Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Schnauzerfest Success

What a weekend we have just had the great pleasure of seeing come together and be a part of, from an idea I had back in May this year: a weekend of fundraising walks with schnauzers around the UK in aid of the Diana Brimblecombe Animal Rescue Centre (DBARC). For background on how Schnauzerfest came about read this from a while ago. After the initial idea was shared and great offers of help and ideas settled, steady work was done over the summer: people offered, or were persuaded, encouraged and cajoled to set up walks in their local areas using social media: facebook and twitter as well as the Schnauzer Forum UK.

We were lucky to receive early help from professional designer Lesley Nichols who donated her skills to produce excellent, eye-catching graphics, all this set us up with a professional and welcoming image. They became invaluable as the process unfolded and we increased the publicity for the event. Lesley remained patient over many months of requests from me to do various things and I am hugely grateful to her.

All along I was keen to keep the admin and bureaucracy to a minimum, there's nothing that quite knocks my enthusiasm for anything like getting bogged down in a load of worries, procedures, rules and possible problems. There were a lot of background things I thought about as we went and at times I did wonder if it was a good idea or not to promote too large a national event. In the end, it's worked out fine with only a few minor problems on the walks that the hosts sorted as they went. In this day of tedious  and burdensome regulation I think we did well to get the event sorted as smoothly as it was. For that, the walk hosts who stepped up must take the credit they rightly deserve. Without the hosts, it wouldn't have been much of a schnauzerfest.

Some of the hosts and participants went way beyond offering to share their favourite walks with others: on many of the walks there were homemade cakes for humans and plenty of dog tasty treats too which were sold in exchange for donations to the fundraising.

One of the Yorkshire walks even went to the trouble of making doggy bandanas which people donated funds for.

I know that for some that hosted and took part in the weekend, it was well out of their normal activity and quite a step to put themselves forward to do this kind of thing. To everyone, I am sincerely grateful for what they have helped achieve with this.

We opted for an "honesty-box" approach to the fundraising rather than having a set-fee or fee-per dog arrangement. This was my preferred option for several reasons, but mainly in these times of economic strife, I didn't want people to be put off getting out and about enjoying time with their schnauzers, meeting others because they had to think twice about paying for it. As well as fundraising being central to the event, my other big priority, was that it must be about dogs enjoying a great weekend together. Money should never get in the way of that, walking should be a free activity after all.

I recognise that generosity takes many forms and far from always monetary and this weekend has proven that again to me.

My great friend Kate was instrumental in networking across the many groups of schnauzer friends she has that she walks with, or helps others to link up with. By September we had a good coverage of venues across the UK, with a few geographical gaps, but in the main, there were walks within a couple of hours drive of most places in the country (with the odd exception).  By the Schnauzerfest Weekend there were 21 in total. There were several beach walks, country park locations, forests, and even the grounds of stately homes on the schnauzerfest map. The number attending walks varied from large groups of 40-60 dogs, to smaller, intimate gatherings of a handful of friends and dogs. Whatever the size, it didn't matter as the variety of walking locations meant that there was something within reach of those prepared to travel. There are people who like the large, noisy, convivial gathering of humans and dogs, but others for whom, a quieter, small number of participants is preferable. To me, a small walk is equally valuable in what it has contributed to Schnauzerfest.

This was one special side to the weekend, there was something for everyone along the spectrum; size didn't matter, it was the variety and number of walks that counted most when it came to participation. Offering plenty of options was key to it and again, the hosts made that work. I managed both the main Facebook page and Twitter input and there was at least one walk that came about via Twitter. It's been an interesting exercise in using social media for what turned out to be a big event and astounding in the fundraising it achieved.

