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Billy is a disability assistance Lurcher.

Billy and Tracey's story is in chronological order, please scroll down the page to get to the most recent entry.

Billy- From Puppy Dog to Help Dog

We got Billy on 29th August 2009. ‘We’ is my Partner, Andrew, and I, Tracey. This is the story of Billy’s progress so far and, hopefully, the start of his journey (and ours!) to him (hopefully) becoming a fully-fledged assistance dog.

I am a wheelchair user; my condition has progressed to me needing more help than I ever have before. Andrew and I have wanted a dog for a long time but only moved to a suitable property early 2009. A dog that would be able to fill two roles would be hard to come by, that of a more traditional working dog for Andrew and the role of an assistance dog for me. I had made a decision based on the dogs we owned when I was a child… I wanted a clever dog, and the two most intelligent I experienced were Poodles and Lurchers. Therefore as only certain poodles will work in the field (with them it was instinct, a few would chase and catch, most would not!) a Lurcher it would have to be.
Andrew and I had been researching for around two years before we moved. Going to shows, reading magazines and books and looking on the Internet. That’s where we came across the Lurcher and Tumbler Breed and Welfare Society. We were really impressed and contacted Jeff to talk and to see if he could recommend a breeder. We had spoken to a few other breeders but, just weren’t happy, they were either very narrow-minded or just didn’t enthuse us. We knew the right dog could potentially be trained for assistance work and have as much chance as any dog of passing the various tests to gain that elusive working dogs’ jacket- have you ever looked to see the failure rate of the various working dogs? Be they disability assistance dogs (I tend to include all help dogs for the purpose of this story, hearing dogs, guide dogs, seizure alert dogs, autism companion dogs and what Billy will hopefully become, an assistant for a physically disabled person. There are many ‘types’ of canine assistants, I just gave a brief list), police dogs, customs and excise, armed forces, farming, guarding- many do not make the grade in one discipline and are either deemed suited for other work listed above, are used as breeding bitches or simply re-homed. Indeed some pet dogs’ show difficult behaviours for a home environment but are found to be suitable for a particular job and so are donated for work.

It is no way an exact science. Luckily for us even if we had a dog that couldn’t make the grade we knew a Lurcher would be the final piece in the jigsaw to make us a ‘family’. A companion for me during the day as I work only a few hours a week, our friends either work full time, have kids or are also disabled so I don’t get a lot of company during the week when Andrew is at work. As I write, Billy is on his favourite chair snoozing and looking up at me every time I move with his big brown eyes.

We spoke to Jeff many times before we went on the club list. He listened to why we wanted a Lurcher and we kept him up to date on our progress toward moving to a suitable property to have a dog with us. We now live as far on the edge of town as is possible. We literally have the countryside across the road! There are pavements where I can ‘walk’ the dog and miles of fields, tracks and villages where Andrew and Billy can disappear into for a whole afternoon!

Billy was born in July 2009 out of Peaches and Rouge. When we went to meet Jeff and see a recommended litter this little boy kept looking at me, the quieter, smaller pup I took an instant shine to him. We got him into the car and thanks to DAP (wonderful stuff) and my fingers to wrap his paws round and rest his head on we had an easy three hours home- he has loved being in the car ever since and seems to know where we are going by the roads we take, always snoozing happily on the way home.

Billy is now 17 months old. He was bright from the start- had ‘sit’ mastered at eight weeks, then ’paw’, then ‘down’. He house trained easier than any dog I have known before and got right into the habit of allowing for my movements in the chair. By twelve weeks he would walk backwards on command if required to be able to move near me in small spaces but minding the chair (and subsequently his paws!).

Walking on a lead was also fairly quickly mastered- It was hard for him as he had to walk differently depending who he was with… on his first few walks with me in the chair when he got tired he’d demand a ride home on my lap- earning himself many fans in our neighbourhood who over the last year and a bit never guessed that little dog has becoming the big strong boy we have now! We took him and continue to take him as many places as possible as this will stand him in good stead for his ‘official’ training. He especially likes the local pubs, one of which is very dog friendly and there is usually a ‘doggy friend’ to say hello to.

