Saturday, 14 November 2015

for the rescue worker

Hair drenched, covered in mud and often the bodily functions of animals, feeling everything but glamorous, sometimes feeling anything but human, you carry on working, helping, trying despite near impossibly odds, because you remember why you began, because you wanted to save as many as you could, physically, mentally and emotionally. You wanted to ease their past trauma, to better their future, to calm and comfort their present. And it's that fire that gets you up each day, and makes you work into the night, you've forgotten who you are a long time ago, but the passion within you burns ever strong. Romantic notions of donning a superhero cloak and lying in cherry blossom with dogs all around you that you've saved were swept aside long ago, and replaced with the 'blink and yo u miss it' wag of a tail from a dog you've spent hours trying to gain trust, the second they relax enough in your presence to accept food from you, when they nuzzle up against you after 2 months of daily walks. It is these moments you continue for, the thousands of pounds of personal development feel worth it for these moments, the years of gruelling study, the heartbreak moments of great loss that you thought at one time you'd never be able to handle let alone experience. Working in rescue is a daily blessing and a lifelong curse, it changes you as a person, hardens you up to people somewhat, and you become more selective about who you trust, who you spend time with, who you let in. The trick is to not let it make you a cynic, to find a way to not become a very depressing person that no one wishes to have around, to avoid compassion fatigue by at times being what you would have once defined as selfish and taking 5 to reflect and escape if needed.

Looking back at old photos of past canine friends is sometimes not possible, nor is speaking about them, or thinking about them, and that's fine, as you know the connection you shared in life.

Rescue workers are emotional adrenaline junkies, we don't want a life free of feeling, that's comfortable and mundane. We want to be where we're needed, and to be needed by the animals we need.

To my fellow rescue workers, keep fighting the good fight, and be gentle with yourself.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

and 'dress down, get up'

“Every day people straighten up the hair, why not the heart?” - wise words Ernesto Guevera. Lets make things clear - hair straightening would be one of the least interesting blog topics that I could ever hope to not read - but matters of the heart always get my attention - especially when it steers away from candelight and roses and veers towards trying a little tenderness charitably. The thing is, their are so many causes out there, and more being created all the time, that it most definitely isn't a one size fits all situations - and should be more of a customised personal activity. 

Some charities will hit us more than others - thank goodness or there'd be some causes seriously lacking in funding and support - i must admit that despite my feelings of empathy towards (most) people - my chosen charities are more often than not animal based. Now for a pet peeve - my hackles tend to begin rising when i hear 'people come first' - hmm I think that statement perhaps is evolutionary and religiously not actually the case.

My happiest moments involve Wellies, a rescue dog and - thanks to England's all year round abysmal climate - a rain mac. My most insecure, unhappy moments often involve hair appliances, going out gear and overdone make-up - oh and fake tan just depresses me - au natural is the way to be (except when it comes to hygiene I might add). The reason why? Being close to nature and focusing on things other than ourselves is not only humbling but necessary - fresh air + giving something back = total lack of insomnia.

  Can you think of anything more boring than being surrounded by people who have nothing else to talk about other than their clothes and what clothes they may buy next week, and what clothes they will definitely not be buying next week, next year and so on until you fall asleep at the table.


One of the things I love about giving something back to society is the sense of community you achieve - where fellow charity givers become firm friends - all walks of life - differing day jobs, financial brackets and life experiences - but a mutual goal in common - to do something good without getting anything back. Selflessness is underrated. Sure - you get that warm fuzzy feeling and an ego boost for being so charitable - and so what - it's well deserved and is likely to help to conjure up a repeat performance of said 'altruistic' actions.

So whether it's trekking through Peru - campaigning for better safe sleeping venues for your local homeless community - or getting knee deep in mud whilst giving a rescue dog a much needed break from kennel life coupled with much desired human contact - risk your hair falling out of place - take off your glad rags and allow your emotions to be stretched to the limit - dress down and get up.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

and...fight for flight

'Be like the bird, who, pausing in her flight awhile on a boughts too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing she hath wings.' -

These uplifting words from Victor Hugo would be certain to taste sour on his lips if he were to have known in his lifetime the somewhat medieval practice of pinioning.

Pinioning involves 'the amputation of the end of one wing of a newborn bird with a sharp pair of scissors – usually without any pain relief. As the birds grow they will be lop-sided and, as a result, will never be able to fly' - state ' - an admirable organisation dedicated to ending the use of animals in entertainment - with their latest campaign focused on bringing an end to pinioning and in its place pioneering a society where we treat animals with the respect they deserve, but so rarely receive. 

What is the purpose of pinioning you most likely wonder? Well, disturbingly, it is to ensure the birds remain in captivity and don't fly away - in essence they have an animals most basic decision of 'fight or flight' stripped from them along with their feathers and mobility.

But these birds do have food, water and shelter - surely that's enough some may argue? Well sure, it ensures the survival of their body, and fulfills some primary needs - a few boxes ticked and a few points scored on the animal welfare front - however let me ask you - would to merely 'exist' be enough for you?

