviour experts who can help with training and behaviour problems.  If you have a problem with your dog and you’re not sure what to do, please don’t try to ‘fix it’ yourself.  Both the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers have accredited behaviour counsellors and trainers who can help.

Addendum - Slow motion break down of the video

Watching the video footage of Holly's 'rehabilitation' in real time is upsetting enough but watching it in slow motion, even more so.  So, you may ask, why am I sharing slow motion footage?  Well if there was ever any doubt in your mind about the techniques being used or what Holly was communicating to Cesar, this slowed down video with captions cannot leave you with any doubt.

If you have a dog with a behaviour issue such as food or resource guarding I implore you not to follow misguided advice or attempt to 'cure it' using techniques you've seen on the TV.  Please contact a qualified and accredited dog trainer or behaviour counsellor.

14 September 2012

Chasing down the black dog

I've been amazed at the response my blog post 'My Metaphorical and Actual Black Dog' has received across all the different social media channels.  It really has proven that there is no divide or discrimination when it comes to living with depression.

I wrote the piece at a time when I was feeling particularly low and teary.  Like many people, my life is busy and at times it seems like it's one big merry-go-round that just doesn't slow down and keeps on getting faster and faster whilst both the world around me and the accompanying sounds become somewhat scarier and darker.

Although my black dog hasn't reared its head for a good number of years, it has - not so gently - been nudging away at my psyche over the last 6 months or so. By now, I recognise the warning signs and know many of the trigger points.  However, that still hasn't stopped me from 'soldiering on' for the last few months. (How typically British and 'stoic' eh? We really are sometimes our own worst enemies).

No more hiding behind a mask
Tears are often a blink away. Anything can set me off.  Most of the time I just blink them away, put on a mask and don't allow them to flow.  If it's not tears, irrational feelings of anger may take their place.  My fuse seems to have shortened and my tolerance levels dropped to sub zero. I'm beginning to get bouts of fatigue. Add to that the never ending questioning of my own abilities and it is very clear - I need to seek help.

So, in practising what I preach, I've picked up the phone and made an appointment with my doctor.  I'm fed up with putting on an act that everything is fine  - it's just downright exhausting.  I believe I need medication and that the chemicals in my brain have just become unbalanced again. Just like faulty wiring or a computer virus, they will not magically right themselves without intervention.

I've been following SANE's 'thought of the day' on facebook  and Twitter and these daily thoughts have really brought it home to me that my metaphorical black dog is now very much with me again. (You can see an example of a 'thought of the day' by clicking here). The thoughts are a series of illustrations which show how the black dog can manifest itself.

I'm trying to be extra kind to myself. I've ditched the glasses of wine on an evening (as much as I love a glass of chilled vino, it is a depressant and I need to do all I can to help myself) and I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself.  

I don't want to take time off work and as I'm also building up a dog training business - it's just not feasible. I also want to make sure I continue to do well in my university studies (I'm in the final year of a foundation degree), so off to the doctor's I will go next week.

In the time being, I'll give my real life black dog, Jasper, a big cuddle and remind myself that help is on its way.

13 September 2012

Sniffing out a greyt weekend

Greyhounds may be sight hounds but they also have a great ability that they share with every other dog - their nose and sense of smell.

Practising the box drill on day 2. Photo courtesy of Tony Cruse
Mina's eyesight is beginning to deteriorate. She has had several major eye operations over the last few years and has the beginnings of cataracts and I want to make sure that when/if her eyesight fails that we can still do fun things together and this is what led me to the first UK Sirius Sniffers Seminar, organised by the Oxfordshire Animal Behaviour Centre with the founder of Sirius Sniffers - Kelly Gorman Dunbar being the trainer.