There have been several strands to promoting Schnauzerfest going on over the past few months, the Facebook and Twitter pages have of course been central and from September I increased activity on both as the weekend drew nearer and we had a good event to promote. Individuals promoted through their own and others blogs, social media and local press. Each walk's identity was individual within the overall Schnauzerfest event, the co-operative nature made it work well. At the beginning of September, I, along with some of the DBARC team and my friend Kathleen spent the day at Pup Aid in London and handed out Schnauzerfest leaflets along with everything else we were doing. We know that there have been donations received from people meeting us at Pup Aid and I've received personal messages of support from those who've come to know about this and Susie-Belle through the book and our facebook page. It's excellent to know that another spin-off from Schnauzerfest that I had hoped might be achieved has been: awareness of the work of rescues as well as the evils of puppy farming.

By the time the weekend arrived, there was a lot of online excitement and people had really got behind both the idea of walking with others, but also the spirit of the event thrived as people realised they'd be supporting such a wonderful charity. DBARC is a small rescue, but they do a phenomenal amount of work with the animals in their care. They genuinely love those that find shelter with them, offering whatever veterinary care is required - which is costly in most cases.

As many know from reading my book and other writings, DBARC helped Susie-Belle for six months, including cataract surgery, this is an expensive procedure. On the Facebook page I shared other examples where DBARC have similarly helped schnauzers in their care. I for one, will engage with a cause when I can relate to it, this I feel happened with Schnauzerfest - wonderful schnauzer owners saw how unfortunate other schnauzers can be, through man's actions, yet equally, how kind those who work in genuinely compassionate rescues like DBARC can be.
But this comes at a high financial cost.

So the donations: they began coming in, a couple of weeks ahead of the event. We had asked for online donations, and if hosts were willing to collect donations on the day to forward them. This made it easy for people to take part without worrying about doing it online if they didn't want to, and for hosts to collect people's loose change at each walk, should they wish to donate that way. It worked perfectly. Some collected sponsorship from friends and family and there have been some generous gifts indeed made.

A few days before the event, the host of the Rye walk, our friend Mike who has also helped behind the scenes decided to do a small raffle at his walk with a handful of prizes he'd been given. As news spread of this, others donated gifts, and Mike opened it up to the entire Schnauzerfest community online. By the time of the draw, amazingly generous gifts had been donated with the top prize, a stay in a country B&B. It was remarkable how the raffle spiralled into an event in itself and Mike had a bit of an unexpected beast on his hands, admirably managed by him, which raised well over £700 alone.

I had always intended to take part in a couple of the walks, but, unforeseen circumstances have meant that I've needed to be in France for the past few weeks, so we never got to get out to any walks. However, this had a silver lining, as it meant I was available all over the weekend to man the online side of Schnauzerfest which was pretty demanding, rather exciting and surprisingly tiring! I wanted to ensure that information was kept up to date, news shared, walks promoted, questions answered and photos enjoyed. But, what was more exciting than anything was keeping an eye on the donations as they came in. I was emotionally exhausted by it all as it was such a high seeing the total climb by the hour.

So, the money: we set an optimistic target of £2000. I thought that was too high, my own thoughts were if we cleared £1000 that would be great; but then the money started coming in. So much generosity has been shown in financial terms that at the time of writing (and it's still climbing) donations have reached an astounding £5477, which with Gift Aid makes a total of £6660. It is mind-blowing how much that means to DBARC.

I have run out of words to describe what it means to me, knowing that through everyone pulling together, getting behind the idea and the spirit of the event, recognising what DBARC do and how incredible they are touches me greatly. For, without me meeting Janet a little over three years ago, her trusting me to take home her beloved foster dog Susie-Belle, I would never have thought about doing anything for a small animal rescue in Berkshire. My admiration of their work has grown and grown since then and I am committed to help them continue to help others like Susie-Belle. Now, the country's schnauzer owners also know all about DBARC, their work, their care of puppy farm survivors and other dogs who are fortunate to pass through their loving care.

I could say so much more about this event, and probably will again, but for now, I'll leave you with this video, sent to me by Carl Smallshaw, it says it all and I love it:

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Twinkle update

Goodness, it's been too long since I wrote a post here, for that I apologise, the only reason being I'm immersed now in writing my next book and have been juggling time and commitments. No excuse to neglect the blog though and I'm remedying that now and have adjusted some priorities.

