A dog in a million

PUBLISHED: 00:16 07 January 2011 | UPDATED: 18:22 20 February 2013

A dog in a million

A dog in a million

Animal behaviourist Hazel Carter talks about Connie a Newfoundland dog that came into her life at her home in East Sussex and changed her life immeasurably for the better

As a tiny child growing up in West Harting, I was fascinated by the tricks that my grandmother taught her Cocker Spaniel, Freckles. Freckles refused to come for a walk when I tried to pull him along. When I laid a trail of dog biscuits along the lane he happily followed me. That was when I first learnt that when you are working with animals, force does not work but rewards do. Its a lesson I have never forgotten.
After my marriage in 1969, I moved to a country cottage near Blackboys, East Sussex. We had three sons and I decided to stay at home and look after them rather than go out to work. I also wanted to be with my dogs.
As well as more traditional activities, I have always enjoyed teaching my dogs unusual things such as flying a kite, or helping in the house and garden. This helped me to decide to teach one-to-one obedience lessons, which later evolved into help with behaviour problems.
My life changed dramatically when I had Connie, a Newfoundland puppy born in September 2005. When she was only four-and-a-half months old, I suddenly damaged my back and was in and out of hospital, virtually bedridden and in agony. My husband was too busy working and looking after me to cope with a puppy, so Connie went off to kennels. By the time she was seven months old I could barely move but I was sure I could train her to help me and enjoy life as well.
Connie was overjoyed to see me again after so long and remembered everything I had previously taught her. I slept downstairs and she had her toy box in the bedroom. She quickly learnt that if she wanted a game she must bring the ball to me in bed. Because I was virtually housebound, I had plenty of time to train her.
Connie loved to work. Before long she could undo shoelaces and take off my shoes or socks, and she immediately picked up anything I dropped. She would bring my rug and carefully place it on my bed and find my glasses for me. One of her favourite jobs was helping with the laundry. As I gradually improved she did more work outside, carrying letters to the post or bringing in the shopping from the car. At under one year old she had such an impressive list of work she was featured in the local papers. In January 2007 I saw my back specialist for the last time. Connie and I were enjoying ourselves.
Later that month I was diagnosed with Polymyalgic Rheumatism. I was devastated: I could hardly move. Connie started training for her new role as kitchen assistant. She quickly learnt to bring me anything I needed from the pantry to the sink in buckets and baskets. I only had to say "Potatoes" and she would rush off to fetch them. Thankfully the steroids prescribed to me started to work and I was gradually able to do more.
Because of her extraordinary talents, Connie had a lot of media attention. She was featured in the Daily Mail and on numerous radio stations, as well as on BBC South East Today and ITV South East regional news. In March 2008 I was thrilled to be a finalist with Connie in the Friends for Life category at Crufts.
Just three months after my book, A Dog in a Million: My life with Connie, was published Connie developed a very aggressive cancer and was peacefully put to sleep at home in my arms in June 2009. My life fell apart; I was very depressed and could not imagine life without Connie. My family was very supportive but I knew I had to find another Newfoundland puppy and start again.
For the last few months I have been busy training Chloe. She is related to Connie and, like her, very bright. When she was just five months she did a photo shoot for a national newspaper, happily showing off her skills including taking things out of the washing machine, taking off my socks and shoes and retrieving different items. She is now learning more advanced tasks
With Chloes help, I am promoting Connies book. I want people to know that, whatever their age or medical condition, with confidence and inspiration it is possible to have a happy and helpful dog.

Training methods

  • Each training session is short, simple and successful

  • Instant positive rewards: food, fuss and fun

  • Treats are graded: the harder the task, the higher the grade

  • Teach one small part of an exercise at a time. When that is learnt, begin teaching the next part. Finally, put all of the components together

  • Treat each training session as a game. In this way it is possible to teach complex and unusual tasks - Connie could even turn on the washing machine

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