Billy has lots of doggy friends (and people friends!), either local dogs or friends and families dogs. He can run rings round all of them and has different games with different dogs. I could fill a dozen or more pages on this… Maybe one day!!!

I have kept a diary of all his landmarks, I believed it was easier to teach him one thing at a time and I think I did the right thing as he will now do pretty much anything I ask him although occasionally in his own time! By the time he was four months as well as general obedience he would pull the washing out of the machine for me- I know the secret of Lurcher training (or certainly Billy training) WILL DO ANYTHING FOR FOOD! Bear in mind that four and a half days a week it’s just me and him from 8am until 6pm. This gives us time to bond and time to train. It really is true- you get out what you put in!

While doing this I also realised I have over 1000 pictures of Billy- many for comedic purposes (upside down dog face opportunities) or cute moments. I have tried to give a taster of who Billy is rather than the perfect doggy portrait. We often joke that the curlier his tail is then the naughtier he’s about to be, he holds his tail higher and it curls like a pigs’ tail, hence we have lots of shots of Billy’s’ back end which mean nothing to anyone but ourselves. We also refer to him as either ‘big dog’ (when stretched across the floor or sofa) or ‘little dog’ (when curled up in a feline manner). Again, pictures that mean a lot to us but little to anyone else! He also rests his bum on the sofa or on my lap- sitting; sometimes the back legs are off the floor leaning on his front legs- a typical ‘Lazy Lurcher’!
Billy has given me so much more than a potential assistant though, my condition means that every so often I will deteriorate and have less ‘stamina’ as well as movement generally getting more difficult and painful. In the past these episodes have left me depressed and angry but since I’ve had Billy to think about I have been hardly affected in this way. He’s a clever dog but as yet he can’t get his own dinner! I have to get ‘up’, let him out, groom him, feed him, give him an enriched life with training and games on the days I can’t walk him. He still has a twice daily jaunt with Andrew and the older he gets the more he seems to enjoy a warm comfy place to lay down and a big cuddle rather than daytimes of constant mayhem!

So much has happened with him in our lives I really would be writing a book to detail everything!  His story is being followed at the special school I volunteer at as some of our kids may benefit from having an assistant dog to gain independence as adults. He starts his assistance training on 11th January 2011 with Dog AID. They have three levels of assistance and Billy will go as far as he is able. He already will pick up and bring me my mobile or the remote for the sky box! He knows words for his lead, different toys and will pick these up on command, until very recently said objects may well have gone for a trip around the garden first! Plus of course his laundry skills, he will also use his paws or pick up things to bring them to where I can get them so he already has the skills to help me whatever level he achieves. I hope that this will prove that Lurchers (especially this strain) are not just ‘poachers’ dogs (as they are recognised as round here) and are able to be trained to do anything. I believed any well-mannered, intelligent dog has this potential but as we all know, Lurchers/ sight- hounds are very special dogs indeed with a nature and habits that are exclusive to them. Once you’ve had a Lurcher in your life you cannot very easily be without.

I plan to keep you up to date with Billy’s progress. I hope you enjoyed reading this and looking at the pictures. He is certainly a lump (29.1kg and about 27”- we don’t know for sure as the one thing he has never stood still next to a tape measure long enough!)
With best wishes to Jeff and all Lurcher fans everywhere,