Time for a Twinkle update and a note on a herbal remedy we've been trying: it doesn't seem possible but she's now been with us 19 months and is a different dog to when she first arrived with us, terrified of her own bark, of us, of everyone in fact. These days she is the one who does most barking at home, although rarely outside. Her barking is highly expressive and over the time we've spent together we've learnt to understand her better. We don't always get it right, but mostly we think we have a mutual understanding. Her barking is frequently to hurry me up with the food prep, or, hurry me up bringing her night-time biscuits to bed, or hurry me up to open the door if I've been out. In fact, most of her barking - at me - is to get me to do something more quickly. Where Susie-Belle is patient, Twinkle is resolutely not.

She is still alarmingly skittish at times if she's startled, but we adapt our world around her to keep her feeling safe and secure and avoid unexpected changes as much as we can. She has a series of routines that so long as we keep to, she's pretty content. For example, she's only comfortable having her harness and collar put on if she's sat herself down somewhere safe; at home this is usually her bed, occasionally she'll pop herself down on the kitchen floor, or patio, but if I attempt to put it on before she's sat and ready, off she flies in a panic and it can be ten minutes before she calms herself again. It's been quite a while though since we've had to abandon it because she couldn't settle enough.

She's happy out and about and enjoys the company of other dogs and we've been committed to meeting up with friends as much as possible over the past few months. It really helps her to forget her worries when she's enjoying time with others dogs.

Before we went to France for the summer, I decided I would try her on a herbal preparation: scullcap and valerian, something that I've long been aware of, but have held off giving her until now as I didn't want to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at her initially in my attempts to help her. I'm glad I've waited as I have clearly seen the benefits now to giving her the scullcap & valerian tablets from Dorwest.

With a Masters degree in herbal medicine, I know the science behind the preparation and have long appreciated the traditional use of these herbs but to witness the effectiveness with Twinkle has been pleasing. Previously I've felt that she is so complex, and the psychological damage the puppy farm has caused her is so deep it would be asking a lot of the tablets to have much effect. I wanted to know that alongside the herbal approach, we were working effectively with her in terms of us adapting to her needs so she could learn how to live a normal life with us. Something she has never had the chance until 19months ago. I'm glad we waited to start the scullcap/valerian mix as I'm utterly convinced that by giving her the daily dose, it allows her nervous system to settle sufficiently for her to be able to work through some of the anxieties that persistently plague her. She is far more responsive to us, and we can almost see her psyche working past an instinctive reaction as she would have before, allowing enough of a calmness to settle for her to change her behaviour.

I feel we could have started it sooner with her, but the important thing is that now she's on it, it's making a significant difference alongside all else we do for and with her. It's certainly not going to be a cure-all and may not be of much help to some dogs, but for Twinkle, it's great. It's making a powerful contribution to her well being and for now we'll keep her on it.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Fire destroys dogs home

Yesterday morning I woke up to the news that a suspected arson attack had destroyed Manchester Dogs Home. One of the oldest and largest rescues in the country, it was founded in 1893 and takes in over 7000 dogs each year and the apparent deliberate destruction of this place of refuge and care hit me hard. When I thought about the dogs trapped in their kennels while fire destroyed all around them and then their lives - reports suggest 60 were killed and 150 injured - the terror and pain they must have experienced is too awful to contemplate. Many of them in the Centre find themselves there through abandonment and abuse, they had already experienced the dark side of human life and to perish that way makes my heart ache. And I mean ache, it's not a phrase for effect, I felt pained all day at the utter agony of this story.

But, amidst the horror of what transpired Thursday night, acts of individual, spontaneous courage by some were reported. Two local men, hearing the cries of the trapped dogs rushed to release those they could, leading them to safety and risking their own lives. This story shows the inherent decency of many people when they see animals suffering and it is easy to forget the majority of humans are kind to animals when we see cruelty, neglect and worse all around. On top of the individual acts of bravery, local people flocked during the night to the centre with donations, offers of help, items for the dogs, anything and everything they thought would be useful they took along. During yesterday, there were reports of people travelling from all over the country to offer help. This overwhelming, immediately positive response shows a depth of compassion for dogs, and those who care for them. I found this deeply moving yesterday, a feeling that was bolstered as a social media fuelled wave of generosity raised a phenomenal sum of money through the day. At the time of writing, the total money raised is over £1.2 million. A staggering sum to raise in a short period of time and great testament to how this story has touched people.

