Βecause of her I’ve found my path in life

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?”

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.”

After graduating with a Theatre degree from university and playing in a band in London for several years, I was four years into professional work with dogs, when Winnie arrived 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 became 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, I had read a few excellent books and started doing some of Dr Ian Dunbar’s Sirius dog training courses, found an amazing inspiration in Sarah Fisher who showed me some great resources and moved to London to set up my own dog training business. 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.

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.

Firstly I had to train the handlers in basic skills. I had to explain why the dogs behaved like they do, find ways to bring some order and calm to the shelter, get the dogs used to being handled and walked and finally find them new homes. I spent 4 months dealing with the police, angry neighbours, warring animal associations, dogs with diseases I’d never heard of but it was the making of me! When I left the country I left in place new systems that are still in place to this day and rehomed dozens of dogs.

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.

Through a series of bizarre events I ended up selling a lot of my business in London in 2016 and deciding to move to Rhodes. The thing I’d noticed working abroad after being brought up in England, is how people are wary and often frightened of dogs they don’t know. Especially children who are often told to stay away from dogs. Of course I understand from a safety perspective that just running up to any strange dog is not advisable but I felt it could be my responsibility to educate children in schools about dog body language and the correct way to behave around dogs. I also hoped the young children might, in turn, educate their parents!

When a private school in Rhodes agreed to let me teach a class on dog behavior, I wanted to make it a real experience for the children. I wanted to teach them the importance of our relationship with our animals and to really have fun with it. I used videos, pictures and, eventually, REAL shelter dogs! Seeing the pleasure and engagement of the children was my reward. Once they learned to trust me and the dogs and felt safe, the learning really began. The children could instinctively read body language when helped, and not one of them refused to engage with the shelter dogs.

After each class the teacher would tell me that their time with the dogs was the children’s number one topic in the week between our sessions and I could see the project was already having a lasting impact. I intend to bring this project to more schools around Greece, collaborate with and encourage the interaction between dog charities and educational institutions, in order to introduce more and more children to the joy of communicating with a dog and introduce both the children and their parents to the idea of maybe adopting a dog in the future.

I owe all this to Winnie, my dog, because of her I’ve found my path in life and I thank her every day for what she has taught me. She is with me in Rhodes now and, like many ageing English ladies, she is retiring in the Mediterranean taking daily swims, only now she is 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.

My name is Jon Garstang and I am a positive dog trainer. I grew up in England where I studied Theatre, played music professionally and had a dog care service in London for 10 years. I love to write, read and enjoy yoga. I also love food, drink and water sports (not at the same time!) hence the move to Greece.