Tracey, Andrew and Billy

January 2011

Update July 2011

Due to illness this document didn't get sent in January. Billy is doing very well (but a doting Mum would say that!!!). The first week with dog AID he took COMPLETE advantage of the trainer assessing his nature… by trying to eat a hole into his pocket to get the treats!!! Billy’s attitude was “Mummy’s not telling me ‘no’- I’ll do what the hell I like!” Billy was not going to take a stranger telling him what to do so the first two weeks were short visits but as he has got to know the trainer the more we are able to do. He is learning to be ‘steady’ – like a police horse, as that is more important almost than being able to perform ‘tricks’. He has to learn to walk with my chair on a loose lead. We went out today when the school kids were coming home, to practice him taking commands when there are distractions about. The lead is getting looser for sure and the local kids are great when they see us- we both wear ‘Hi-Vis’ jackets with a message on- ‘Please don’t disturb me- I’m training’. My nephew goes to the local primary school so I am universally known as “Harry’s Auntie” so If I ask them to not say hello to the dog they don’t. We have a high school further down the road as well so it was a bit of a sensory overload today with people of all shapes, sizes and speed!!! He is toileting on command and all told he does very well. He still has a long way to go- he has to be able to get on a bus and behave calmly on a bus ride, he has to NOT try and chase cats! He will leave most things on command and he has to recall perfectly, down and sit at distance, sit and wait for up to two minutes and stay calmly alone in a car. This is just to pass level one!!! He is progressing on all fronts very well. Tomorrow, he starts learning to put things in boxes for me, he is very good at taking things out- and not always on command! He celebrated his 2nd birthday last week with his best mate Alfie (my friends' rescued whippet/ staffie). He got spoilt rotten and loves his new doggie game that involves using his nose to dislodge shaped bones and spin the different levels to find food.

He now has to learn to walk next to me in a powered wheelchair, totally different to what he is used to- I will be higher, quicker (once we are both confident) and in a much heavier chair. I am starting by taking my brother out, both holding the lead so I can judge how aware I am and that I am giving correct instructions before I go with Billy. I am not taking any risks so when I am ready he will benefit from extra trips out on top of his two walks a day he already gets.

He is also very good at making it clear when I am not giving him attention. Like now! So from us both, best wishes.

Update July 2013

It's  been a long time since I have been in touch, two years. A lot has happened to both Billy and I in that time!

Unfortunately I have continued to deteriorate. I had to give up voluntary work and I've been losing stamina week by week. Billy passed his Dog A.I.D. level one 'Good Companion Dog' award last spring (2012). There was a fair bit to learn though, controlled walking on a loose lead, toileting on command, food refusal (hard but possible!), greeting people calmly. Waiting outside shops (although he is NEVER left he had to be able to do it to pass the test) quietly and calmly, waiting in an empty car (again he is never left but if I fell ill, we were out and Billy had to wait ten minutes for Andy to wheel me into the nearest A & E and get back to him... you get the picture). The car had been set up next to the house, in the shade with the windows open slightly. We had the curtains closed inside with the trainer spying on him, so it was very safe. He perfected recall, distance wait and being left at home without making a fuss or destroying anything (we have always been lucky with that, he had a crate when he was a puppy so he learnt not to mess up his own space first). On top of that he had to be well socialised with all dogs and people, be able to cope with different places and social situations, sudden noises, children playing etc. It was tough. Especially as the 14/15 months we did it in took in some of the wettest, snowiest weather the eastern region had seen in thirty odd years so it was difficult to train outdoors, plus a few month long breaks when I was too ill to train. Billy also learnt new things too. Helping more in the house for later 'qualifications' and there was a lot of time spent teaching me how to train Billy for anything I needed. This last one being vital as my trainer retired in September 2012.

Billy does not wear an identifiable jacket or go in shops, the term 'companion dog' describes just that, a companion, a four legged home help! We've taught Billy many things over the last 2 1/2 years- putting the washing he gets out of the machine in a basket, shutting the washing machine door then taking the laundry out of the basket piece by piece for me to put on the drying frame, opening doors or cupboards using a cord, closing doors and cupboards. He's learning to undress me, he removes my shoes and either gives them to me or puts them on the sofa or on my wheelchair so someone can put them away, we are now on undoing shoelaces! He knows the name of several objects and will find them by me clicking my fingers and saying little words to direct him, a bit like a sheepdog! He alerts me if the phone is ringing or there's someone at the door. I can tell by his bark if it is someone we know or not. I really recommend 'The Language Of Barking' by Turid Rudgraas, an excellent trainer and behaviourist who has written books for people to help them understand their dog and train them using positive reinforcement. The same way Dog A.I.D. train their clients dogs. My trainer urged me to learn about canine behaviour, it helps me understand the best way to train Billy but also to understand him. Dogs can't talk so if I wanted to know what Billy is thinking I had learn to read some of his body language, I am not an expert now, far from it. But I feel I can better respond to his needs which I think is what everyone wants to do for those they love. Especially in Billy's case as he is very clever and although he learns easily he always pushes his luck to see if he can get more from me! Dogs quickly learn how to manipulate the situation to their advantage, in Billy's case it means if he fancies a snack he will pinch things and stand there with them waiting to be asked to bring it back, as he gets rewarded for retrieving. It's hard to stop him doing these things, I have to ignore the behaviour and wait until he has lost interest- and lurchers are really good at staying interested in things if they know full well they shouldn't have them!

