I grew up in New Malden with my family. We lived there and in Surbiton, near Chessington, around that area. My mother and stepfather funnily enough, didn’t really like pets but I did. Our next-door neighbour, I recall, had a German Shepherd and I would always walk and play with it so I think that’s how my love for dogs began. As a child I always walked everyone’s dog. I also rode horses as a child and was just animal mad really.
I was academic enough at school and took my GCSEs but I had a passion for animals through and through. If I was reading anything it would be about animals, I would pick up animal books deliberately. I was horse-mad for many years and rode a lot. In the summertime I would go up to a local stable in Ewell for hours, mucking out the stables and just being around the ponies and horses, I found it very therapeutic. I would get the bus over to Ewell and spend all day there. I didn’t get paid for it, I worked there for free. I didn’t even get a free ride, I just liked being around the other stable people and with the horses.
When I got married, the first thing we did was to get a dog. Sadly we only had him for 6 weeks. He was a little Jack Russell but rather old. After he died we replaced him, so to speak, if you can replace a dog, with a Labrador. As the years went by, our two children came along, Nick our son and Julia our daughter. I put dogs to one side then and we had cats instead. One day my daughter Julia made it clear she really wanted a dog, and asked for a Poodle. My mother and father-in-law had always had pets, dogs in particular and she’d grown to love them.
We waited a while before visiting Battersea Cat and Dog home to select a dog. When the time was right, we went to Battersea, where we found Bertie a Bedlington, the nearest breed we could find to a Poodle. He was absolutely amazing, as soppy as anything. But when it came to walking him, he was horrendous. After two weeks I wanted to take him back because I just couldn’t handle him, he just pulled all the time, like a train. We tried everything we could to get him to walk nicely then ended up going to a group called ‘The Walkabout Group,’ based in Frimley.
When we got Bertie, Julia was about 10 and Nick was 15. They loved him absolutely, he was brilliant in the home but the moment we went outside he turned into a complete nutter! We lived near the A3 in Tolworth at the time which made it really hard to work with him. But we went to a trainer who suggested we try ‘The Walkabout Group’ who had a place in Guildford and Frimley. We started going every Saturday morning and it was like taking one of the kids to a Saturday morning activity.
As time went on, he really improved and one day one of the trainers said ‘You’re really good with him, would you like to do our training course?’ I’d hadn’t given it any thought before. I was a working mum, working in an office, the kids were at school. We had Bertie and by this time we had another little dog. But when they asked me to consider a training course I said ‘Yes!’
Me in my younger days, in my party dress and at school
My life became busier than ever, I’m not really sure how I fitted everything in, I just did. At the time I was working 9-5 in an office, my husband was working too and the kids were semi-independent. I would go straight from work to Frimley to teach puppy classes and then on Saturdays and Sundays I’d be over in Guildford taking classes there. On top of that I had my studies to complete. It was full on to say the least.
I’m proud to say it paid off and I after 12 months I got my diploma and then worked with ‘The Walkabout Group’ for another year, at weekends. They were amazing mentors to me and I still keep in touch with them. They had so many aspects of dog training they wanted me to do. I learnt the dog behaviour side of things which led to more work. After a while I wanted to do something different and started working with a trainer in Surbiton. I worked with her for 18 months, learning about puppies specifically and how to train them up. All this time I was growing my own workload.
In 2012 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and life changed big time. For the whole of that year I was pretty much on my own, I wasn’t working in the office.
Sit! Stay! I love the connection with dogs when training them
It was really difficult for the family and hard for me. Just before the diagnosis, my vet had approached me to ask if I could run some puppy training classes at his practice. This led me to consider starting my own company, doing my own dog training. I was just beginning to build the business when I got breast cancer. I didn’t put it on hold though, I continued with and it kept me going through this difficult time.
After the breast cancer was treated, I was quickly on the mend, it was caught reasonably early. I had to have chemo which was not pleasant. Trying to carry on with life, run a family and a business was very hard. I think I only had about two months where I actually flaked out but other than that I didn’t rest. Most of the time the dog training distracted me and kept me going.
