As a child I felt our family dog was my special friend. Only he understood me. Unquestioning, even when I did some beastly seven-year-old things to him, Simon gave me devotion and fun and companionship. I played at “showjumping” with him in the garden, over homemade jumps - many years before the great sport of Dog Agility was introduced. He went everywhere with me, on all my “explores”. He comforted me when I was down, and made everything more fun.
As I grew up, with the limited choices of a dependent teenager and young adult - i.e. school and bedsits, I missed contact with dogs. Until the happy moment when I graduated, left employment and started working for myself.
My very first day of freedom was spent at London’s Battersea Dogs Home, sizing up possible soulmates.
And I found one!
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Poppy was perfect. She was around three months old, thin, quiet but curious, and I instantly loved her. The day she became available for rehoming I was sitting on the cold London pavement at 6 a.m., waiting for the doors to open. I was three hours early, but I was at the front of the queue: no-one was going to get in before me and take my pup!
As soon as we were let in, I raced to the area where “my” puppy was, and claimed her. She cost £9.50, including the collar and lead. After a few formalities I was out on that pavement again, this time carrying my precious new friend.
New Fun, a New Life!
That day marked the beginning of the rest of my life. Poppy came with me almost everywhere. She was sweet and friendly and popular. And it was her bright responsiveness that got her picked up by a talent scout for a local dog training club.
We joined a new world where dogs were regarded as important - a necessity - and accorded attention, respect, and understanding.
Competing with Poppy in Agility, Obedience, and Working Trials was rewarding and - importantly - fun! We did well and won frequently. One judge wrote of Poppy, Flower of Battersea: “Such grace and elegance from humble beginnings as shown by her name.” She went on from those humble beginnings to qualify as a Champion, with yards of alphabet after that name. My little shelter pup became W.T.Ch. Flower of Battersea, C.D.Ex, U.D.Ex, W.D.Ex, T.D.Ex. She had more letters after her name than I did!
I was bitten by the dog-training bug - good-o! Poppy became the first of many dogs who I loved, lived with, and competed with. Down the years I’ve always had three or four dogs at a time - usually of varying breeds or types (I love exploring how different breeds think and function), so I have the daily stimulation of working with a multi-dog household of very different characters and breeds.
And it was the curiosity engendered by those differences that got me further and further into dog training until I qualified as a professional trainer myself. It was not something I had aspired to. But I found that people would ask me about all things dog-related, and that I actually knew more than they did!
If I could help their dog, then I could help other dogs too. And it is changing the lot of dogs and how people interact with them that is my aim.
Our knowledge of how dogs learn has improved so dramatically over the years that I’m happy to say the more confrontational methods used in my early days are now totally discarded. Force-free training is the way to go - it is proven to work, with children and people, as well as with dogs!
More Dogs and Puppies!
I started with family-based puppy classes. Then people wanted help with their older dogs. They wanted to learn how to teach their dog tricks. So my school grew and started to spread online.
One of my biggest jumps forward was when I acquired a dog who turned out to be fearful, suspicious, reactive - “growly”. To learn how to help her best fit into our world I had to do a lot more specialist study and take more exams. Finding how well this worked for her meant that I am now able to help other much-loved but growly dogs and their distraught owners.
Working with puppies on the one hand, and difficult dogs on the other, gives me insights into how to give the puppies the best chance of not joining the problem dogs and becoming difficult themselves as they grow up. (No, I’m not shooting myself in the professional foot here! Sadly the flow of growly and fearful dogs is unabated.)
It’s immensely fulfilling work, and so rewarding when people write to me later - sometimes years later - to tell me how their lives have been enriched.
This help for local dogs and puppies has now spread from www.goodfordogs.co.uk - my dog training school in Worcestershire - to here on www.brilliantfamilydog.com where I’m able to reach people from all over the world. One of the joys of doing Live Training Sessions, for instance, is to be able to greet people who are introducing themselves from all over the world.
My online course From Growly Dog to Confident Dog gives me the opportunity to work with people from different parts of the world. We’re all much the same really: we love our dogs and want to make their lives better.
Publishing a series of books has also brought me to a new audience, and my inbox is regularly filled with appreciative emails, and questions from people who are convinced I have all the answers! I do my very best to give them a response which will help with their most pressing problem straight away.
If Simon is on a cloud looking down on me, I hope he’ll feel proud of what he started!
What Were You Always Good At?
My story is yet another case of someone turning their passion into their livelihood. We get to a stage in our lives where what’s really important stands out clearly.
Not doing it becomes more difficult than doing it.
And if you do it well - with passion and conviction - the people will come.
BA (Hons), CBATI, CAP2, MAPDT, PPG, ABTC Registered Animal Trainer
Author of the Brilliant Family Dog series of books