Training, although no longer with a Dog A.I.D. trainer, training is ongoing with me teaching new things,  Andy and the other people in Billys life reinforcing the training. People like my brother who cleans, dog sits when I visit different hospitals out of town and cares for me when Andy isn't about and I need two legged help. Dog A.I.D. are there if I need them though, to ask questions if I am stuck and need advice. If another trainer in my area becomes available, Billy is still young enough and if my condition is in a steady way we might be able to progress. The level two training is very tough. For example distance control, think sheepdog! I have to be able to give him a signal if he is off the lead and at distance, to stop what he is doing and lay down. So far I can get him to stop but he then comes back to me- well behaved but not quite what is required. We are starting from scratch again with that, it's up to me to try an alternative.

If I was to continue again with a trainer I have to be well enough to commit to train weekly for an hour or so. If I am not well enough I do not want to take time away from someone who is able to complete the training. Dog A.I.D. are short of trainers due to retirements etc. and are a very small charity compared to the well known ones that train the dog from birth. Their resources are severely stretched and are looking for volunteers and trainers to fill the gaps. People are waiting all over the country for the sort of help I have been lucky enough to have. As there isn't a trainer I am trying to use the skills I have been taught to help him to help me, and try and raise money too. Billy wears his Dog A.I.D. bandana with pride to advertise and raise awareness of the organisation, and he looks very handsome in it!

All the interruptions to his training did not make things easy for Billy at times. When he was younger he was never keen on strangers who came too close, especially men and very tall people. He preferred to hide behind me although at 4 years old he's much more sociable, this is despite being attacked by a loose dog while on a lead last year (luckily he was with Andy who fought the other dog off, the teeth marks are still in the collar) and in the same month while with me was scared half to death by some idiot human who assumed the way to talk to a wheelchair user was to lean over into my personal space and yell in monosyllables, ignoring the fact my dogs' lead has 'Dog in Training' scrawled on it and not backing off when I asked him to -the dog was pulling back out of his collar to get away! Poor lad has struggled but using the training techniques I have learnt and a squirt of Adaptil on a bandana 15-20 minutes before we go out he is more sociable than ever with people and with certain breeds of dogs- after the attack he became wary of dogs the same size as the one who attacked him.

He gets more steady with age and less scatty, this has made training easier, it's helping me to reinforce those things he personally finds difficult. Week to week we do not get many visitors and he has started to get to excited when people do turn up. I have to put him on a lead. He only wants to say hello but off lead he tends to bounce up and down like a kangaroo in front visitors, or try and weave in and out around their legs, you can see he is trying hard not to jump up at or on them but with such a big dog it is very off putting. It's a natural reaction, if a small poodle or a Lhasa Apso does it it is seen as cute! We have taught him to go and get one of his toys to show the visitor then calm down before he gets a fuss. He does have a tendency to try and pin certain people, like my brothers and sisters to the sofa with his forelegs and give them big sloppy dog kisses. I have devised a strategy for this too but he is sneaky and will settle down on the floor for a while then suddenly jump up and have his way! I am sure he thinks he is the same size and weight as his best friend Poppy, my Mums Lhasa (who was born only two weeks after him), He is so affectionate but he does need to remember his manners at times!

Billy saves me needing an extra carer for more than a few hours a week, he's way too valuable to me, practically but more important, emotionally. By rights I should have gone nuts over the last three or four years, I now spend most days half asleep or actually asleep. It's isolating and lonely. He's asleep next to me, on me, with me, giving me all the cuddles I need! Ready to help when I need it.

