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!

14 August 2012

You Are What You Eat - Pedigree Feeding Trial Pt I

When it comes to dog food, there is a myriad of choices for owners, matched equally by a  whole host of opinions (depending on who you talk to) on what you should and shouldn't feed.  I'll admit, I've always been pretty sceptical of the big brands - especially those that you can buy in the supermarket.

That scepticism is partly due to the 20+ years I've worked in marketing. Whilst I may not have worked for a major FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) brand, I can't help but have my marketing radar on alert when a new dog food hits the shelves. It's such a competitive market and it's easy to be suckered in by clever advertising and pretty packaging.

In reality, the UK pet food market is dominated by two main companies - Nestlé Purina and Mars Petcare. These two, well known,companies are estimated to command around two thirds of the dog food market and around 80% of the cat food market*.

Pedigree's new 'Vital Protection' food
Some of our most well-known dog foods are either produced or owned by these companies.  Bakers Complete, Winalot, Purina Proplan and BETA are all owned by NestlĂ© Purina and Royal Canin, James Wellbeloved, Chappie, Cesar and Pedigree are all owned by Mars Petcare.

Then add to this, newer brands (in relative terms) such as Burns, Lily's Kitchen, Bob & Lush, Acana, Orijen, Markus Muehle, Barking Heads, Applaws and not forgetting the BARF (biologically appropriate real/raw food); it's no wonder that many pet owners plump for something they can pick up with the weekly shopping.

Personally, I've never been a huge fan of the brands available in the supermarket. Yes, I may buy the occasional treat but more often than not, I'll make my own treats and I buy the hounds' food direct from the wholesaler.  Mina is intolerant of many foods (you don't want to know what bones or cereal do to her!) so she is on a cereal free kibble, whilst Stevie and Jasper are currently on Autarky (I wish I could afford to feed them a higher end kibble, but unfortunately I can't and a BARF diet isn't practical for us in our current situation).

As part of my university studies, I've been introduced to canine nutrition and next year I'll be studying a whole module on canine nutrition and behaviour.  So, when I was invited to attend the Waltham Pet Centre (where all the research into Mars Petcare and nutrition takes place), I jumped at the chance.  I was eager to see what went on behind the scenes and also ask some questions about pet food - mainly why is there so much cereal in today's foods?

A handy resource for my studies
Despite what I may think of such a global brand as Mars, I couldn't help but be impressed by their facilities and the research that has been published as a result.  It was the scientists at Waltham who, back in 1982, made the discovery about the amino acid, taurine, and its place in the cat's diet. Taurine is an essential amino acid which means that cats cannot synthesize it within their bodies and as such it needs to be provided by their diet.

They've also undertaken some recent research into safe upper limit vitamin A levels with puppies (something that is really of interest to me due to my puppy school classes).  The paper is  Morris,P.J. et al (2012) Safety evaluation of vitamin A in growing dogs. British Journal of Nutrition / FirstView Article / August2012, pp 1-10

What is really handy though, is their pocket book of essential nutrition for cats and dogs (pictured) as it provides a breakdown of what is required in both the diets for both cats and dogs. It will certainly be useful for my uni studies.

One of the outcomes of my visit to Waltham was the opportunity for Stevie to take part in a 3 month feeding trial**. Pedigree has just launched Vital Protection - available as a complete dried or wet food - and the trial involves feeding Stevie a mix of the wet and dry food. I'll blog more about in future posts and will share how the trial is going along with details of what's in the food and other things I learned whilst at Waltham.

*Mintel Cat and dog food, UK, report – March 2010
**Disclosure: I have been provided with  3 months' supply of Vital Protection food by Pedigree  as part of a feeding trial.  I have not been paid for my views and all views expressed are my own.

09 August 2012

A Greyt Summertime Read - Dash, Bitch of the Year

If you love dogs - particularly greyhounds - and if you like a good read, then Dash - Bitch of the Year is well worth adding to your summertime reading list.  The book is written by Andrew Dilger and chronicles his and Dash's journey from the initial adoption of Dash through to Andrew organising his wedding with Dash playing her part as ring bearer.

Me ,with Dash, at Crufts 2011
I met Andrew and Dash at Crufts back in 2011 and made sure I got my hands on a copy of the book, which had a special 'pawtograph' from Dash too.

For any greyhound owner, the book may well raise a wry smile of the early days of sharing a life (or should that be sofa?) with a greyhound.  It can be a steep learning curve, especially if you've not owned an ex-racing greyhound before.  Dash raced at  Oxford Greyhound Stadium and had won Bitch of the Year - hence the name of the book.

Andrew & Dash
There are some 'oh no!' and touching moments in the book as well as some real laugh out loud moments too.  Andrew succumbs to greyhound accessorizing (a fatal habit that afflicts many a greyhound owner) but doesn't say whether it extended past coats to tassels and encounters many different dogs and owners on his walks with Dash. And the description of Dash's first roach made me chuckle (to anyone who doesn't know what a greyhound roach is, Google it.  You're sure to come up with some great photos).

One of my favourite parts of the book are Andrew's accounts of meeting fellow dog owners on his walks with Dash. Ryan and Tolstoy made an impression as did Sally and Kate with their greyhounds.

The book works on many levels - it provides a heart-warming (and at moments, heart -stopping) insight into novice owners adjusting to a greyhound, running parallel with the love story that builds into the finale of Andrew and Sarah's wedding...

...if you want to know how Dash's role played out on the big day - you'll have to read the book.