Whereas humans rely on sight more than smell, and even though sight hounds predominantly hunt by sight, the dog's sense of smell is perhaps the most important of their senses. Every dog has from the smallest Chihuahua to the largest Deerhound has a great nose for smells - around 10,000 to 100,000 times better than the human sense of smell.  Dogs have twice as many functioning olfactory receptors than us mere humans, meaning they can distinguish between odours that may smell identical to us, as well as sniffing out odours we can't even detect with our distinctly sub-standard noses (when compared to a dog's nose)!

Sirius Sniffers aims to make nose work accessible to pet dogs.  I'm not particularly competitive (remember, I'm not competing in agility with Mina) and I just want to have fun times with my dogs without the stress that competition would put me under. The Sirius Sniffers approach seemed ideal for my needs and it also meant that I got to meet Kelly along with the chance to catch up with lots of other doggy friends over the course of the weekend.

Day 1 - Mina is introduced to nose work - Sirius Sniffer's style

During day 1 the dogs were introduced to the idea of nose work, by using their favourite food or toy (primary reinforcer) and then hiding it in a cardboard box. Cardboard boxes were used as (a) they're easy to get hold of and (b) they contain the scent/odour quite well.

It did take Mina a while to relax and suss out what she was supposed to do. However, with Kelly's guidance and encouragement and with the fact that Mina can self-reward/reinforce by finding and eating the food in the box, it made it much more fun for her (the box contained my homemade liver cake).

Day 2 - Box drills and a hidden search

We started the day with a box drill where the boxes were lined up against a wall and the food hidden in one of the boxes.  Mina was walked up and down the line, on lead, with a chance to stop when she found the scent.  We were instructed to make sure we gave our dogs space and if they were investigating a box but it didn't contain the scent/food to keep moving or move around in an arc to encourage the dog to move.

We ended the day by being divided into groups with 3 dogs per group and each dog being set a different task - appropriate to their age, breed and ability.  The group Mina was in had a lovely 6 month old Vizsla puppy and a Corgi who was (I think) around 4-5 years old.

Mina's task was to find the food bag which was hidden in one of the boxes.  It was a blind search for both me and Mina.  The group set up the boxes and hid the food without either me or Mina in sight.

I loved the whole seminar - it really opened my eyes (or should that be made me flare my nostrils?) to the fun that can be had with nose work.  It really is great for any dog - it can help increase a dog's independence and confidence and can certainly help with reactive dogs providing focus and an alternative, acceptable behaviour outlet.

Mina and her 'fans' Photo courtesy of Claire Goyer
I'm pretty sure Mina enjoyed the weekend.  We had some 'greyt' 1 on 1 time and she won over a whole new group of fans, who obligingly provided her with attention and cuddles.

I can't wait to start trying out nose work with Stevie and Jasper too and looking at how I can factor it into some of my training classes.

22 August 2012

My Metaphorical and Actual Black Dog

This is a post that I've been umming and ahhing about writing for a while now and hopefully the title may give you an indication why this has been the case.

For most people who know me - both in a personal and business capacity - they probably wouldn't think that many things get me down in life.  I tend to focus on the task ahead and 'crack on' and it has to be said, I'm a pretty hard taskmaster (more so on myself than others).  I'm definitely goal orientated, which has meant that generally when I set my mind on something - and to quote NASA - failure isn't an option.

Life, however, sometimes has a way of pulling the rug from under your feet when you least expect it, as I've discovered over the years.  I've always been a bit of a perfectionist (actually, who am I kidding, not so much of the 'bit') and set myself pretty high goals, which in turn can add a certain amount of pressure to everyday life and impact on health, as I have found out over the last few decades.

1 in 4 people in the UK are likely to experience a mental health problem in the course of a year and of these depression and anxiety are the most common.  Despite the fact that mental health problems such as depression are relatively common place they still remain a taboo subject.  Often they are simply swept away under the carpet, ignored like the elephant in the room or worse still, seen as an admission of weakness.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill famously likened his depression to a black dog and this is what my post title alludes to. I have had several bouts of clinical depression over the last two decades.  These aren't cases of  'being down in the dumps' or 'feeling blue'; these are mind numbing, self-esteem and confidence robbing periods, where 'normal service' cannot be resumed and my decision making capabilities seem to evaporate into thin air.