What's next for Billy and I then? I recently had a change of medicines and I am hoping to train Billy a little more. We are simply ticking over at the minute, often it's reminders to Billy and indeed me that training is everyday and not to take it for granted. I am lucky he doesn't forget, he gets sloppy and I have to up my game and re train us both. He learns so quickly and easily I forget he needs reminding on the things he finds more difficult. I hope that with the new medicines I can give him a little more time to try new things, practice his Dog A.I.D. list and maybe get good enough to do his level two assessment! I have always said he will be the boss of that though and we will only do what he is comfortable with. I am pretty sure he enjoys what he does, he wouldn't do it if he didn't want to, and there are days when he just doesn't want to do long tasks- usually when it's hot, or if he's just back from a long walk or run. I can tell when he's had enough and at that point I only ask him if I really can't do something for myself. Luckily he's very intuitive and can tell when I am struggling. I think if I had pushed him too hard he wouldn’t do this for me. We have a partnership, 100%. His intuitive nature really shows through when I am very 'medicated' and start to fall asleep in a daft position, like perched on the edge of the sofa or in my wheelchair. He yips, very loudly, until I come round. Sometimes I think I'm OK and tell him to be quiet but he knows I am not and will carry on until I am back on the sofa sitting in a safe way or laying down. Other times I 'black out', after suddenly feeling ill. He will come lick my face after half an hour to an hour till I'm a bit more with it, I often then feel very thirsty or hungry. He must know I need something at that point, I have no idea how he knows. On other occasions I might go to get in my wheelchair and he blocks me off, leaning against my legs. At least 90% of the time within half an hour I have blacked out. Again, I don't know how he knows and he has saved me many times from getting injured, which is bad news if it happens as I am more 'delicate' (not to look at, anyway!) than most, and injuries for me are worse than for most people. There are a lot of stories of dogs- not just assistance dogs, who pick up on slight changes in their owners' health and react to them, often saving their lives in the process.

When there's no work to do Billy the dog loves his doggy friends, of who there are very many, trotting at 4mph next to my powerchair, ambling at 1mph if it's hot, charging round the local park, where he sounds like a heard of elephants all by himself! His walks morning and night with Andy,  has regular long country walks. Trips to see the ferrets, who live at Andys' mums, where he demonstrates all the things he can do for 'Nanny' who rewards him with hob nobs (his favourites) or digestive biscuits (we had to get the size of the pieces of biscuit decreased, he was starting to get fat!). Billy likes the taste of beer! For his birthday it was too hot to go out for a run so we went to our friends pub and he got to see lots of his human friends and get fed odd scraps of pork scratchings! (Made from organic pork no less!) He likes fusses from anyone he knows and some strangers- especially young, pretty female ones! He loves his Kong, hide chews, dried fish treats, any of his many toys, chicken, cheese and big bones he can pick up and charge about the house with. Billy has his own chair on which he lays and sits in many positions, but that doesn't stop him trying to take up the whole of the sofa- regardless if anyone else is sitting there... Who else has had a lurcher foot pushing into their thigh or a swift kick in the leg just a millisecond before the dog rolls into another position! He likes not being too far from me, Andy or whoever else is caring for him, loves giving me cuddles -he makes a convincing lap dog for his size, he's 27 1/4” at the shoulder and weighs 29kg -so much for being the little one! He finally stood still long enough to be measured about three months ago!

I have been absolutely blessed by something or someone! Jeff gave us the greatest gift in the world by breeding this amazing boy. Dog ownership is never something you should take on lightly, Jeff made sure we could manage an old bloodline lurcher and did advise us that their intelligence would make him highly trainable but with a mind of his own! Any illness or disability is hard to live with and it would have been a damn sight harder for me without Billy on many so levels. He is my dog, my carer and as well as Andy, my best friend. I was also so fortunate to have met David, our trainer from Dog A.I.D. who retired last year. He gave me the skills and the confidence to train Billy to do the things I need him to so he can continue to develop new skills as well as maintain what he has learnt. I am very lucky to have a wonderful dog and to have great support.

Best wishes to Jeff, Josie, all the Burrell Lurchers and their owners,

From Tracey and Billy

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