Updated: Sep 18
By Rebecca Walters of Smartstart Dog Training
My Early Days with Dogs
My earliest doggy memory was the film the Fox and the Hound. My Grandfather took me to watch the film at the cinema but it ended in tears! At the point when the Hunter was going to shoot the fox I sprang out of my seat, screaming and shouting about it, that it was a cruel and an awful thing to do. The eyes of the puppy who had been playing with the fox were so so sad... it captured me as I felt that the puppy felt the same way I did! Needless to say we left the cinema at that point!
Perhaps surprisingly, growing up, my family were not "doggy" people and as a child I hankered after a dog of my own. Eventually, after years of nagging - my Mother relented! She bought me Gizmo the Shih Tzu. He was my best friend. I walked him for miles, so much so that I lost loads of weight, got fit and my PE teacher from school phoned homed asking if I was anorexic! Gizmo was my shadow and I adored him. He taught me about dedication and responsibility, we had such fun together.
Why Train Dogs?
Training From a human perspective on a basic level training dogs makes them more pleasurable to live with and be around and on a higher level your owner/dog bond and relationship blossoms through learning together. There is nothing more satisfying than teaching your dog a new behaviour and acing it! From the dog's perspective when done properly training is interesting, enriching and rewarding! It breeds confidence and personal growth in the dog and broadens them to be the best they can be!
My Career in Dogs
Being a Londoner I jumped at the chance to undertake my work experience at Battersea Dogs Home. I can honestly say that the time I spent there opened my eyes, broke my heart and exposed me to "the other side" of the dog world. By the age of 16, I had seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I set up a Pet Care company, and for 5 years cared for dogs while their owners worked; I walked them and trained them. It was then that I was contracted to run the London Borough of Waltham Forest's Dog Warden Service. I spent my days chasing after stray dogs, trapping and neutering cats and kittens, I rescued a heron from a skip, helped the fire brigade get a horse out of a canal, seized and rehomed 7 iguanas, carried out the licence inspections on all boarding and quarantine kennels in the borough and inspected the pet shops including one that held a dangerous wild animals licence for a cayman crocodile that they housed in a huge glass tank in the roof of the building!! I headed up the early microchipping campaigns, dog fouling projects and of course handled the strays that were never claimed. In those days microchips were not compulsory, and strays had 7 days in which to be claimed. After those 7 days were up the dogs had to be found an alternative placement. That could be at a breed specific rescue, with voluntary fosterers, privately rehomed or they went to Battersea Dogs Home for further assessment and rehoming. I successfully rehomed over 45 dogs via my network of friends and colleagues.
"I once rescued a heron from a skip, helped the fire brigade get a horse out of a canal, seized and rehomed 7 iguanas and found a cayman crocodile hidden in someone’s roof space!"
Married life took me to Shropshire, where we now live. We have raised our children here and my dog journey has continued. Reflecting and linking the "standout" events of my early career I have concluded that the only way to tackle the continuous flow of unwanted dogs is to break the cycle.
“Dogs deserve to be wanted, they deserve to be educated, they deserve to start their lives properly.”
I have been breeding puppies and raising them using tried and tested socialisation techniques for over 15 years now. My puppies are bred from parents who have undergone selective health and temperament testing. My litters are then raised with love and science to ensure they are prepared for the world.
Smartstart Dog Training
I formed Smartstart Dog Training to complete the loop. I want to help breeders breed and raise better puppies. I want to help owners continue that essential good work through the formative months and then encourage owners to use Scentwork to naturally stimulate and fulfil their dogs mentally to ensure their longer term health and wellbeing. I have long come to understand that you will not stop irresponsible dog breeding practises and a lot of what goes on is ignorance rather than intentional cruelty. I feel that the time has come to shape and educate the industry for the good of the dogs within it. I want to raise the bar!
My Biggest Success
My biggest dog training success was Alfie; a seven month old Border Collie who found himself in an East London kennel having been signed over to the Dog Warden Service by his owners who could not cope with him. He was in the kennels and day 7 was approaching. I had tried every avenue, all doors were closed except Battersea and I knew he would not cope there, never mind pass the assessment for rehoming. He had such life in those amber eyes, such vigour and intention. It was a no brainer - I took him home! I worked with him for a period of a few months, re-balancing his view on the world. I knew I could not keep him forever. That would deny the next "Alfie" a chance at life and there would always be another "Alfie". I wanted a quiet, but mentally stimulating home for him, with someone who would bond with him, accept him for what he could offer (which was a whole heap of aggro!) and love him anyway. Enter Harvey. A 30-something single male who was an experienced dog owner. He was looking for a "best mate" to accompany him to work, a dog he could train and love and spoil. Bingo! I think at this point I will save you all mushy stuff, but needless to say the rehoming went well. A little too well actually. Harvey and I were married 3 years later! I got the man, and the dog back!
If I could wave a magic wand and make 3 wishes wish for all families getting a puppy it would be:
Prepare your mindset for your puppies arrival.
Imagine you are bringing a newborn baby home and treat the responsibility equally as seriously.
Everyday for 5 minutes stroke and "be" with your dog. The benefits for humans and dogs are massive.
Dogs & Mental Health
I’m very lucky – my job is not pressure, it is a pleasure! However when it gets tough, I hug my dog! The aspect of my role I get most satisfaction from is those wagging tails... and feedback from assistance dog homes when having the puppy/dog has made a massive difference to the owner’s quality of life. It’s priceless. I also sleep really well….... I exercise all day... and when my head hits that pillow at 10pm I am out like a light switch! COVID-19 gave me the opportunity to diversify my business - I popped it all online and used the opportunity to train my own dogs and develop my qualifications and CPD. It was not a huge problem for me!
I was pleased to be asked to write this blog piece for Good Thinking Psychological Services. It’s clear to me there’s such a correlation between dog’s mental health and that of humans and how the two can actually be protective of one another. Dogs are scientifically proven to lower stress levels, just being around them is grounding and calming. Mainly I think we could all be "more dog". They love unconditionally, play like each day is their last and live life wagging their tails. They just emit happy vibes!
Another particular parallel between dogs and humans is how food affects both of us. Good quality, unprocessed foods are just as important to dogs as they are to people and can create a happier, more balanced dog in the same way that it does in humans. Also the use of their Olfactory system through Nosework is proven to make them happier. Dogs are designed to sniff and in a study done many many moons ago (it would never be allowed to happen these days) scientists removed the olfactory bulb from the dogs they were studying, the dog became depressed and unhappy as a result. The flipside of that is that when they are allowed to exercise their olfactory systems they are content and fulfilled as a result. We are only just starting to grasp this as dog trainers and owners and there are lots of exciting developments and training opportunities in this area that will directly benefit pet dogs and their owners.
My ethos around dogs and dog training is a fairly simple one. You get out, what you put in. Maximum effort in the early days and weeks results in endless gain for the years that follow. I hope you enjoy the journey as much as we do.