Sometimes people say I "have a gift with animals". When they do, I shake my head. It is definitely less of a gift and more of the fact that given the opportunity, throughout my life I have always chosen to spend my time alongside, watching documentaries about, researching or reading about animals.
When I was nine my parents finally caved in and bought me a puppy. As soon as I could open my mouth to speak "Please can we get a dog?" was echoed over and over. I was fascinated and in awe of the creatures, something within me oriented towards them. I can't even explain it now, but loving dogs is so inherent to me that if anybody is so much as indifferent towards them, I find it hard to believe. No matter what I was going through, the one constant, the people I could always rely on, were dogs. Dogs aren't this golden aura of selfless godliness as portrayed in the movies, but there is something about them that is so honest and resonating. Dogs don't lie. I suppose that is why I have always idolised them so much.
My Grandmother's dog was my first idol- or victim, dependent on how you view it. Jessie was her name and she was a beautiful tricolour border collie. I made agility courses of flowerpots and bamboo sticks and traipsed her around the garden pretending we were seasoned Crufts veterans. I would make paper rosettes and present them in grand awards ceremonies attended by only myself and Jess.
By the time I was nine, Jess had taught me a lot about dogs already. She taught me the basics of canine care, husbandry and training, but most importantly she taught me to respect our canine companions. One time when I pushed her too far, pestering her to play a game she didn't want to be part of, I very nearly got bitten. I wasn't going to make that mistake again. So when I was given an eight week old border terrier puppy I thought it'd be easy. I was wrong.
Hazel, I named her after her reddish-brown colour, was a nightmare. She attacked ankles, had no off-switch, chewed, dug up the garden, toileted inside and acted entirely how puppies do. It is an unsaid thing about puppies that a lot of the time they frustrate you, upset you and leave you wanting to pull your hair out. We tend to forget that when we reminisce about that puppy-dog smell, those oversized paws and adorable demeanour. My parents were desperate, they even called up the breeder and The Border Terrier Club of Great Britain for advice, which suggested we attended puppy school, advice which was of great interest to me, so off we went to learn!
Fast forwards almost a year, and Hazel was a model citizen (almost), and after winning a handful of rosettes at a local dog show, I had well and truly been bitten by the dog training bug. We had qualified for Crufts, she knew hundreds of tricks- I even made a Facebook page for her which grew and grew in popularity! When I was thirteen, after years of thorough research, I bred Hazel to a lovely stud dog. I was an excited young child and couldn't wait for the puppies. A vet trip and scan revealed that Hazel was pregnant with just one baby. But that was okay, we were going to keep that baby, so we only needed one.
I printed out the scan photos and showed everyone at school. I bought a tiny lead and collar for our new family member. I decided she was going to be called Ruby and I spent every hour when I got home from school watching Hazel's tummy, feeling the little baby kick, stroking her through Hazel's skin and thinking how I couldn't wait to meet her properly.
But the unthinkable happened. I didn't ever get to meet her properly. Ruby was stillborn at exactly 3am on Wednesday the 10th of February 2010. I was with Hazel throughout the whole birth. I held Ruby in my hands, urging her to wake up, urging Hazel to use her maternal skills to wake her up. "It will be okay" I thought. Newborn puppies in movies don't breathe, then after a few seconds they take a breath, it will be okay. But seconds passed, then minutes, as I rocked this puppy, blew into her nose, cradled her, rubbed her, cried into her velvet fur, counted every one of her perfect tiny little toes, until eventually she was taken away from me and put into a little shoebox. That day plays in my mind over and over, even now, like a dream sequence. Ruby fills my dreams. The feel of her fur, Hazel's face, that smell. I'll never forget and I don't think I will ever stop mourning the puppy I never got to see grow old.
But Ruby did teach me the importance of dogs. I knew I loved Hazel, but losing Ruby cemented just how much I loved Hazel and just how much of an impact a little four-legged animal could have on a person's life.