Win a copy of Dash - Bitch of the Year*

Luckily, I have a copy up for grabs! It's signed by Andrew and also has Dash's pawtograph.

To be in with a chance of winning*, all you have to do is leave a comment and let me know the funniest thing your dog has done.

*Terms & Conditions:
Prize consists of one signed copy of Dash - Bitch of the Year.
The winner will be sent the book by 1st class post or international equivalent.
Closing dates for entries is 12 noon on Friday 24 August 2012

The winner will be chosen at random from the entries submitted
The winner will be notified by email and/or via my blog

07 August 2012

The Agility Diaries - Mina meets the A Frame

It's fair to say that my agility training isn't going quite to plan!  The wettest April, June and July have dampened my spirits and as Mina doesn't *do* rain, it's somewhat hampered our agility training sessions.

Now, I knew that training a 10 year old greyhound/lurcher would not be without its challenges.  Firstly, the main one is to keep Mina injury free (so far, so good); secondly, I needed to make sure she was fit enough to do this (she is & has been ok'd by the vet); thirdly, I need to get my coordination working (sometimes my brain doesn't seem to communicate to my feet what I want them to do) and finally (and this is the biggie) I need to maintain Mina's focus.

I have no illusions over my agility training with Mina. I have absolutely zero plans of competing with her - it simply wouldn't be fair to expose her to the stress/excitement levels that an agility competition would bring.  I need to pass my practical module for university and I want to have fun along the way for both Mina and me.

Thankfully, we have a great agility instructor - Bob Sharpe, from Field of Dreams. He is very patient with me (especially when my coordination goes to pot) and is full of practical advice.  However, the biggest thing that has both of us stumped is finding the prime motivator for Mina.

Motivation's the name of the game...

Unmotivated? Me? I'm just taking a break!
Mina can switch from being motivated to completely un-motivated in a nano-second.  She can have been enjoying a sequence, a set of grids - getting food rewards, tug & toy rewards - and then; hey presto! Zip! It's like an invisible magic wand has cast a 'unmotivated spell'!  I have had some great advice from Jennifer of Never Say Never Greyhounds, who runs her greyhounds in agility competitions in the USA, and I'm reading 'When Pigs Fly' - a great book by Jane Killion about training the more 'challenging' breeds. Despite all this, I'm still struggling to find that elusive top motivator (or motivators) for Mina.  I'm now considering a rabbit skin and will be hitting ebay/amazon/online retailers to see if I can find one.

Anyway, today's agility session was all about sequences and contacts.  I've already mentioned how lousy my coordination can be and today just proved it. I was doing some simple sequences and attempting to get a front cross executed correctly. For some reason my natural reaction is to do a blind cross and whilst this may still work with a seasoned agility dog, it's not ideal for Mina.

I ran Bob's dog for this and was doing well until my splendid lack of coordination struck - I either tripped or slipped and ended up doing a less than graceful swan dive to the floor, twisting my ankle in the process... ouch! Despite that Meg still made the jump, however it did mean I had to rest up and not do any more sequences.

So, we moved our attention to the A Frame. Due to Mina's age we'll be running a course where all the obstacles are at reduced height. When Mina was younger she used to amaze me and my hubby with her mountain goat like tendencies.  Where we used to live was a very steep escarpment that Mina regularly ran up and down at lightning speed. After several repetitions on lead, we moved to off-lead and she really enjoyed it, as the video shows.

She may have missed her contacts but at this stage I just want her to enjoy going over the A Frame.  We'll finesse her contacts in forthcoming sessions.

In the meantime, my ankle has started to swell up, so I think it's time to put my feet up, apply a bag of frozen  peas, have a cuppa and start searching for that rabbit skin.

01 August 2012

The Joint Care+ Challenge, Week 2

So, Stevie (and not forgetting Mina & Jasper) are now into week two of the Pedigree Joint Care+ challenge*.  This week the challenge involves seeing what the hounds will do for their Joint Care+ treat.

One thing's for sure - they all seem to know when it's time for their Joint Care+ treat as they come running and soon devour the treats.  Whilst Jasper's trick repertoire mainly consists of looking cute and being goofy, Stevie and Mina have a few more tricks underneath their collars!

The 3 greyhounds eagerly await their Joint Care+ Treat
The hounds eagerly await their Joint Care+ Treat
Stevie has always loved his food and I'm hoping to capture his down stay with a 'leave it' thrown in for the Joint Care+ treat on his paws.... but the pure deliciousness of the treats has meant that the temptation has proven too much for Stevie and he can't seem to 'leave it' long enough for me to capture it in a picture or by video!

I had managed to get Mina to perform her role out the carpet trick for a treat - but somehow I deleted the video evidence: today is not proving to be my day (but you can see a clip of her doing this in a previous blog post)!  So instead, and taking liberties with the Gilbert O'Sullivan song: Knock Three Times, Mina performed her 'Bark Three Times for a Joint Care+ Treat'. Now, if you read many books about greyhounds, they say that greyhounds seldom bark... well, Mina has never read those books and as you can tell she's more than happy to bark on command!

All 3 of the hounds seem to be doing well on the Joint Care+ Challenge and definitely have added zing in their steps.  They do love the treats and scoff them in a few seconds (or if you're Stevie - in a nano second). They're proving to be a really quick way of delivering the joint helping ingredients of chrondroitin, glucosamine, methionine (amino acid) and omega 3(read more here about the ingredients).

I'm not so sure we'll win this week's Challenge but it sure is fun having a go each week and, more importantly, seeing how the hounds' - especially Stevie - mobility and general zest for life improves.

*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.
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