I have been a volunteer dog walker for around 10 years with the Cinnamon Trust, who are a national charity that help elderly and seriously ill people to look after their pets.
Before COVID-19 came along, I was walking a 15-year-old Jack Russell called Bud for an elderly couple who live in Brislington. Bud was virtually blind and very doddery, so we used to do a very slow stroll around the block, only quickening up when he could sense we were on the home straight. Lots of people recognised him and would often stop to ask me how his owners were.
When the pandemic hit, Bud’s owners had to shield and the other dog walker couldn’t come anymore. Initially I was unsure about whether I would be allowed to carry on, but then I got an e-mail from the Cinnamon Trust saying we are classed as key workers, so could continue, but had to observe all the new rules around social distancing etc. With my diary now empty because of the lockdown restrictions, I agreed to come and walk Bud every day, as it helped them and gave me a valid excuse to be out of the house.
Sadly, three weeks into the lockdown period, Bud’s health started to deteriorate and his owners found it increasingly difficult to care for him, so they took the incredibly difficult decision to put him to sleep. While it was really sad for everyone, whichever way you look at it, it was for the best, as his quality of life was deteriorating and nobody wanted to see him suffer. I was able to take him on one last walk the day before he was taken to the vets.
I felt incredibly low, as walking Bud had been a daily distraction away from all the depressing news about the pandemic. I got in touch with the Cinnamon Trust to see if there were any other dogs that I could walk, but sadly there wasn’t. I signed up for various other volunteer programmes including NHS Responders and Can Do Bristol, but they were being inundated with offers of help, so there wasn’t much for me to do.
Then at the start of June, an e-mail went round from Can Do Bristol asking for a volunteer to do some dog walking for a lady that was shielding. Apparently a number of volunteers had tried to walk this dog previously, but found it too much to handle. As I have quite a bit of experience with dogs, I was up for the challenge.
Sasha is a 2-year-old Dogue de Bordeaux and as soon as I met her, I could see why others had struggled with her. She is big, strong and very enthusiastic, a completely different model to Bud. I consider myself to be fairly strong, but I had to use every bit of effort to keep control of her on the lead. After walking her for the first time, the owner was really surprised when I said I was happy to come back again.
After walking her a few times, it did get a little easier, especially as she was getting to know me, but because of her strength, her pulling on the lead started to take its toll on my hands. My wife then had a great idea of trying her with a harness, so I got one from Pets At Home. It had an immediate impact, stopping her from pulling on the lead. I still have to keep my wits about me, but it’s much more enjoyable than feeling like you are water-skiing!
I usually walk her up on the Northern Slopes, which shamefully I didn’t know was there, even though I have driven past there hundreds of times. Now that I know it’s there, I tell everyone that it has the best view of Bristol. We see lots of other dog walkers when we are up there, which is nice, as it feels like a community. Sasha is a bit nervous around other dogs, so is reluctant to interact, even when they want to play. The little dogs always bark at her, but then I think that’s down to small dog syndrome! Sasha gets lots of compliments from passers-by like ‘beautiful dog’, plus there has been lots of funny comments like ‘is your dog a Jack Russell?’ and ‘that’s the dog from Turner and Hooch!’
Volunteering with Can Do Bristol has really helped me through this difficult period, getting me out of the house to explore a different areas of the city and giving me a welcome distraction away from the depressing news. As things start to return to normal, I will keep on walking Sasha for as long as I am needed, plus will continue to support the programme so that there is a positive legacy from these last few months.