Sunday, 17 August 2014

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

When a home is not a home as I know it to be

Recently I've found myself getting involved in online discussions on people giving dogs up for rehoming and as expected, things get heated, points are made and misunderstood, opinions are aired and not appreciated, emotions run high. All par for the course when it comes to online discussions. But I really should know better than to jump into them. Only, if everyone shied away from trying to have honest discussions on tricky, important issues that affect thousands of dogs, nothing changes for the better. People never think about the flip side of what their instinctive, gut reactions tell them. The platitudes and  crocodile tears lie unchallenged. But, online it's always hard to get the balance right, to avoid alienating people, to stay respectful whilst adhering to what one's knowledge tells them and values underpin. I have a brilliant quote on my bag from RARE bags "When all think alike, no-one thinks very much" which is a pretty good guide to how I approach life. In fact all the quotes I chose for the bag sum up why I will always speak out if I think it might contribute to changing things for the better.

But, I know people don't like to be judged, or see someone judged who is giving up a dog because they can't give the life to the dog that it should have. I get that, but not every case of rehoming should go by, soaked in sympathy for the one giving up on the dog. The particular trigger for my recent online rough and tumble was someone who within a year was looking for a new home for the puppy they had bought, from a breeder who they wouldn't take it back to as they didn't trust the breeder to do the right thing for the puppy. Yet they'd bought the puppy in the first place, and were experienced with dogs. There are many things that are going to get my hackles up in this scenario. Put aside knowingly buying a puppy from a less than great breeder, an experienced owner to my mind, should know what is expected through the lifetime of a dog and plan ahead for most normal life changes, like having a baby, or moving house, or having to work longer hours. These events happen all the time, and people who really see the puppy they buy as their companion, their family, will make sure the life of the dog is included in these changes and make necessary adjustments and arrangements. Especially if that person has had a dog before. Otherwise, they should not bring a dog into their lives.

I do see it might be different for people never having had a dog before, the reality can be quite different to the idea of living with a dog and being entirely responsible for its happiness and welfare, for many years. But, an experienced owner, giving up on a dog within a year because life no longer includes that dog, is something that I will judge, some will say harshly. My sympathies are never going to spent on the person in this scenario. My compassion lies with the dog. Who, rightly so will be better off in a new home. But, the point that irks me, is that this should not be necessary. When, Battersea Cats and Dogs Home say that over half the dogs they take in are under 3 years old, this demonstrates a societal ease with giving up on dogs that I don't like. So, I will speak up and challenge those who feel the "heartbreak" that is being felt by the abandoner deserves sympathy. Well not mine.

Of course, I completely recognise there are going to be calamitous events in people's lives where a dog can no longer remain within the family, but in my view, these are rare, not common and of the order of bereavement or life-changing illness. Not, normal, life events like moving home, changing job or home, all the other common reasons frequently thrown out nowadays by people handing on their "loved, baby, furkid". Really?

There were people in the discussion that judged me harsh. I'm not harsh, or uncaring. Quite the opposite, but I do speak out when I see superficial words bandied around that masks the real issues which to me include a lack of responsibility towards what buying a dog in the first place really should involve. It goes to the heart of what is driving the puppy farming and hideous commercialism of dog breeding - people's casual wish to buy a puppy but not make a genuine life-long commitment to it. It should not be easy for people to buy a pet. There were those who wanted me to keep quiet and who take the view that dogs will make the transition between homes easily. Some will, some certainly won't. But, the point is, why should they have to? And then there was the comment, that a "forever" home is laudable but comes second to a "good home". A forever home should be a good home and a good home should be forever in my view. I make no apologies for wishing society aspired to feel the same. It used to. Dogs were not abandoned in the massive numbers they are these days. Other countries don't have this casual dumping of dogs going on. Sweden has very few rescue shelters, those they do have bring dogs in from other countries, because the Swedes see a puppy as a life-long commitment. So, when a forever home proves not to be within a year, because the experienced dog owner, who should have known what the dogs needs were, no longer offers their "loved" baby their home, I will speak up. Even if that isn't the popular thing to do. A few truths aired may make some think harder about bringing that puppy into their world and not committing to its lifetime, come what may.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Twinkle at the vet

Our summer stay in France is underway. We arrived mid-week after an uneventful night-drive down. We opted for an overnight drive as it's been so hot recently we thought the dogs would appreciate the cooler night air at their pee-stops. Just before we left the UK, Twinkle managed to pick up a bug and travelling with an upset tummy meant more stops might be needed, so the night-drive proved welcome.