Hazel went on to have a litter of six beautiful, healthy puppies later that year. There were three girls and three boys. I relived the experience when the first puppy didn't move. I heard my dad whisper 'not again' to himself in despair. But this time the puppy did take a breath. I kept her, and that puppy ended up being Bramble.
All-the-while, in the background I was still a student in my early years at secondary school. I went to an all-girls school and the atmosphere was hostile. I was bullied and teased about the love I had for my dogs. They joked about my dogs dying, not knowing the raw pain I was going through beneath the surface. Every hurtful thing that was said to me cemented in my mind that dogs were far superior to humans, and I distanced myself from most people and instead spent even more time with Hazel and Bramble.
In no time, Bramble was a star. She knew tricks into the double figures before she was eight weeks old and she only improved. Now, at nine years old, Bramble was won many first places at Crufts in agility and heelwork to music, has competed in both agility and dog dancing in the main arena at Crufts, competes at a championship level in agility, has been on television shows, adverts for huge brands and has had regular features in newspapers and magazines. She has visited primary schools, secondary schools, special needs schools, she does displays at charity events, she is sponsored by one of the best dog food companies in the country, has been in viral videos, has performed in multiple stage shows and is just the most incredible dog I've ever known.
Everything I asked of Bramble, she did and went above and beyond. She was perfect and I felt like I was a brilliant dog trainer. She taught me to be confident in my ability to train dogs. It felt like the world could throw anything at me and I could train it. Then along came Tulip.
Tulip is a Pyrenean shepherd cross Chinese crested powderpuff. She is incredibly intelligent, incredibly loving and incredibly anxious. And reactive. I got Tulip when I was twenty, and in my final year studying Animal Sciences at university. In my naivety I believed that Tulip would be just like my previous dogs, but as I now know, no matter how you set a dog up for success, every dog is an individual. The perfect environment to flourish for one dog isn't necessarily the same for the next dog.
Tulip taught me humility, and she taught me to become a better behaviourist. Or more-so, she forced me to! I wanted her to be my next prodigy, but now I have learnt that dogs do not exist to do things for us. She has independent thoughts, unique fears, complex phobias, individual likes and dislikes, and no matter what I wanted from her, I couldn't change that. What I could do was read, research and learn more about behaviour modification and adjustment to make her as comfortable as possible. I changed my mindset from 'What can my dog do for me?' to 'What can I do for my dog?'
Between all of this, I volunteered in a local veterinary surgery, travelled to Thailand to work in an elephant sanctuary, dog shelter and exotic species rescue, worked in commercial kennels and pet shops. I gained a BSc (Hons) in Animal Sciences and kept learning. Then, in 2018, I met Jack.
Finally, somebody my age who is also dog mad! Jack and I brainstormed what we wanted to offer the general public in terms of services. We wanted a business that could teach pet dog owners about canine care, husbandry and training, to respect their dogs, something that could help them bond with their dog and feed their love, something that would make them feel confident in their ability but open-minded enough to keep learning. Something that wouldn't reject dogs like Tulip, who struggle in day-to-day life, but instead welcome them. Jack has experienced mental health problems and has worked with people with disabilities, through assistance dog work, so he wanted a service that wouldn't just accept any dog, but also be accessible for all people. A dog training business that offers a wide spectrum of activities for everyone.
But we also wanted to ensure we would be providing students with modern, relevant advice, so we spent tens of thousands of pounds on continued professional development. We wanted to be confident that we were providing the best service we could. That meant sleepless nights writing information booklets, driving hundreds of miles to attend conferences, blood, sweat and a lot of tears. But we are getting there. Our vision is starting to take hold.
And I love it. I'm so grateful that I can do something that I had always wanted to do as a job. That we can help people who feel like I did when Tulip became reactive, or people who felt like we did when Hazel was a naughty puppy, and make people feel that enormous sense of pride when their dog excels in the activity they have chosen, like I do with Bramble.
So no, I don't have a gift with animals. But the animals in my life have given me the greatest gifts I could have asked for. They've given me love, companionship, knowledge, happiness and a purpose.