Yet, while this outpouring of help, generosity and practical support raised my spirits, today I can't shift the sadness that amongst all the amazing energy that will ensure the Centre will rise again so it can continue to do all the valuable work they have for well over a hundred years, the need for that work shows no signs of diminishing. Yesterday on social media I urged people to donate what they could but also to look at their local rescue centres and regularly help them in any way they can as every week they need help, not just in the aftermath of a devastating event. UK dogs and cats are in the middle of a terrible, ongoing tragedy: rescues around the country are full and overflowing because too many are being bred and bought on whims, casually discarded when those who buy them feel like it. Thousands of dogs are killed every year purely because there are not enough caring homes for them. There is a culture now that doesn't see dogs and cats as our lifelong companions and the rescues, like Manchester Dogs Home are the places that people dump them.

I want people to look beyond the immediate awful story and while they donate money, goods, skills and time, also do all they can to encourage others to not buy the puppy on a whim, not breed the dog for cash, or because it will be "nice for her to have a litter". Aside from the thought of the poor souls on Thursday night, these are the other reasons my heart aches when I think of the fire and what it's done.

This piece piece I came across yesterday afternoon expresses all I feel and more.

Donate here to the fund.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Pups and people, lots of people at Pup Aid

Primrose Hill, North-west London, Saturday 6 September was the perfect place for anyone to be who loves dogs, shopping for dogs, talking about dogs, admiring dogs, but most importantly caring, rescuing, protecting, adopting and loving dogs. It was Pup Aid Day and we were there, naturally.

Pup Aid is the brainchild of vet Marc Abraham, the UK's high profile dedicated campaigner against puppy farming and has been described as the "Live Aid" of animal welfare. It's an event that attracts celebrity supporters, lots of attention both locally in Primrose Hill and in the wider mainstream media. It's what the event is all about: awareness raising while having a great day out. I've no idea how many people and dogs attended throughout the day, but it seemed like thousands.

This year I persuaded Janet, the manager of the Diana Brimblecombe Animal Rescue Centre to come along and while I signed a few books, they raised funds by running a fun toy tombola which proved remarkably popular with the many children that were around.

 We had quite the dream team for the day: Bethany, committed, lively, teenage activist and DBARC volunteer who never seems to run out of energy kept the tombola turning and her mouth moving telling everyone about puppy farming, rescue and adoption....

 .....backed up by Donna and Zoe who pulled in the passersby, who were regaled with the reality of what puppy farming is by Kathleen, amazing non-stop spokesperson for her ex-breeders Darcie and Juno. Kathleen really found her vocation on Saturday and there cannot have been anyone who came past our little corner of Primrose Hill who didn't go away knowing a heck of a lot more about the misery and greed that puppy farming represents than when they got out of bed on Saturday.

 As is our way, it was all done with smiles and humour which were powered throughout the day by a steady supply of cakes and Michel's gourmet picnic. There was also the odd bit of shopping for essentials, like this little beauty.....

While Kathleen talked...and talked...Susie-Belle and I kept an eye on the stall, signed a few books and took part in the ex-breeders parade together with Twinkle.....

......this is a moving celebration of the lives of survivors of the puppy farming industry and reminds people what the day is really all about.

Marc kindly gave me the opportunity to talk a little more about Susie-Belle, something I'm always more than willing to do....
There were many great things about the day: I met several people that I've been in contact with on social media, all terrific supporters of the Pup Aid campaign and all doing what they can to end the suffering for the dogs.