When work colleagues have learned of my depression (I'm pretty open about it), I tend to get one of two reactions: one being - "I'd never have thought you would suffer from depression, you just don't seem the type"  or two - embarrassed silences and people hastily changing the topic of conversation.  Depression doesn't discriminate - age, gender, race, 'class' or social standing are no barriers.

Depression is personal and is not the same for everyone.  I can only describe my depression as a perpetual fog that surrounds me and deadens the world I inhabit. No sunlight makes it through this fog and without help, it won't lift. Over the years this has meant extended time off work (each time progressively less, but nonetheless not just a few days off work) and both medication and counselling to help ease the symptoms.

These periods have lessened over the years, as I've become better at spotting the signs, preventing and managing the causes, however at times I still find myself on the precipice of the abyss -  some days leaning more towards it and others leaning away.

During my last period of depression, back in 2009, the black dog that had been following me suddenly became real and surprisingly a turning point. There is plenty of scientific evidence of the benefits of owning a pet and no matter how bad I felt, the hounds needed walking. They gave me a reason to get up and get out of the house and were a constant source of non-judgemental companionship.
Magic, aka Jasper, at the greyhound charity kennels

I also found that helping out at the kennels of the local greyhound charity I volunteered at, was very therapeutic.  It was at these kennels that I fell in love with a real black dog who to me was the pooch equivalent of Prozac. Magic, as he was then known, was a 5 year old handsome, if not a little snaggle-toothed, black greyhound. He'd finished his last race about a fortnight before coming into kennels and there was something about him that drew me to him instantly.  Within minutes I was smitten and knew that, subject to Mina & Stevie's approval, Magic had found his forever home.

Thankfully both Mina and Stevie approved of Magic and he came home with us in May of that year, just after a week's holiday with hubby and the two hounds in Cornwall.  Magic became Jasper - so named after the character in the Twilight novels who had the ability to calm and influence emotions - and has been a calming (and at times very cheeky) character ever since.

During the last three years since Jasper joined me, the tide also seems to be turning with more (high profile as well as 'ordinary') people being open about experiencing depression.  There are some great support organisations too.  I received a great deal of help from Mind, found the Black Dog campaign from SANE to be inspirational and am an avid follow of the Blurt Foundation on Twitter - @BlurtAlerts

I no longer see my depression, or mental illness, as a failure on my part and I take steps to keep my mental health in the best shape I can.  This does not mean I'm immune to the odd relapse (a bit like physical health and not going to the gym) but the 'latent muscle memory' is there, providing me with coping mechanisms and the tools to get back on track.

Writing this blog post is cathartic and sharing conversations with like-minded friends has proven to be a godsend along with letting go of my 110% perfectionist streak (for some things - not all - but for a good number of things).

In my experience once you open up and let people know that (a) you have experienced depression and (b) it's nothing to be ashamed of, it's amazing what comes back.  So many people I speak to have experienced their own black dog and most people are extremely supportive and understanding.

So, if you have ever experienced depression, anxiety or any other mental illness, please don't feel you're alone.  Depression doesn't need to be an invisible illness and the chances are if it hasn't touched you, it will have touched someone you love or care for.

References:  Mental Health Foundation: http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-statistics/
SANE, Black Dog Campaign:  http://www.sane.org.uk/what_we_do/black_dog/bd_faq/
The Blurt Foundation: http://blurtitout.org/
Mind:  http://www.mind.org.uk/

20 August 2012

Mina and her shadow...

Waiting patiently...
Mina has always been full of beans (and mischief) and although she's advancing in years, it hasn't slowed or down or stopped her from enjoying a good game of catch and jumping.  The Pedigree Joint Care+* treats certainly seem to be having a positive effect on her mobility too and she's definitely taken up the Joint Care+ Challenge to show off her 'sporting' and 'jumping' abilities.