As it turned out, she was fine on the journey, but Thursday was a day of concern as she swiftly  went from a loose tummy, to passing blood, vomitting it up and peeing the red stuff. All highly alarming and off to the vet we headed tout de suite.
Now visiting our local vet here is nothing like our practice back in the UK where we see the same, wonderful vet most of the time, the nurses are familiar faces and show genuine compassionate understanding and our relationship is long-standing and reliable. I know I can always ask for explanations of what is being suggested, what the diagnosis is and options are always openly discussed. It's how I like a vet-client relationship to be. Here, in France, we go regularly, more often than the UK as we have to in order to satisfy the requirements of the UK Pet Travel Scheme, but the relationship is as different to the one at home as the French are to the English. Funny that. We often see different vets, consultations are brief - thankfully they are normally only giving routine worming treatment and signing the paperwork but over the years, there have been occasions when something more serious has been required - and it's an altogether different experience than at home.

One vague worry I've always had about us being in France so often is that if one of the dogs was seriously ill here, I would struggle a lot with the differences, not that I ever doubt the excellence of treatment, it's more subtle than that. A lot is my own fault for not being fluent in the language and relying on Michel (who is) to translate my concerns, my need to understand any issue with the dogs and their treatment. Not only are our vets different, Michel and I are like chalk and cheese, or the French and English, when it comes to this. He will always trust what is being said and suggested, he doesn't feel the need to ask questions, or know the options. He rarely worries about things, doesn't see the point in knowing what may or may never happen, takes each moment as it comes. It's an admirable state of mind in so many ways and it contrasts spectacularly with my need to know everything about anything, to assess all possible options, to have a perception of control (even if false) over matters. We balance one another and somewhere in the middle, we muddle through happily most of the time.

So, Thursday, knowing we had an emergency on our hands as Twinkle passed a stream of blood from her bottom and then promptly pee'd blood, I knew there was a very good chance the vets would want to admit her for treatment. Before we set-off I asked Michel to be sure to translate fully for me everything that was being discussed before agreeing to anything. My language skills are enough to function in regular situations and my comprehension gets me by, but I knew I'd be way out of my zone of understanding and control once in the clinic. For me, the biggest worry was not having Twinkle being given the best care possible, I trust the vets to do that, it was that they would not appreciate that she is not a normal dog. Her rehabilitation is slow-going and fragile and the wrong situation, or handling could set her back months. The thought of her being admitted and in the hands of strangers coming and going, each not knowing just what a peculiar set of needs she has made me deeply concerned. But, I also recognised that her physical state required urgent treatment and what I had to rely on Michel to do, was to put across that her emotional needs were also to be taken care of should they admit her.

As it turned out, the vet we saw was brusque, to the point and immediately focused on her symptoms, matter-of-factly taking her temperature before I had time to blurt out my basic "elle a peur des humains". As he firmly inspected ears, eyes, mouth - all completely terrifying to Twinkle whose skin still reflexively ripples away when touched if she's not prepared for it - I tried to show the need to handle her gently by standing up straighter, as he pulled her back end towards him, I caressed her ears with a tut, trying to stay calm and not add to her stress by me being dismayed at the terse examination. I tried using my body language to make him pay attention to what Michel was telling him regarding her, not only her symptoms. I huffed and puffed and attempted to make him slow down with the exam. Which he did. After the snippy start, as he proceeded and my huffs and puffs took effect, Michel's words were heard and Twinkle's racing heartrate got noted, he softened his manner, even giving her rump a gentle rub of Gallic affection before beginning the injections.

It's not fair of me to be irritated by an efficient professional doing the job expected: faced with a dog with the symptoms we described, that is what his focus was, and should have been. But, what the whole episode showed me again was how hard it is at times for Twinkle to function in the world of humans. There we were, all there to help her, but she couldn't possibly grasp this as she was manhandled, prodded, poked, jabbed. And because strokes and cuddles do not reassure her, normal displays of affection we rely on to comfort our dogs are of limited use to Twinkle. But, I did it anyway, I held her while the vet did his injections - a whopping 5 in total - I massaged her big floppy ears and whispered in them that it would be all right.

