I remember exactly where I was when I first met her. My partner in crime, confidant and great teacher. I'd heard she'd been tied to a burger van just off the A3 and needed a home. The first thing I thought when I heard that was, "are you sure she wants rescuing from a burger van?", writes Jon Garstang.
Winnie is a Rottweiler/Staffy mix with a smile as wide as the Thames and a curly Rottie tail that rotates like a propeller. The first time we met she barreled towards me and as I greeted her she dived flat on the floor with the classic Staffy frog’s legs and smiled at me as if to say "I found you, you're my human."
Winnie and Jon
I was four years into professional work with dogs and Winnie was to arrive in my world at the time we needed one another most. She was homeless and I was partying a little too much having no responsibilities to speak of.
We were inseparable, sleeping in millionaire mansions one night as house-sitters and in my van the next, much to her chagrin. I was just delving into the animal behaviour world and having Winnie taught me so much about my levels of patience and empathy as well as body language and triggers in other dogs as my skill as a trainer developed.
We had a genius way of attracting new clients. Based in Wimbledon village, a leafy district well out of my pay grade but full of wealthy dog owners and beautiful old English pubs with roaring fires, I would sit at the end of the bar in any number of these pubs with Winnie at my feet and every time someone walked by Winnie would get the propeller/smile combo going and the conversation tended to start like this.
"Wow what a gorgeous dog. I wish my dog was as well behaved as this...". As if by magic I would explain my business and produce a business card. On a good night, I could reel in five or more clients, thanks to my girl's charisma and love of people.
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Over the next year as my business grew, I was given a chance to work as a trainer and advisor in a dog shelter in Zambia in southern Africa. The shelter was hugely oversubscribed and had no plan to get out of the situation. They really needed my help as up to that point no dog trainers had ever been to the shelter in the capital Lusaka.
I thought about Winnie and the chance I'd been given by her to learn and grow so, with her in mind, I left for Zambia for four months leaving Winnie with family and friends.
Needless to say, since that trip, my shelter work has gone from strength to strength leading to work in other countries as an advisor and training handlers. Much like adopting Winnie and being a father for the first time, we're essentially improvising through life no matter what our credentials. These experiences are never the same so one's adaptability becomes a virtue and then a superpower!
Just over three years ago I moved to the Greek island of Rhodes taking Winnie and her daughter Rhubarb with me. Like many ageing English ladies, she is retiring in the Mediterranean, taking daily swims and now chasing lizards instead of squirrels. She doesn't have the same power nor speed anymore, but her charm has not waned. She watches and inspires me daily.
Winnie and Rhubarb
My education outreach work takes me into communities, working with police forces, government departments, vets and everything in between. The problems I deal with are as much about the fabric of the places I work in as the animals themselves.
Here in Greece, I offer free training for new adopters. I'm planning to go to Mexico in the next few months to help a shelter to create new protocols, help train handlers and assist in community projects to improve conditions and educate the next generation on animal welfare and responsible dog ownership.
Because of Winnie, I've found my path and I thank her every day for what she has taught me.