With all the great weather of the last week or so, we've been making up for lost time and enjoying some good games of catch and recall training in the front garden. As always, I tend to turn into a bit of a 'shutter monkey' with my phone and can't resist snapping away at Mina whilst she jumps, twists and turns to catch her Kong Air.

Some of the photos are great action shots but look a little more closely and you'll see that Mina's shadow seems to take on a life of it's own...

...perhaps we should start the first ever Greyhound Shadow Puppet Theatre?!?

Is it a kangaroo or Mina's shadow?

A dancing bear!
The kangaroo's back
A rather human-like shadow

It's behind you - the Kong, that is

I think Mina is half Greyhound half Kangaroo
Caught it!

*Disclosure: I have been provided with 6 weeks' supply of Joint Care+ treats by Pedigree as part of the Joint Care+ Challenge. I have not been paid for my views and all views expressed are my own.

19 August 2012

Hot dogs belong on supermarket shelves - not in cars

Yesterday and today have been the hottest (and perhaps the most humid) days of the year so far (in the UK) and I thought that by now everyone knew about the dangers of leaving dogs in cars.  However, on a visit to my local supermarket today, this doesn't appear to be the case.

Despite, a number of well documented tragic deaths and the high profile Don't Cook your Dog campaign, which is spearheaded by Dogs Today magazine, it appears that the message still isn't getting through to some people.

The temperature today was between 27-30 degrees and it has been excessively humid.  Even with the air conditioning on, my car took a while to cool down for me to feel comfortable, let alone if I had any of the hounds with me (which, I hasten to add, I didn’t).  When I arrived at the supermarket I saw a small van with its windows cracked open and I could hear barking.  At the time I wasn’t sure whether the barking was coming from the van and I couldn't see inside as there were no windows in the back - just windows in the front.

I popped to another shop, mulling over the thought of a dog in an unbearably hot van. I must have been gone about 10 to 15 minutes and when I came back, the van was still there and this time, I was sure the barking was coming from inside the van.  I went into the supermarket and reported my concerns to the customer service desk, providing them with the car registration number.  They explained that all they could do was provide a tannoy announcement with the car make and registration number, asking the owners to come to the customer service desk.  They would then tell them that a member of the public had complained - unfortunately, they don't have any more power than a simple announcement.

In contrast to the humidity outside, the air-conditioned supermarket was a haven of cool - a sharp contrast to the environment that the poor dog was trapped in.  Just as the tannoy announcement was being made I saw that a family had gone to the van and were driving away and hopefully, a disaster had been averted.

Biologically, dogs can't cope with extremes of temperature*...

The simple biological fact of the matter is that dogs are terrible at regulating their body temperature.  If dogs can’t get rid of excess heat through their normal mechanisms such as panting or sweating through their paws, their body temperature can rise rapidly and quickly become a medical and life threatening emergency.

The dog’s average body temperature ranges between 100-102.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with the average being 101.5 degrees.  If their temperature rises above 105 degrees Fahrenheit heatstroke is invariably fatal.

Age, breed type, physical condition and the environmental temperature all have an impact on how the dog’s temperature increases.  As is similar with humans, the very young and the old have less heat tolerance and are therefore at increased risk of heatstroke.  The Brachycephalic breeds are also more susceptible as they are more prone to respiratory distress when they try to increase their rate of panting when it’s hot.

Leaving a sunroof or windows cracked open isn't enough. If you do that you've consigned your dog to the equivalent of a car shaped oven. Still not convinced? Watch the video from the Kennel Club, which shows how quickly a car can heat up.

There's no excuse for being ignorant about the dangers of cars in hot cars

There are a wide range of resources that provide a wealth of advice on how to look after and protect your dog in the heat, including:

There really isn't any excuse, in my opinion, to plead ignorance over the dangers of heat and leaving dogs in cars.  I never want to find myself in another situation like today's.