It was decided that as she was so stressed, treatment at home for 24 hours was the best option but if it didn't take effect by the morning, she would be admitted. The vet, to give him full credit, didn't need me to tell him this was the right course of action, he recognised her stress after his stethoscope left her chest - heaven knows what her heart rate was. And, I hope that he did hear Michel's words explaining just what our funny, special, peculiar Twinkle has been through in her life and why days like Thursday are even more traumatic for her than most dogs.

We were sent home with a pharmacy load of pills which we had to force-feed yesterday as she had no appetite and wouldn't take them in food. That alone was awful, forcing her to do anything is terrible, but seeing her wild-eyed, clamping her jaws down in terror for a second or two was particularly distressing, albeit we knew it was for her own good, trouble is she wouldn't.

But, the treatment worked thankfully, the vet knew what he was doing. Not that I ever doubted it, I just needed him to recognise the individual dog on his table, not just the set of symptoms and she hasn't been admitted to vet hospital. She is well on the road to being back to her normal self today. Whatever normal is.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Words must become actions

This is not the post that I’d been planning to put up this week. Where I've been enjoyably immersed in more bits and bobs on brains to follow this up, yesterday as I was finalising a post, I got waylaid by a couple of things on Facebook that got my braincells spinning into a useless state of frustration.
This isn’t an unusual state for me when I decide to open the doors on my Facebook and Twitter Newsfeeds which are dominated by animal rescue and rights groups and campaigners. Frustration is often accompanied by it’s comfy bedfellow anger and together they either derail whatever project I’m supposed to be working on at the time, or, and this was the case yesterday, galvanise me to do something positive. 

The first was a post on Puppy Love Campaigns sharing good news on a successful, peaceful demonstration outside a large retailer in the Northwest of England that sells puppies in volume – no guesses what kind of conditions and places the puppies have been bred in – it was great to read the turnout had been good and people had decided to go to a local rescue without even stepping foot in the shop to buy a puppy after talking to the protestors outside. So far, so good. Then I went to another of my favourite campaigns, the Pup Aid site and there was a picture of a tiny pup in glass fronted cabinet, upsetting, but nothing I haven’t seen many times before. What exasperated me was the slew of comments that people made that reflect a misunderstanding of what the reality is in the UK regarding pet shops selling puppies and where puppy farmed puppies end up. 

So I swung from feeling upbeat on news of a positive demonstration, to downhearted that on the Facebook page of one of the major campaigns in the UK to end pet shop and other third party sales of puppies, a hugely successful campaign with plenty of great media interest, people were not aware that these sales are still legal. 

Now I know people are surprised that petshops can still sell puppies, I hear it said often to me, but to see it being said yesterday online so often amongst followers of a campaign dedicated to ending it, really struck me that there is so much work that still needs to be done. I posted on the page throughout the day to try to help more people see that this is exactly the issue that we, as people opposed to this activity must be getting into the minds of our legislators. It isn’t enough for people online to air their upset, to voice their outrage but not to do anything with that outrage. 

The Pup Aid campaign has had great success in gaining enough signatures on their petition for a parliamentary debate to be taking place on 4th September. This is something truly to feel positive about. Parliamentarians are the only ones with the power to bring in laws to make sales in shops illegal – something so many already think is the case. But in order for the vast efforts of the people behind the Pup Aid campaign to be rewarded by achieving changes for the dogs proper engagement in the political process by every individual who cares about this is needed. What the comments on the post yesterday revealed is a disconnect between what many think is happening and what the reality is. 

Social media is fantastic for raising awareness, for gathering support for causes and for allowing people to vent their anger when they see, for example, a picture of a puppy being sold in a pet shop. Yet, being active on social media alone is not enough. To be blunt, it doesn’t matter a jot what anyone posts on any thread about any puppy being sold in a pet shop – or any other animal welfare issue. It may make the person who airs their understandable anger feel better, feel like they’ve done something, but unless active engagement in the political process is also done by that person, it’s a pointless way to spend time. 

Actions not (just) words have to be the outcome of seeing an image of a puppy being sold in a petshop. Actions can take many forms: the protestors outside the pet shop on Sunday had a direct impact on those they came into contact with. Behaviour changed that day for at least some of those people who had been destined to step into the pet shop and support the puppy farming industry. 
Actions don’t have to be taking part in a demo. We can all do something that makes a tangible difference. Writing a few words online, whether it’s a knee-jerk rant, or carefully thought through post, makes no difference at all unless it’s followed up with action. 