I personally believe my dog discovered the cancer. I thought I had pulled a muscle in my chest because I’d been working with a very strong Labrador. After Christmas I went to the doctors who sent me for further investigations saying, ‘This isn’t going away but I’m not sure what it is’. At that time, we had a Bichon dog who was virtually stuck to my chest the whole time. Once the results came through and I was diagnosed she stopped all that, didn’t sit on my chest anymore and was happy. When I was going through chemotherapy Bertie wouldn’t come near me because of the smell but Bella, my Bichon, would stay beside me all the time. I really do believe dogs are aware and they know when somethings wrong. As we know there are Medical Detection Dog charities, which carry out amazing work, they’re excellent in what they do.
Training your dog with treats
Just as I was getting back on my feet, and making plans for my business, I’d gone back to a full-time job, my husband was made redundant from his job as a distribution and packaging manager. Not long after that I got made redundant so got another office job. I continued to run the classes at the Vets. In my new position I got to know other people and they realised my involvement in dog training and asked me if I knew any dog walkers. It was a perfect opportunity for my husband who set up on his own and ran a very successful dog walking business. I carried on with dog training. It was hard working so many hours every day. I was out virtually all the time.
We were very careful about both sides of the business and what we wanted to do. We wouldn’t take groups of dogs out walking, we would only take families so if there were two dogs in one family we would take them out together for a walk. They’d get a 45-minute walk to a local park and would be on a lead at all times. We used extender leads. In my class I don’t teach recall to me, I teach it to the owners. I don’t want a situation where a dog will approach a stranger. So those were our guidelines, we always walk dogs on leads. They had a good time, had a nice walk of course. We started getting more difficult dogs, ones that didn’t want to be in groups and were a bit uncomfortable around other dogs for example. A typical walk would be 45mins, allowing time to take them home and settle them down. My husband started his day at 9.30am and walk different dogs throughout the day until 4.30pm. I was still working full time in an office and I helped him whenever I could. We would also do puppy visits to a home where we would stay for half an hour, play with the pup, building up a relationship so eventually the puppy would join the rota. My husband was really successful, he enjoyed the work and his reputation grew.
I think for the first time this work gave him freedom but it was hard on both of us. I was out working all hours. At weekends I was training and in the evenings, I was running classes. I got to the point when I was burnt out, so we took a step back and actually split up for a little while. By the time we got back together again, I’d given up my office job and established my own company based on Dog Training and Behaviour Consultancy and ever since then I’ve focused solely on this and it’s great fun.
Puppies at the playful stage
Sadly my husband died in May last year. He’d had a long-term heart condition, cardiomyopathy, which is congenital and had gradually deteriorated. He became very poorly, it wasn’t COVID related but I don’t think that helped. He grew worse and worse towards the end and couldn’t get out and about, it became incredibly hard for us both. After he died it was really difficult, he’d been the person who encouraged me and wanted me to succeed. We’d only moved from Surbiton to Cranleigh in 2018. He moved here first and then I followed.
Throughout his illness I was trying to build up the business. Having created a really good business in Surbiton and Epson, I had to start again down here. It was going quite well until the Lockdown. I was running classes in Cranleigh and built up a good network of people and had clients here. I still kept up the classes in Epsom and Surbiton, a couple of times a week.
When my husband died, I emailed my clients to let them know the situation. Many of them knew him. I explained that I needed to take time out. It all coincided with the first Lockdown, so the pressure was off anyway. I took a month maybe two months off.
Winning a first prize
When you lose someone, it leaves a big hole in your life. My mother-in-law had died the previous year and we were still dealing with her affairs. When you lose your partner you lose everything, your daily routine, the getting up together in the morning, what you’re going to do about dinner, you lose the conversations, the whole thing. It’s a bit like the immediate impact of the first Lockdown, suddenly there’s no contact. I had my phone of course. My children were brilliant and my friends. I’ve got friends here at Smithbrook Kilns and they’ve all been amazing but it’s not the same. It’s that last bit that I find the hardest, at the end of the day when you just want to natter about what you’ve been up to.