It's great to be in the company of people who feel as strongly as I do that this has to end and together I am certain we will achieve it. I met others with dogs who have experienced and survived puppy farms: Angie & Tilly came down from Yorkshire and stopped by to say hello and buy a book, so nice to meet in person at last; Christina of Pet Adoption UK made time to meet us and kindly gave the dogs a little present each, so thoughtful. It was heartening talking to committed campaigners Beverley and Philippa, both dedicated to working with Pup Aid to get things changed and soon.

Saturday was a celebration of what is being achieved and a recognition that there is much still to do. But do it we will as we pull together, pool our efforts and show the world that the days of puppy farming and abusive breeding are numbered.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Parliamentary Debate

Yesterday was a big day in the UK for those campaigning to end puppy farming and the mass breeding and sale of puppies and kittens. In the House of Commons, MPs debated the following Backbench Motion, brought by MP Rob Flello.

 That this House has considered the e-petition relating to the sale of young puppies and kittens; notes that puppies produced at large-scale commercial breeding establishments, known as puppy farms, and irresponsibly-bred kittens are separated from their mothers too early and often transported long distances, and as a result often suffer serious life-threatening problems including impaired immune systems, poor socialisation, infectious diseases and shorter life spans; calls on the Government to review existing legislation to ensure that it is consistent with its own guidance that prospective owners should always see the puppy or kitten with its mother, and to ban the sale of puppies and kittens from retail centres such as pet shops, garden centres or puppy supermarkets; further notes the support of the Blue Cross, Dog Rescue Federation, Dogs Advisory Council, Dogs Trust, The Kennel Club, RSPCA and others for such a ban; and further calls on the Government and welfare organisations to work together to raise awareness among the public about choosing a dog responsibly from only ethical breeders or by adoption from legitimate rescue organisations, and to consider further steps to end the cruel practice of irresponsible and unethical breeding of puppies and kittens in the UK. (www.parliament.co.uk)

Now when I say a big day, it's true that the day didn't bring a miraculous end to the ugly industry that trapped Susie-Belle for years, it didn't bring an end to pet shop sales, but what it did bring was a rising public awareness of the issues that must be tackled. It has, for the first time, got it into parliamentary business. There has been wide national media coverage on it. Social media for the past week has been buzzing with people tweeting, emailing and contacting their MPs to engage with this issue. The current level of engagement is unprecedented and needs building on.

But, amongst the coverage, there are the negatives, the ones who wonder why MPs are debating this when the world is in turmoil. Frustratingly, there are some choosing to focus on the low number of MPs who attended rather than the positive fact the debate occurred at all and what needs to be done to build on it. This frustrates me as someone who has been rallying everyone I can to lobby their own MPs, to publicise the debate, to get people to engage in the process and sat through most of the debate - I had to leave not having made provision for the dogs in my absence, assuming it wouldn't be a long debate where in fact it was three hours. I feel frustrated that it is not recognised by some moaning about attendance of MPs that the debate only came about through public pressure and a lot of hard work from campaigners: the e-petition that enabled yesterday to happen initiated by vet, Marc Abraham reached 111,000 signatures. This is backbench politics arising entirely from public pressure and should be applauded and built on, not trashed because the percentage of MPs there was low. This coverage from the Telegraph today says some of what I feel today:

"Likewise, ask any of the MPs talking about puppies today how many letters and emails they’ve had from voters about cute animals, and how many they’ve had about, say, Ukraine. Guess which issue does most to fill the postbag?
So before you lambast MPs for wasting their time talking about kittens, consider how often they get accused of ignoring public opinion and failing to listen to the people who pay their wages.
Face it: a lot of people care more about lovely puppies and adorable kittens than they do about war and death and economic and all the other important stuff they’ve supposed to be interested in. MPs wittering about animals while the world goes to hell in a handcart are just reflecting that fact".