Yesterday I felt frustrated that people weren’t engaging with the issues, they were doing what is so common on social media and expressing outrage. Which I understand entirely, I am outraged that puppies can still be sold legally in shops. But outrage changes nothing. I hoped that by asking people really to see what the Pup Aid and other similar campaigns is trying to achieve, not just post a few supportive, or angry words, it would bring some action from the hot air. Everyone can contact their MPs, this is what I suggested through the day that people do; this enabled me to transform my own frustrations into action. 

Every one who cares about this has a role to play and must step into that role, not just leave it to others, or assume others will do it better, or that as individuals we are powerless. At the very least, we all are represented by an MP. They alone have the power to make pet shop and third party sales of puppies – big outlets for puppy farmed puppies – illegal. They have that power because we give it to them. Every single one of us can contact our MP, write to them, email them, meet them. We have the right to influence our law makers and need to be using that influence now, the dogs can't do it for themselves.

We must do this if we are to help those in power to see why this issue matters. People who write on social media often haven’t spent time thinking about the issues they find and respond to in their newsfeeds, but they care enough to say something. The challenge is to make more people not only care, but to think and then act. Here’s a short list of actions I think we in the UK should be doing now to support the Pup Aid campaign ahead of the debate on 4th September: 

  1. Email or write to our MPs. Find your MP here. If you do not get a response within a week, politely follow up and ask what response time you can expect. Polite persistence may be necessary. 
  2. Use information from the Pup Aid website to draft a fact sheet that you can email to them highlighting the key issues. Nature Watch also have a handy document. 
  3. Look for any information that might reveal an interest in animal welfare, for example does the MP have a pet? It’s not unknown for MPs to post details on their websites such as they live with a rescue dog – use this common interest to get their engagement.
  4. It helps to build a relationship, ideally with MPs directly, but at the least, their assistants. They are more likely to listen to our concerns and hopefully engage with the debate and do what we consider the right thing if we develop relationships.
  5.  Ask for a commitment to attend the debate. It may be necessary to provide information on the issues. We need to do this to get our MPs to know why this matters to us and to millions of voters. 
Yesterday's social media experience showed me that many, many people already believe pet shop sales are illegal - we have to make our MPs get up to date with this public perception and change the law to make it so.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Miniature Schnauzer Fun Day

This Sunday we're heading to Northampton as we've kindly been invited to the Miniature Schnauzer Fun Day to talk about puppy farming and Susie-Belle. We'll all be going along to meet new and old friends and hope to spread the message in our positive way that puppy farming and bad breeding is an abomination we all need to play a part in ending.

Copies of the book will be on sale, and people are welcome to bring along their copies for signing by me and pawtographing by Susie-Belle.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The damage done by puppy farms goes beyond the obvious

By closely documenting Susie-Belle's journey to her current state of emotional well-being, I have
been able to look back in detail at the enormous progress that she has made in the 3 years that she has been free of the puppy farm. If I hadn't written our book I may well have missed or by now forgotten some of the subtle changes in her, the signs that reveal these days she is truly experiencing a peaceful inner life. For her to reach the stage where she now is, is not only a remarkable testament to her resilience, it's a veritable wonder when we know how damaging her previous life was to her brain and psychological development. 

Although I can't know for sure, it's almost certainly the case that Susie-Belle was born in the puppy farm. Her mother, like she herself would be later, was undoubtedly chronically stressed during her pregnancies. For her puppies, this together with poor nutrition, a cramped, awful environment and lack of caring, healthy human contact would have had multiple effects on how the genes of the puppies would behave. Known as epigenetics, this relatively new branch of veterinary (and human) medicine gives more disturbing insights into the terrible damage that puppy farming inflicts on those caught up in it.

The environment of a puppy farm is a stressful place for any living creature to be. For the breeding dogs like Susie-Belle and Twinkle, to stay confined for years in such a place is horrendous, any average, caring human being is capable of recognising this fact. But worse than the obvious suffering we see is the massive effect the prison-like environment has on brain chemistry; it inflicts damage at the level of genetic function. Being in a chronically stressful situation affects the brain to the extent that it causes disruption in how genes are decoded to make proteins and thus how learning and coping behaviours happen. This must surely and deeply concern anyone who claims to care for animals.

At the time of their birth, the mother's deprivation which is rife in puppy farms, has affected the brains of her puppies - this is without even talking about in-breeding and hereditary issues. Then they spend the early days and weeks with little handling, no human love, no healthy stimuli to encourage healthy brain development. Dogs that have little human contact before about 5 weeks, cannot recognise humans, or have any concept of what they are. The current problem of shipping puppies to dealers round Europe as young as a few weeks old, leads to enormous issues in this regard. Without early, caring, tactile human contact, the immature puppy brains simply do not develop to recognise humans, let alone trust or relate happily to them.