If someone took away your mobility - therefore restricting your life and freedom entirely - yet brought you basic things you needed to continue living - would you view this as a good quality of life? Or would you view this as a complete disrespect and deprivation of your basic human rights?

Now what about animal rights? Well think of it like this - if I told you to close your eyes and picture a bird - what would you see? Most likely a bird flying above in the sky to some destination that only it knows. Not a bird trapped in inner turmoil of wanting so desperately to do what comes naturally but being deprived of this without having any idea why. The urge must be overwhelming and the distress unimaginable.

And the worst part? This practice is carried out so that we have something to view in the zoos - so that the birds are there all year round and cannot fly away to pastures new - therefore interfering completely with their natural cycle.

The good news? Yes their is some - you can help Captive to end the pinioning of birds. If you disagree with this practice then make it known - use your voice - because these birds can't. Sign the petition - and share it with those you know - take delight in clogging up their 'News Feeds' with a cause you know is so worth supporting.

If I can't convince you - then perhaps Leonardo Da Vinci can:
'For once you have tasted flight - you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards for there you have been - and there you will long to return.'

Saturday, 23 March 2013

for....the power of pipe dreams

So here he is -  the new dog for you to work your magic on and transform from shaky heart breaky wreck of a hound into a PAT worthy pooch. You look at the dog in front of you and see a past of uncertainty and confusion, possibly (god forbid) cruelty, and a well earnt lack of trust of humans. Once again we pat ourselves on the back as a species for ruining another beautiful perfect creature that we ourselves aided the domestication of to serve a higher purpose than being our punching bag. But regardless, as behaviorists it is up to us to do all we can to try - to restore at least part of the innocent natural trust that canines for some strange and humbling reason still honour us with - and attempt to get this wayward friend back on track. this scenario their are different paths we can take - we can attempt to bribe the friendship with nice tasting titbits, toys and so on - and don't get me wrong - with your less terrified dogs these can work a treat (scuse the pun) - or we can simply 'be' with the dog and attempt to create a deeper emotional connection by simply 'being' around the dog - sharing energy (no i haven't inhaled too much incense and maxed out on dailyinspirationalquotes) - and working out some kind of relationship. With some dogs it can feel almost like bargaining at times with 'look I'm trusting you here - please don't bite me' and with other less confident yet just as fearful souls it's more of a 'I'll sit here till you decide to creep a little closer to me and sniff and see that whilst yes I stink of coffee and too much perfume I actually smell like a non threatening individual.'

So a few sessions in and perhaps you're now at the stage where aggressive displays have disappeared and replacing them are brief but all important offerings of the olive branch - increasingly relaxed body posture and softer expressions from mr wasbarkyandsnarlyafewhoursago -begins to approach you in a more inviting manner - or remains quivering but allows you to get closer because it secretly kinda wants to be pals but is on the fence for now. Are our thoughts of full rehabilitation really just a pipe dream?

At the stage where sitting and waiting turns into talking and walking/dog regarding us as insane for blabbering endlessly at them in an overly cheerly voice and praising them repeatedly for peeing, pooping, sniffing and just 'being a dog' in a helpless attempt to further deepen our bond by verbal encouragement - we feel a sense of achievement - and so we should - even if the dog ignores us the entire walk and seems desperate to pretend we're not there - 'where's the human? i don't see a human?' It's all in those the brief sceptical looks towards us when we are (rather cunningly i might add) gazing out into a distant field (whilst secretly watching them from the corner of our beedy all seeing eye the whole time), or the slight momentary lean into us when we pause marching for a seemingly random and non thought out minute to reconsider route, or even that precious interlude when they forget their a scared non welcoming pooch and can't resist lunging slightly after a stick you've thrown before remembering themselves and swiftly re-building their walls before we notice their accidental lapse and mistake it for a breakthrough - which of course it is - however small.

And that's my point. When it comes to the behaviour of dogs and the 'successes' of the behaviourist their can be no deadline time wise, nor should we focus on achieving a 'tumblr' of  homeward bound 'runintoownersarms' photographic moments because despite our hard work, some dogs never get to turn back time into that irresistible happy pup 'stealandchewonyourshoesthengiveyoukisses' stage they once had - some cuts are too deep and jagged to fully heal. But - much like the potter who moulds clay into desirable entities, we must accept that once broken some creations cannot resume their natural selves - they can however be stuck back together to the best of the handlers ability, and great things can still shine through even if not as vibrant as before or as appealing to the average  customer. Each re-built item though, with its overcompensated sanded down edges, overload of shiny new colours painted on to cover the cracks and each re-moulded segment, much like the half wag of a dogs now almost neutral tail, may never be quite what it was - and our ideal finished result a mere pipe dream - but it is still a thing of beauty in its own right.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

....for you can't see the 'woof's' for the trees...

