When is a dog, not just a dog?

Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards. Diogenes

It's probably worth warning you now that you won't get any sympathy from Rebecca Ashworth when it comes to the needless rehoming and selling of dogs. These dogs are unwanted Christmas presents, inconveniences or an 'expense', amongst a variety of other descriptions that shouldn't be in the same sentence of what a dog 'is' or 'isn't'. Perhaps this is where we need to let her explain why she feels so strongly.

If you think a dog is 'just a dog' that can be sold like a car on Gumtree or Facebook, or palmed off onto a rescue after three years because, all of a sudden, 'you don't have enough time, or you didn't realise what the dog would grow into', then this is for you. Equally if you know that a dog, is never 'just a dog' you will relate to every word on this screen.

The Start
At the age of 13, I was your average school student. I worked hard, got good grades and had a wonderful network of family and friends. It's about this time that everyone talks about what you want to be when you grow up. What do you want to do? Where would you like to be pigeon-holed? Yarda yarda.

For me dog training never crossed my mind. I had always loved dogs, and always got on well with our trainees at home. I walked family dogs everyday and watched Crufts on cue every year. I was also one of the many millions that was sucked into the American trainer who seemed to have a way with dogs that no one had ever seen, or, at least, I hadn't at the time. Plus he was less irritating than the very tall, rather well spoken women with the very red lipstick. I was to learn later who was the better trainer of the two.

Two fingers to the job
I remember the day he arrived. It was a miserable day, made brighter by the arrival of a very cute - aren't they all - Cocker Spaniel puppy. He was a strange colour, white with solid tan ears and a patch on his back, a colour I had never seen before. I was determined he was going to be called Merlin but, being the child of the house, I was over-ruled and the name he was given was Rusty. This was in reference to the colour of his ears. Yes, I know, how imaginative right? Rusty was to be a trainee sniffer dog, but to me, he was a bundle of fluff that needed a good few cuddles every night before bed.

To cut a really rather long story short, Rusty's drive for a tennis ball was, shall we say, less than co-operative for the work he needed to do. So one training day, whilst in an abandoned hospital, Rusty thought it best he made his intentions clear. So after a long search, he decided it was best to curl up and fall asleep on an old mattress on the floor. It was two fingers to the job, but the start of a whirlwind journey that would lead me to become the person I am today.

Change is good
I had always wondered what it would be like to own my own dog, and now I had the opportunity. Whilst Rusty was due to be rehomed, my late grandma decided that after the passing of my late grandfather, it was time to have another man in the house. To say Rusty was my grandfather reincarnated is something of a family joke but, to be honest, there were times you looked into his eyes, and you really could feel his soul staring straight back at you.

Rusty spent two years living with my grandma, and he lived like a prince. I visited everyday and trained with him, outside on the large grassed areas by the houses. He did tricks that amazed my friends, and he had a loyalty to me that I would only really come to understand as I got older. At the age of 15 or 16, I decided that I wanted to get to Crufts. I didn't care what doing. I just knew I wanted to do something.

Enter Ringcraft - or showing, as some might call it. I was naive enough to think that dogs were judged on their working ability as opposed to what they looked like and, at the time, I hadn't yet been introduced to the 'breed standard'. Rusty was the epitome of a working cocker, perfect shape, stature, colour, and he had a good pedigree lines, with his dad being the late great Whaupley Reiver. I competed in showing for around 18 months which was 18 months too long for my dad who was both the taxi drive and the bloke that usually fell asleep uttering the words 'but they all look the same'.

For the record, I quite enjoyed it - as did Rusty - and we did get to Crufts, with me as an YKC junior handler. So get us. Sadly we didn't place, but it did mean I was introduced to a new sport, this time one my dad approved of.

Raven River Agility
In the intervening years, Rusty and I embarked on an agility journey that would lead us to Crufts numerous times, bringing back a 4th on one occasion. Rusty managed a Silver Warrant and all the way up to Grade 7. I trained hard, and we worked seamlessly as a team. Whilst everyone went out partying, I had an early night ready for a 6am start and show day. I wouldn't have it any other way. Our years at agility competitions were fantastic, and it cemented the already strong bond we had, not to mention carving out a career I never thought I would have.