When puppies are taken from their mothers too young as they usually are in puppy farms, they are taken before they have learned to cope. This is not just a behavioural issue, it is down to brain development - or lack of. These poor puppies then get sold through the usual channels - dealers, online ads, internet sites, pet shops, at car-boots, markets, etc - and are completely unprepared to live as the companions they are supposed to be. The early damage done to their brains leads to problems such as noise reactivity, excessive barking, fearfulness in the home or outside on walks, aversion to humans, to strangers, to other dogs. Behaviourally they are compromised as soon as they take their first breath in the puppy farm.

Of course, not all dogs are as damaged as others and many, given the right home environments will be better out of the puppy farm sooner rather than later, but all dogs are damaged somehow. It's a rock and a hard place position when we think about either taking a puppy from its mother before its brain has developed sufficiently to enable it to cope, or leaving it in the impoverished, stressful environment of the puppy farm where little enrichment is likely.

In view of all this, it is even more remarkable that dogs that one day do get a chance to live in peace in normal, loving homes, are ever capable of the healing that I have lived and shared step-by-step with Susie-Belle and witnessed in others. It does however tell me why progress with Twinkle is so much slower and why when we wonder if she does indeed have a degree of brain damage, we are not that far from the truth.

As I come to understand more and more the extent of abuse, cruelty, and willful damage that is going on unchecked in puppy farms, the closer I hug Susie-Belle and the more I look at her damaged sister Twinkle and yearn for an end to this misery and my heart breaks for the countless others who will never make it to safety.

Book Review - Animal Madness

As I shared in my post yesterday, I'm currently immersed in and avidly reading some excellent works covering animal psychology, neuroscience and ethology. I've long been fascinated by these matters but my interest has deepened since bringing Twinkle into our lives. She is so complex, displaying such psychological damage from her years in the puppy farm that I owe her a serious commitment to use my own brain in efforts to understand her; this will, I hope mean I can do the best to help her mind heal.

So, when I came across a review on Brain Pickings, a website that describes itself as "a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are"  for Laurel Braitman's book, "Animal Madness" it was on order quicker than Twinkle fleeing when a bath is in the offing.

The book has lived up to my high expectations and is one of those rarities - a scientifically rigorous read that manages to glow with genuine compassion, has a generous hint of humour throughout and encourages a re-read as soon as the last word is reached. The author holds a PhD in the history of science from prestigious MIT  - this may well account in part for why this book resonates with me so completely as history is one of my great interests.  Moving from Descartes to Darwin, through to modern thinkers and researchers, the book discusses evidence from veterinary science, psychology, pharmacology and biology. Interviews with those working in zoos, animal rehabilitation and training, neuroscientists, behaviourists, and others with expertise and experience of working with animals that are obviously, painfully psychologically damaged. Some of the historic experiments are disturbing to read and show how far our understanding of human mental health issues has moved on. What this book does so well is to make direct, academically sound correlations between what is known about the human mind and mental disturbance and what is seen and attested to daily by those living and working with animals with the same. By pulling multiple threads together, the author convincingly suggests that,

"humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviours gone awry - experiencing churning fear, for example in situations that don't call for it, feeling unable to shake a paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws".

Braitman was prompted to write her book after adopting Oliver, her Bernese Mountain dog, who experienced extreme fear, anxiety and compulsions. In her efforts to help him and to find the expertise needed, she found herself on a journey into understanding mental illness in non-human animals and what this tells us about ourselves. This is one of the great things I love about the book: it's helped me to understand how I am relating to Twinkle (and of course Susie-Belle and Renae too) and what her "emotional thunderstorms" - two words that perfectly describe her special moments and a phrase I'll be borrowing I'm sure - mean to her, and me. 

Although many animal species are documented and my own interest lies with dogs, there is such a wealth of information, fascinating facts and thoughtful discussion that I found myself reading every single word, even though I'd never have thought I'd find reading about a suicidal parrot or masturbating orangutan a good use of my time. Skim reading is to be discouraged for if you do, you'll miss out on the cumulative pleasure of reading the vast breadth of stories that are documented here and if you enjoy it as I have, the emotional and intellectual growth it will bring.