I could have kicked myself for not having a supply of the Don't Cook your Dog leaflets and cards in my car (I have their lifesaver pack, as I give out stickers, leaflets and cards in my puppy classes).  So, I've now put a supply of them in my glove box and several of the cards in my purse.  I've also followed the campaign's advice and stored the RSPCA's 24 hour cruelty line number in my mobile phone.

From now on, the only hot dogs I ever want to see are those that you buy on a supermarket shelf and serve in a bun with onions and ketchup.

*References: Case, L.P. (2005), The Dog It's Behavior, Nutrition & Health. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd

15 August 2012

Cankles, Claws and Calamities

Well, last week turned out to be slightly more eventful than I had originally planned.  You may have read my Agility Diaries post - Mina meets the A Frame and seen that I fell over (a rather ungraceful swan dive) and hurt my ankle...

The rather glamorous sounding hospital
As it turns out, my ankle quickly became very sore and swollen necessitating a quick trip to the A&E of the rather grandly named Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital in Grimsby.  After a bit of a wait in A&E I eventually hobbled my way to a doctor to be told that my ankle was badly sprained and that I was lucky not to have broken it!

This has meant that on my non dog-related work days I cannot wear my high heels to the office and have had to resort to my flat shoes (thank heavens for Skechers - a memento from my London commuting days - and my range of ballet pump type shoes).  It's also put a spanner in the works when it comes to Mina's agility training and general walking of the dogs. Thankfully, my poor long-suffering hubby has been walking the dogs whilst I've struggled (yes, hard to believe I know) to put and keep my feet up.

So, although I haven't been able to walk the dogs I have been able to play with them in the garden.  I can sit and throw balls and toys whilst the hounds hare around generally having a good time. Now, you may know that Mina has the nickname of canine catastrophe. She is, in my opinion, the reason pet insurance was invented (see a previous post about her catastrophic ways here) and a good example of why pet insurance is necessary. Stevie and Jasper (touch wood) seem to have escaped most of this until Saturday evening (after all the vets had closed).

Whilst enjoying chasing Mina, Jasper suddenly pulled up with the GSOD.  For the uninitiated, the GSOD is the 'Greyhound Scream of Death' and you'd know it if you heard it. I'm afraid to say that when it comes to minor pain, Greyhounds are the 'big girl's blouses' of the dog world. (Major pain, on the other hand and they seem to become a very stoic breed).

Jasper's GSOD was enough to send me hobbling at a fast pace across the garden and hubby hurtling down the stairs to see what had happened. Lord knows how Jasper did it (I was videoing him and Mina at the time and can't see what he did) but he ripped his dew claw in half, right at the top. Dew claws bleed like jiggery and trying to keep Jasper still whilst I put on a melolin pad and some vet wrap was no mean feat.

Mina counts her blessings she's not injured (for once)
As the claw was broken so high up, I ended up taking him to the emergency vet who cut it off (cue another GSOD - my poor ear drums), gave Jasper an antibiotic jab and then bandaged his whole paw.  The instructions were I was to take off the bandage on Sunday. Ha - fat chance!  I couldn't get near the bandage without more GSOD, which meant a visit to my normal vet on the Monday.

No wonder, poor Jasper wouldn't let me near him. When the vet removed the bandage (using a scalpel to slice through it), the remaining part of Jasper's dew claw came off with it, leaving him with a very bloody stump/quick.  This time the vet only bandaged part of his leg, finishing with some rather funky leopard print vet wrap, and leaving me with instructions to give him some metacam and to take the bandage off on Wednesday (today).

Jasper channels a 'flashdance' vibe
I have to say the leopard print vet wrap looks rather dapper and made it look like Jasper was channelling a 'Flashdance' vibe with ankle warmers.

So, the time has come to take the bandage off... fingers and paws crossed there'll be no more GSOD but if your windows happen to rattle around 2130 GMT you'll know why!
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