Sitting through the debate, some of the MPs spoke well on the topic and clearly have a good grasp of the issues; others were less impressive, but overall the impression I took away was positive. On a personal note, listening to the better speakers I was forcibly struck by what this debate meant for dogs like Susie-Belle and Twinkle. While it didn't end the misery for the dogs still trapped in the industry, it gave voice to their suffering and is recorded now in a way never before seen in the UK. Their suffering was recognised in the place, among the minds of those who have the power to one day - soon I sincerely hope - to bring it to an end. The debate is moving on and from debate will come change. Too slowly of course, but it shifted on yesterday, whatever others try to say to knock the day into one of cliched complaining about MPs and what they're paid for, how useless they are and all the usual unhelpful and pointless ranting social media thrives on. As far as I'm concerned, yesterday changed things, we're no longer out in the wilderness of weird dog people who no-one listens to.

Read the full transcript of the debate here

Saturday, 30 August 2014

A few months back we were lucky to be visited by professional photographer Liz Benjamin
who is doing a brilliant photography project to raise awareness of puppy farming. We had fun posing on one of our local walks- well the dogs were posing - and today here is Susie-Belle's contribution to Liz's project. We love this picture of her, she's so special and this reflects that perfectly.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

3 years ago Susie-Belle's first big day out was Pup Aid - 2 weeks today we're returning

Soon after we brought Susie-Belle home to us 3 years ago, we took her out to a show that seemed made for her, the annual puppy farming awareness Fun Dog Show Pup Aid.

At that time it was held near Brighton, but since then it has been held in London, Primrose Hill and gone from strength to strength. This year's event has special significance as the parliamentary debate on puppy farming that Pup Aid's founder, Marc Abraham has spearheaded will be held a couple of days before. So, 6 September could see a day of celebrating enough MPs doing the decent thing and agreeing to ban third party sales of puppies in outlets such as pet shops and garden centres, or a day of mustering support and galvanising for a prolonged and difficult next stage of the campaign to end puppy farming.

However the debate goes, at Pup Aid, we intend celebrating the life of every puppy farm dog wherever they are, whether living in freedom like Susie-Belle and Twinkle, or still trapped by the inhumane humans who see them as breeding cash machines.  Every single dog deserves each ounce of love and recognition for being themselves, not a commodity, that the supporters of Pup Aid will show by being present on the day.

Here are extracts from Chapter 8 of our book which give a flavour of our first experience at Pup Aid, 3 years ago when Susie-Belle had been free of the puppy farm for 6 months and with us just a few weeks...

"Making our way down the hill from the car park amongst the building crowds involved a series of stops and starts as she paused to let people pass, only to take a few steps forwards, freeze and the same process take over again.When she stopped, I stopped and would kneel down next to her, giving her chin a reassuring tickle until she was happy to walk again"

"Once I'd wrestled with my own anxiety about Susie-Belle being amongst so many people and had taken a few deep breaths, I relaxed, looked around and realised what a fantastic event we were at. The atmosphere was lively but not frenetic and there were plenty of dogs of all shapes and sizes milling happily around......men on stilts wandered around, amusing children and startling the adults". 

"Amongst the frivolity and fun, the purpose of the event was ever present with several stalls promoting awareness of puppy farming, small independent charities and organisations displaying pictures of breeding dogs....it was sobering to see these images on a sunny day of joyful activity and remind ourselves why were there". 

"After lunch, we headed home but not before we had seen the emotionally moving parade of ex-breeding bitches, all rescued from terrible conditions in puppy farms and now living the kind of lives that all dogs should enjoy - free from pain, suffering and neglect, surrounded by an abundance of love and compassion.....seeing these damaged dogs was sad but powerfully reinforced the message of the day: buying puppies indiscriminately, ignorantly or just plain naively fuels the demand and continues the abuse of thousands of parent dogs. That night, I gave Susie-Belle an extra special supper and a gentle cuddle"

In the three years since that weekend, Susie-Belle has transformed herself. At this year's event, she will take part in the Parade, along with Twinkle. I couldn't have imagined that 3 years ago.

We will be there all day sharing our stall with the Diana Brimblecombe Animal Rescue Centre to help them to raise funds and enjoy the day with friends of DBARC. We'll be selling, signing and pawtographing copies of the book and donating all profits from sales made on the day to DBARC.

So, do come along, spread the word, get friends and family to come and be sure to pop over and say hello.