A painter sits in a forest in springtime surrounded by hundreds of green leafed oak trees, all sprung from acorns, all rich in mutual colour, and all part of the same family of tree. Yet to the trained eye of the painter, each oak tree is an individual entity.
As a young man he learnt which brush to use for differing levels of detail leaf to trunk, what colours compliment the oak season by season, and those combinations that would turn the sweetest painting sour. Despite having sketched thousands of these rich, strong trees, from the moment the painter puts brush tip to paper, he sees only the oak in front of him….

So how does art relate to dog training? Well admittedly not a great deal. 

Yet in the same way that a painter begins each new painting with a blank canvas and freshly washed brushes, a trainer must view each new dog with an open mind. It’s very tempting for trainers at times to attempt to diagnose a dog before even having met it, and it’s due to this impulsive eagerness to prove ones expertise that mistakes are made; at the peril of the dog.

Client : ‘Dog growls when people enter my home’
Trainer : ‘Oh your dog is obviously showing protective aggression.’

Client : ‘My dog jumps all over other dogs in play and is a real handful’
Trainer : ‘Your dog is dominant with other dogs, trying to be the boss’

Has this trainer in any way helped owner or dog? What if the growler is not attempting to protect his owner but is in fact nervous of visitors himself? Perhaps the over zealous dog doesn’t give two figs about status, and just has poor social skills!

Certain trainers have equations that seem to go:

Any behavioural problem whatsoever = the dog is dominant.

These are the trainers whose books I burn, and TV shows I take almost sadistic pleasure in pressing ‘standby’ at.
Canines are complex creatures, and whilst they have their similarities in terms of survival needs, will work for a high enough motivator etc, in essence each dog is unique.

You may be working with 10 dogs who are frequently mouthing those around them. You could attempt to tar all with the same brush of ‘lack of bite inhibition, poor puppy socialisation, biting in play etc.’ What if one of the dogs is mouthing as a stress reliever due to feelings of anxiety? Perhaps one mouths solely because he is bored all day and gets a lot of attention when he puts teeth to skin?

A well-known trainer I recently spoke to, explained his frustration at some trainers almost habitual categorization of dog behaviours into set boxes e.g. predatory aggression, dominance aggression, nervous aggression. His point was ‘can someone not feel fear and anger at the same time?’ This statement from him made me think, and my answer is a resounding yes. If someone were to attack me in my local cafe, whilst terrified, I’d also feel fury that they dare single me out, I may also experience sadness and worry, and relief that it’s me they’ve targeted and not my mother, or the child in the high chair on the next table.

So if I as an animal can experience conflicting emotions at once, surely our canine counterparts can also.

The dog that wants to say hi, but seems nervous, becomes frustrated at dogs around it, seems jealous of attention other dogs are receiving, suddenly becomes very confident, then suddenly shy, overexcited, then heartbreakingly fearful….sound familiar?

Well, it’s certainly plausible.

So fellow trainers/owners/painters who were fooled by the intro into reading this blog…. whilst a dog is a dog, with shades of grey in their complex minds and patchy pigments in their behaviour that couldn’t be further from black and white; through my eyes each couldn’t be closer to perfection. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

...for the love of a dog

'He is loyalty iself' quotes Gene Hill about his faithful little dog. The words loyalty and dog are never far from one another in a sentence, and for good reason. In fact it is this deep unshakeable loyalty possessed by our 4 legged friends that has inspired me to pursue a career in canine behaviour; perhaps to give something back to the species that has given me so much.

3 years ago things were very different, I was a total dog-phobic, severe enough to cross the street if i heard the pitter patters of paws, however tiny, approaching me. Volunteering as a dog walker in my local rescue centre, Bath Cats and Dogs Home, soon changed my perception of dogs, and as it happens, my life.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of befriending a dog, that wonderful moment where you've gained their trust and a bond starts to develop between the two of you. You become close through walks, those precious quiet moments where it's just the two of you exploring unknown fields and pathways, sharing sandwiches and affection, and receiving so much more than you give without intention.

Dogs give all without asking for anything, love with their entire beings all the way from their licky mouths to their waggy tails; perhaps most overlooked is their ability to tell us the truth without malice or tact. Dogs do not act out of vengence or spite, they don't feel guilt or empathy in the way we assume they do, but this does not make them inferior to us because they don't see the world in shades of grey. It is this blunt, selfish innocence that makes our 4 legged furry friends far morally superior to their analytical 2 legged counterparts.

My love of dogs has so far cost me thousands of pounds in behaviour courses, nights full of tears when a beloved friend is euthanised or loathing kennel life, more versions of the common cold than I knew existed from walking rescue dogs in the Winter, and I will never need blusher again thanks to the sunburn I have constantly subjected myself to from paddock playtimes in the blistering heat....however please do not assume I am moaning as I have adored every single moment. No matter how dismal life can at times seem, one look in the soulful eyes of a dog and the world seems beautiful for me.

If there is ever a day when I question my purpose in life, the answer is always there clear and will always be worth living if you have earnt the love of a dog. Or many dogs, as I hope has and will be the case!