I moved the furniture around in the whole flat and cleared everything out. I could not look at ‘his’ chair nor even the space where that empty chair had been. My kids are obviously missing their dad but they’re doing okay, it’s been tough on them too. We’d had a scare in 2019, when we thought we’d lose him but he pulled through and I think it prepared us all a little bit. They keep busy. My daughter works in TV production and my son lives in Plymouth and used to work for ODEON cinemas but was laid off from Lockdown. Fortunately, his girlfriend is an accountant and has kept working, so they are coping well.
Throughout it all though it’s been my children and pets that have helped to sustain me. If I didn’t have my dogs there’d be no reason to get up in the morning, and there would be no reason to talk to people. Whenever I go out with the dogs, I meet people and talk to them. My clients were absolutely brilliant, very understanding if I couldn’t keep their appointment. They’re aware it’s going to be up and down for a while. Most of the time I see them and work with them which has helped me because I’m continuing my connections and making new ones by going out and seeing people.
At Crufts Dog Show
Going through a change of circumstance last year, after my husband died, I’ve been aware more than ever, of people’s need for connection. COVID Lockdowns have caused such loneliness and isolation. Just getting out and going for a walk is the key. When you own a dog, you have to go out to walk regularly. People stop and say ‘Can I talk to your dog?’ and it starts a conversation and builds a connection. If I didn’t have my dogs, I’d be lost. I reap the benefits of them myself but I also understand how important they are to other people. That’s why I love my job, even though is can be frustrating sometimes and time-consuming. I return home after a client’s appointment and I write up my notes. There’s always reports to write and so it goes on but I love it.
Looking back we’ve had some fun. I can remember when my husband would be dog walking and I would join him. We used to look after an Italian greyhound called Monty. His owners would leave the TV on for him when they went off to work. We would visit him twice a day. One morning we went to pick him up and he was sitting there watching Formula 1 Grand Prix Qualifying. We took him out for his walk, came back and settled him and said see you later. When we returned in the afternoon, he was watching ‘Only Fools and Horses’, he changed the channel. As we got to know him, we discovered this was quite a common occurrence. Whenever we went in for our second visit of the day, he’d be watching something completely different from what he’d been watching in the morning. He knew exactly how to use the remote control, he was very intelligent and made sure he watched what he fancied. Dogs never cease to amaze me.
The worst dog I ever came across was a big chocolate Labrador. Most chocolate Labs, I like but they are a bit crazy. Essentially, he was a complete idiot! He’d gotten to the teenage phase and was quite lively before he started. He’d been bought for a lady by her family, to give her something to do, funnily enough for the same reason as me. She’d lost her husband so the family bought her a puppy. He was lovely but he was all over the place, I did loads of work with them. I actually enjoyed her company; she was really lovely. At one point he was chewing her house to pieces, everything was gone from furniture to skirting boards. We got him walking nicely and behaving himself. I’ve kept in touch with her and he’s absolutely brilliant now, he’s settled, happy and she’s delighted with him.
An outdoor training session
During Lockdown people have bought new puppies, often to relieve loneliness. The puppies come to me for training and I end up making just as strong a relationship with their owners as with the puppy.
We need to be aware that walking is a great exercise for us as well as the dogs. It keeps us mentally and physically fit. It can be a very social affair too, dog walkers are usually a very friendly type.
This year has been the beginning of a new chapter for me. Partly because of COVID but also because although I’ve always had this image from the old days, where widows were conveyed as really old, lonely figures, I don’t feel like that at all. I still want to run my own business and be involved with people. Whatever it is, it’s going to be different, exciting and perhaps a bit scary and everything else in between. Ahead is a new year, new ideas, new challenges, new happenings.
Sara is a full member of the Kennel Club Accredited Instructor scheme (Membership No. BS9/30311) in companion dog training and member of the Pet Professional Network.