11 March 2014

How a Greyhound changed my life

'Meeting Mina...'

Nine years ago today, my life changed forever.  On 11 March 2005 our then family – me, hubby and two cats – were joined by Mina, greyhound.  Fast forward nine years and, wow, what a difference a dog makes.
It seems particularly apt to write about it now, nine years later, on what would have been Mina’s 9th ‘Gotcha Day’ and reflect on how ‘meeting Mina’ has changed my life.

Mina, heart hound & Scruffts 'Golden Oldie' 2012 winner
On 1 February 2014, Mina – my heart dog - passed away.  Although her passing was planned and peaceful - she died at home, in my arms - it doesn’t make her death any easier to bear.

I’ve spent the last month in an emotional fog, alternating between floods of tears and numbness.  Mina was my first dog; she is the reason for this blog, the change in my career and for helping me find my true vocation.  It’s fair to say her effect on my life has been profound and not something I could have ever envisaged just nine years ago.

Everything is still very raw and, to be honest, it’s only now that I can start to put down in words what she meant to me and I want to share some of her story on my blog.

LBD – (life before ‘dog’)

If you’d asked me 10 years ago whether I’d have a dog, I would have laughed in your face.  ‘A dog? Me? With my two cats? I don’t think so!’  However, fate has a funny way of entering your life and making you eat your words. And fate intervened in my life in March 2005.

It was the beginning of March, 2005, and me and hubby were off to Barcelona to celebrate my birthday.  I dropped the cats (Chivers & Tazzie – sadly now deceased through old age) off at the cattery and while I was waiting in reception, saw a sign which said: “Female greyhound looking for loving home.  Good with cats and children”…

Something about the sign got me thinking.  A few months earlier we’d been talking about dogs and somehow discovered that we both liked the look of greyhounds.  Hubby had grown up with a dog (and a cat), whilst I’d grown up with rabbits and goldfish.  I’d also been bitten in the stomach by a German Shepherd Dog in the 70s, but thanks to the Teflon like fibres of 70s synthetics, I was saved from serious injury.  All in all, it was fair to say that I wasn’t a huge dog fan… but then again, there was just ‘something’ about that notice and was it fate that we’d been speaking about a greyhound and that a cat-friendly one was looking for a home?
A young Mina & the red duvet

We decided that we’d contact Mina’s owner and see where it took us when we got back to the UK.  I still remember that first meeting at her previous owner’s house… A beautiful brindle greyhound, lying on her red duvet, looking at us with soulful eyes: it’s fair to say we were smitten and subject to introducing her to my cats – Chivers & Tazzie – our hearts had already been won over.

The initial meeting between Mina and the cats went well and that was it – both Mina’s and my fate were sealed.  I was to become a dog owner.

'Misdemeanours' & Behaviour Problems

Mina didn’t come without a few issues though and it was these that first ignited that spark of interest in dog behaviour and training.  Mina displayed an array of behaviour problems, she clearly suffered from separation distress, resulting in door frames being eaten/clawed at, not eating food until we came back home and as for her reaction to other dogs…

'Billy Goat Gruff'
Mina was like a little billy goat on our walks, she would be up and down the escarpment in our local country park.  Her off lead recall was great but her reactions to other dogs left something to be desired.  Everything came to a head one week while I was away with work in London for a few days.  I received a panicked phone call from hubby to say that Mina had attacked a standard poodle (both were off lead).  I was devastated.  My first thoughts were that we’d have to have her put to sleep.  Then after a little more thought, I decided to take her to the vet to get her checked out and to see if there was an underlying cause – it was so out of character.  (I must have had an inkling then, about what I do now – as medical conditions can sometimes impact on behaviour).

Early games with Mina in 2005
The vet gave Mina a thorough examination and x-rayed her too.  We discovered that she had poor bone density and that some of the discs had disappeared between her vertebrae, but apart from that she was healthy. We consulted a dog psychiatrist, and knowing what I know now, some of the advice wasn’t particularly helpful.  I was that person who walked their dog at unsociable hours, afraid of meeting other dogs either on or off lead.

Completing my Canine Conversion

In 2007 we moved to Lincolnshire and it was by chance that I discovered a local greyhound charity – Lincolnshire Greyhound Trust.  In early 2008, we went on a greyhound walk and found that Mina could get along with other dogs (mostly if they were greyhound shaped and weren’t rude in their greetings)!