Three years ago, I started to run small agility sessions at a local riding arena. Now, in 2014, I have my own club, teaching six or seven classes a week and running a full programme of events. Our waiting lists are full, and I have Rusty to thank for every bit of passion I have for my job.

The club name Raven River Agility, comes from his KC name Ravenriver Rock. The logo on our clothing represents him, and for this I will be forever grateful.

In the space of six years we had lived and worked together, through agility, showing, handling, working trails, Pets As Therapy, modeling (yes really, just keep an eye on the very famous caravan brochures), a TV stint on Animal Planet, and a whole host of things that would make your CV look like it was written by a Teletubbie. Rusty also led me to my photography career, after spending countless hours posing, I have him to thank for my natural ability and keen eye.

The week that changed my life.
So now you have had a brief history of just a 'dog', let me tell you about the week that changed my life, and the soul reason why a dog is never just a 'dog'.

Turning nine in August was no big deal for Rusty. He was as fit as a fiddle and, although slowly retiring from agility, he still won and was my good old banker and steady clear rounder. We were on the same wavelength after growing up together. He was my right hand, and he knew everything I was thinking. He'd been through everything with me, and he knew everything about my life including making sure that my boyfriend of five years was properly vetted before being allowed to share me in his life. So I naively thought I would have many years left with my little old man. I had planned a life around him. He was going to be there when I moved house. He would have a little tucks for when I got married - and probably be the ring bearer. Don't roll your eyes at the thought of the 'crazy' dog lady, as then you won't have learnt the moral of this story.

It was a bog standard week in October. Nothing spectacular was happening, and I was stressing about the usual work related routine. Rusty was a little off his food, but nothing to be worried about. His bloods were good. He had a slightly raised liver count, but not enough to worry the vet. So why worry? How wrong I was.

I would like to point out at this moment in the story, the vets I refer to are simply fantastic. I am eternally grateful for everything they did for my boy, and they shared the pain every step of the way.

Sunday was another show, and we came home with rosettes (yey). We went to bed, got up for work and returned home ready for tea. It was a normal Monday afternoon, and Rusty was lying on the floor. Then I noticed something was off as he had bloated - not just a little bit, but you could have held him up on a string and walked him as a blimp.

Bundled into the car, tears streaming down my eyes. I'm no vet, but I knew enough to have a rough idea that this wasn't good. Hhe was admitted straight away.

Sparing you the details, my beautiful, gentle old man was watched carefully over the four days that followed. The bloating didn't get worse, but it didn't get better. We had to sit on our hands until the biopsy results came back, and I hadn't slept for the entire time. I cried every night, and prayed that whatever it was could be fixed. Death was never on the cards, and until that Thursday night, it had never crossed my mind. As I looked into his eyes, I could see the despair. He was uncomfortable, unhappy and tired. His joints had started to swell and for the first time since he was 12 weeks old, he had an accident in the kitchen. The upset in his face was enough to send a knife through my heart.

Friday came, and with it a phone call - a phone call I will never forget. You know you spend your whole time wishing that results would come quicker, but when the phone rings, you sit staring at it, unable to pick it up. The first words were, 'Rebecca, have you got someone with you?'. It was 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon, and my world had just fallen from beneath my feet. The next few minutes were a blur. I distinguished the word tumor and then passed the phone to my dad.

I stepped outside, fell onto my knees and whaled like a child. It's at this point someone should probably have taken a video - a video to show all the uneducated idiots that treat dogs like slaves, instruments, and palm them off as if they were a handbag on e-bay. If I could project my exact feelings at that moment, onto you, you would probably be sick. I then had approximately 90 minutes to come to terms with the fact that the vet was going to turn up and that was it.

You know the saying 'it's not like this in the movies.' Well, case in point. Euthanasia is not quick. It's not what you see on TV and, if you are one of these people who puppy farm, you should be made to go through the pain, endlessly, until you realise just how low you are on the human food chain.

