Next month I will have been part of Dogs Trust Education Team for 15 years! Many changes have taken place since 2004, in terms of Dogs Trust; the education team of which I am a part, and dog welfare and care in general.
When I joined Dogs Trust on June 28th 2004 I became the second of two ‘Youth Officers’, as we were then called. Today I am part of a team of 27 Education & Community Officers, whose overall aim is to bring about a real attitudinal change in the way we regard and care for the estimated 9 million dogs who live alongside us as pet dog owners living in the UK.
Another change in the Education Team was the creation of a comprehensive programme of education for offenders. Seven Education & Outreach Officers work in a range of settings and establishments, engaging learners in educational activities, which encourage responsible attitudes towards other living beings, thereby improving the welfare of dogs in their communities.
Our understanding of dog behaviour has changed considerably over the past few decades. For example, it was believed for a long time that dogs developed behaviours like aggression in order to achieve high status or ‘dominance’ over their owners. Unfortunately, this led to training methods based on coercion or punishment in order to ‘keep dogs in their place’. With recent research, we know that this type of approach is not only unnecessary but counterproductive. Punishment based training methods cause fear and anxiety in dogs, and are associated with the occurrence of undesired behaviours, including aggression towards other dogs and people.
The creation of Dogs Trust Dog School has coincided with the revolution in the dog training world, with a movement away from punishment or aversive based training practices to the dawn of a new enlightened way to teach and communicate with our dogs called Reinforcement Based Training.
When it comes to the daily life of the dogs with whom we share our lives there has been a change in our awareness of, not just their physical health, but their mental wellbeing too. Adequate care for our canine partners now reaches far beyond a once a week training class and a bowl full of high-quality kibble, with a few lead walks thrown in. To be fully "well" we must provide dogs with adequate enrichment, exercise, nutrition, and communication. Even the twice daily walk is undergoing a metamorphosis as we have come to realise that the best, most restorative thing for a dog is to get to sniff around in open space and move his body free of restraint. In addition, to best serve our dogs we need to see enrichment as a vital part of their care taking; as a need that must be met. I can only celebrate this growing change, and as part of Dogs Trust education team do my little bit to spread the message!
But I guess I cannot write this blog without paying homage to three of my companions who have been at my side at various times during the past 15 years.
My first Dogs Trust dog was George, a stray Bichon Frise handed over to our Ballymena Rehoming Centre by the local dog warden. George was much more than a pet. He was one of those dogs who possessed a wisdom far beyond his species. He was quiet, serious and a little aloof in his demeanour. On more than one occasion he made a teacher jump when he suddenly moved and they realised that he was not a toy! Often people dismiss small breeds as less intelligent than their larger, utilitarian counterparts and view them as ‘indoor’ dogs without value. But George had more dignity than any dog I have ever met. His steady gaze and steady ways won over many a heart. George died one week before his estimated 18th birthday, I miss him to this day, and shed a tear as I type this eulogy to my dear friend.
Jed, my handsome tri colour collie came into the rehoming centre as a puppy in 2007 and began my love of the breed. For six years Jed accompanied me to schools all over NI, and at weekends we competed in the sport of dog obedience. Sensitive and clever, Jed was more than the stunning looking dog that was admired everywhere he went. So gentle and kind, our Trustee and former Honorary Vice President Rose McIlrath once described Jed as a ‘proper Irish collie’. Jed will be 12 years old in July and has lost none of his vigour, nor I’m happy to say, his good looks!
Last, but not least is gorgeous Gillie. My live wire little apricot Poodle takes life in his stride! Rejected by his birth mother and adopted and reared by Mags, a little stray collie brought to Dogs Trust with her pups, Gillie is steady when he needs to be, but a joker when work is done! He doesn’t visit schools very often now; but can charm the birds from the trees when he chooses. Very often I answer the office phone and a teacher enquires, “Is that Gillie’s mum?”. I wouldn’t have it any other way!
And so, this little reflection ends. I have a job I love; a job I have enjoyed since the day I began. The role of Education & Community Officer has changed and developed as our understanding of dog welfare has grown, and science has added to our knowledge of what it takes to be a responsible dog owner.
The last 15 years have been a blast. Here’s to the next 15 years!