That’s when Stevie entered our lives and my greyhound obsession grew.  I still remember introducing Mina to potential greyhound house-mates (oh, how I would do things differently now).  There was Figo, who was sooo excitable that he rushed right over to say hello, only to be resolutely told off by Mina, and then there was Stevie.  Stevie was a handsome blue and white boy, cat trainable, amazing recall, a tad greedy, but more importantly Mina-compatible.  Our greyhound gang now had 2 greyhounds.
Mina and Stevie's first walk together in 2008

The 'Canine Catastrophe'

Modelling the 'cone of shame' due to one of her catastrophes
As well as some behaviour issues, we soon discovered that poor Mina had some medical issues too, which earned her the moniker of the ‘canine catastrophe’.  I used to joke that Mina was the reason that pet insurance was invented (and you can read about my thoughts on why pet insurance is so vital here).

Mina & her lampshade impression

Over her lifetime, Mina had many medical issues that required veterinary attention.  Some were injuries due to living life to the full and others were more serious, due to genetics/illness.

A conservative estimate of Mina’s total vet bills puts them around £20,000!  She had two major eye operations, a toe amputation, torn muscles, split webbing, teeth extractions, regular eye check-ups with the specialist vet, leg and toe injuries; she also managed to cut her leg to expose the Achilles tendon and also cut her tail (half-way up), exposing another tendon.  But do you know what?  These conditions didn’t slow her down or dampen her joie de vivre.

And Jasper makes three

Whilst Mina was having one of her first ‘canine catastrophe’ moments, I fell in love with another greyhound.  I was smitten.  Jasper (or Magic, as he was known then) was a beautiful black hound, calm and serene – I likened him to being ‘my poochie prozac’.  And, once Mina had recovered, he was introduced to her and completed our gang of three greyhounds.
And Jasper makes three

Degrees, dog training and discovery

It’s fair to say that thanks to Mina, I discovered my true vocation.  I never knew it, but I loved working with dogs and humans and as my appetite had been whet, I wanted to learn more about what made my hounds tick and how could I help them to adjust to life as a companion animal.

Since meeting Mina, I’ve enrolled at university and completed my foundation degree in canine behaviour and training.  I’m also continuing my university studies so that I can gain a BSc.
Receiving my FdSc

I became a Puppy School tutor – running puppy school classes under the UK Puppy School network.  I firmly believe that many behaviour problems are preventable by good puppy classes and often wonder what Mina would have been like if she’d had that start in life.

I also established Happy Hounds Dog Training, and run dog training classes plus specialist greyhound only classes, with an emphasis on helping our dogs adjust to life as a companion animal in the 21st century.  I’m also proud to say that I have worked with the Retired Greyhound Trust and have revised and rewritten their training leaflets

Mina - the calendar girl
I used to joke that Mina hadn’t read the books that said greyhounds couldn’t do ‘x, y, or z’ - the word, ‘couldn’t’, didn’t seem to be in her vocabulary.  She took to trick training, agility and absolutely loved scentwork and loved to bust the myths surrounding greyhounds.

One of Mina's biggest loves was scentwork, particularly Talking Dogs Scentwork.  She took to it like a natural, sniffing out cheese wherever it was hidden.  It's really thanks to scentwork that Mina and I became the team we were, as scentwork teaches you to 'trust in dog.' It was a great privilege and especially fitting that Mina was chosen as the calendar girl for February 2014.

Mina’s legacy

I still can’t believe that she’s gone. She has been my constant companion through the ups and downs of the last nine years.  Don’t get me wrong, I love both Stevie and Jasper, but the bond I had with Mina can never be replaced.  Grief is complex, and those who think ‘it’s just a dog’ have obviously never experienced the joy, love and companionship that living with a dog can bring to life.

There’s not a day that goes past, without stirring a memory of Mina.  I’m not sure whether time is a healer, but I hope, in time, that the pain of her loss lessens and that I can look at photos and videos without crying.  I never expected to become a canine convert and could never have predicted the effect that one greyhound would have on my life.

Thanks to Mina I have met some truly amazing people, who I’m proud to call friends; I’ve learned that patience and empathy go a long way (both with humans and hounds); I’ve launched a new career which, I hope, will see me through to my twilight years.  She was the inspiration behind Happy Hounds Dog Training and all the humans and hounds I continue to work with will be her lasting legacy. 

Mina, 2002 - 1 February 2014

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