What will I remember the most?
His eyes, the look in his eyes of complete terror and misunderstanding, sat in the living room in my house, having to say goodbye to the one thing I cared about most in the world. Nothing prepares you for the pain, and the lifelessness you feel as you watch them fall away. It might be peaceful, but seeing them there at the end, will haunt you forever. It was surreal at the time and, being such a shock, I had no time to prepare mentally. For those that give up their dogs knowing their chances of being rehomed are slim and they are likely to be PTS, they should be dragged and made to watch.

I was left on my own with a soulless body. His eyes cold, and I'm supposed to deal with it. Let me tell you, after three deaths in the family (human), send me to a funeral any day. There is no way to describe just how helpless you feel, but there is small comfort in knowing that the final thing you did for them was a small act of mercy, and that -if you believe in that stuff - he never really left.

So why the long post and why now?
As I sit and I look at all the hopeless photographs of dogs up for rehoming, the disregard for where they are going, how much they are going for, or even what might happen to them. I think to myself, to them it is 'just a dog' to them its nothing different than a pair of shoes, or a sofa they are going to stick on Gumtree. These people shouldn't be allowed children, pets or anything that will depend on them. I'm also not one for needless and uneducated breeding, so putting your dog up for 'stud' for 70ono on a site on Facebook, is not helping any of the dogs in this country, and you should know the consequences of every dog you can't find a home for.

I would give anything to have one more month, week, or even day, with my healthy boy, back and bouncing; do these people not know what that feels like? The longing, the hole in your chest because your 'dog' (it's just a dog though remember) has gone, and you will never have that comfort again.

No matter what excuse you come up with, no matter what lies you tell, I pity you if you have ever uttered the words 'but its just a dog'. You obviously are missing that chromosome that allows you to connect with souls on a different level. If you are someone who thinks its perfectly acceptable to sell your 'dog' for 50 ono, or 150 needs gone asap, on Facebook, Gumtree or some other site that should be shut down. Shame on you. You probably should never have had the dog in the first place, and in all honesty, if you really cared about your 'dog', you would get help, try to carry on, or find a rescue space so that you knew exactly where your dog was going. At one point I was at university, running two businesses, with a part time job, and still managed to keep three spaniels and compete with them. Babies are not always an excuse by the way, and neither are children. You knew what you were doing when you got a dog, didn't you, that they live till 10-12years? Yes, there is a small % of people who have genuine circumstances and, to you, my heart goes out as I wouldn't be able to grasp giving my dogs up.

So the moral of the story?
When is a dog, not just a dog? When that dog has taught you more than any adult, university book, programme or state education ever will. When that dog has taught you compassion, responsibility, love and opened doors for opportunities that no human ever could. When that dog has made more of an impact on peoples lives than you or I ever might. When a dog creates such emotion that its as if you died yourself having to say goodbye.

That is when a dog is not just a dog, and if you are too small to understand that, then you should never be allowed to share your life with one, and for that, it will make you that little bit less of a person.

To all those who love their animals, thank you, and make sure you give them an extra hug tonight. Dogs are amazing creatures, with huge hearts, a soul and the most fabulous personalities. We are lucky that they choose to work with us, live with us, and let us learn from them. I hope everyone in their lifetime can have a dog or pet like Rusty, because you will be a better person for it. We don't 'own' these animals, we are simply borrowing them so they can teach us so many wonderful things. If you can't appreciate this, you should never be allowed to have a dog.

Please feel free to share this article far and wide. If it stops one more person getting a dog without thinking about it, or makes one puppy farmer feel ashamed of themselves, then it's done its job.

About the author...
Rebecca Ashworth lives in Northumberland and currently competes in agility with her two Spaniels. Her first agility dog Rusty reached Grade 7, and gained a Silver Agility Warrant after six years of competing.

She runs a small agility club out of Morpeth, named after Rusty (Raven River Agility),

She is also one of the North East's most popular dog photographers running Sit Stay Capture, another business that has grown out of her relationship with Rusty over their nine short years together.

Rebecca hopes that this article will do some good in making people think about whether they really want to take on a dog, but also hopes it will give comfort to those who couldn't put their loss into words. 


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