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‘He sits on his blanket and the children take turns reading to him’

Features | Published:

David Edbrooke talks to Jersey Dog Handlers Association president Christine Marett about her 'reading dog' Didi, the club's nomination for a 'canine Oscar' and her terriers' upcoming appearances at Crufts.

It is little wonder that the domestic dog is described as man’s best friend. Selectively bred over thousands of years, dogs help humans in myriad ways, including herding, hunting, assisting the blind and partially sighted, and offering companionship.

To the list of roles performed by pooches we can now add ‘reading’. As we know, dogs are not generally known for their love of literature, preferring a nourishing bone to a good narrative.

Yet a handful of dogs in the Island are proving themselves to be adept at offering a calming presence to young schoolchildren, who may be more inclined to read to a pooch than a parent or teacher.

One dog which fits this emerging breed of collegiate canine is Didi, an eight-year-old Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen and the official ‘reading dog’ at St Clement’s School.

Didi is owned by St Saviour resident Christine Marett, the president of the Jersey Dog Handlers Association, and every week Christine takes her four-legged friend to lessons so that children in Year 5 can read to him.

The reading dogs initiative is part of the Read2Dogs scheme which has been devised by the charity Pets As Therapy, and it is run to help younger children become more confident readers and communicators.

‘The Read2Dogs scheme is a relatively new branch of PAT,’ explains Christine (60). ‘Didi had to undergo an assessment to become a PAT dog – to see how chilled out he is and how he reacts in certain situations. He went through the assessment and was accepted and I had a DBS check.

‘Now we go into St Clement’s School as part of the staff of Year 5, and every week Didi listens to two groups of nine-year-old children read. I have Didi on the lead, he sits on his blanket and the children sit around him and take turns reading to him.’

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She adds: ‘It encourages the kids to read out loud. That’s because although they might be a little bit anxious about reading to an adult or their peers, in this situation they are technically reading to the dog. It gives them confidence because the dog is not criticising them.’

Christine says that before she and Didi were integrated into the reading lessons, all the parents of the Year 5 groups were sent a letter notifying them that a reading dog would be coming in.

‘It was in case any parents had concerns about that – a child might be allergic to dogs, for instance – but there weren’t any problems.

‘The Year 5s that read to Didi love it. They come in from their break when the bell goes and they come into the classroom and they are like “Hiya, Didi!” They all pat him before the reading starts and he loves it.

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‘Now the Year 6 children have been asking me, “Why didn’t we have a reading dog when we were in Year 5”!’

Christine, who lives in St Saviour with her husband, Mick (62), Didi and five Cesky Terriers, joined the JDHA 26 years ago and served as its secretary for many years before taking on the mantle of president about eight years ago.

The club, which meets on a Tuesday evening at the Royal Jersey Showground in Trinity, has more than 100 members, and Christine oversees many of its activities, including running the bronze training course as part of the Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Dog Training Scheme.

‘It’s a UK scheme which is aimed at pet obedience as opposed to competitive obedience. There are four categories – you start off with your puppy foundation, which is for dogs under a year old. Then it goes to bronze, silver then gold. There are different tests each dog has to pass to get a medal.

‘We have pedigrees, cross-breeds and we have rescue dogs who are all brought along and it gives me a great buzz to see a busy hall with lots of people training their dogs – and to see those dogs progress.’

Do the sessions ever turn chaotic?

‘Not usually – it’s organised chaos! If you have got a nervous dog and one that’s not sure about the noise generated by the others, we will often suggest to people that they come and sit with their dog and watch the classes to get the dog used to the environment.

‘At the end of the day, we’re there to try and help people train their dogs – I don’t recall having to turn anyone away.’

In January it was announced that her club is in contention for a prestigious accolade at the Pawscars awards – said to be the canine equivalent of the Oscars.

The Pawscars has been running since 2014, with various categories open to public voting.

The JDHA has been shortlisted for the Training Class of the Year category and the results will be announced at a black-tie event at the Metropole Hotel, at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre, on 7 March – the day before Crufts begins.

‘We’re quite proud and very thrilled to have been short-listed, and now we want to win.’

They are up against a training class from Plymouth and another from Scotland, so how confident is she about Jersey’s chances?

‘I’m hoping that because we live in a small community, Jersey will get behind us. The winning club will be the one that secures the most votes and Islanders can vote for us up until midnight on 28 February, on the Pawscars website.

‘We won’t know the winner until the night. It’ll be like the Oscars when they open the envelope and say, “and the winner is…!”’

Christine’s club, which provides classes in obedience, breed showing, flyball, rally and scent work, among others, also organises training weekends with visiting teachers.

Founded in 1981, it has successfully trained a number of handlers who have gone on to enjoy considerable success in the UK and Europe – and Christine is among those success stories. She and Mick have triumphed at numerous canine competitions including the Crufts dog show, the most prestigious of them all.

‘Down the years we’ve had dogs that have won best bitch at Crufts, reserve best bitch and reserve best dog,’ says Christine, whose Cesky Terrier Saffy (2) also proved her pedigree at the world-famous dog event last year.

‘Saffy won best junior bitch in the Cesky Terrier section,’ adds Christine, who owns four other Cesky Terriers – Rose (2), Flint (3), Ivan (4) and Grace (7).

‘Grace also won best puppy in the Cesky Terrier section at Crufts. The only two awards we haven’t won at Crufts over the years are best dog and best of breed.’

More success could be on its way this year as she and Mick are taking all five of their Ceskys to compete at Crufts, which starts on 8 March.

‘They will be entered into the Cesky Terrier breed in various classes at Crufts – the class which they get entered into is dependent on their age and how much they’ve won.’

Her dogs have certainly got form on their side. Grace was reserve Channel Island veteran of the year last Saturday and Rose scooped a reserve best-in-show at another recent event.

‘My dogs have had multiple wins in Jersey, Guernsey and the UK, too,’ Christine says as she looks on fondly at her six pooches playfully scampering around her living-room floor.

‘But at Crufts you never know – it’s about how they perform on the day. Crufts is very noisy and can be very stressful.’

Does she ever get nervous walking out into the arena with thousands of people watching – and potentially millions more viewing proceedings on television?

‘Channel TV actually turned up last year and Saffy played up a bit so it was a real surprise that she won her event. And we owners do get nervous – I don’t think you’d be human if you didn’t.’

Given that they go to Crufts, I had expected Christine and Mick’s pooches to be the picture of clean living, but on being introduced to them I thought I could see traces of the undergrowth on a couple of their otherwise immaculately kept fur coats.

‘Our dogs are allowed to get mucky and muddy. Flint, Ivan and Rose do agility events in Jersey and elsewhere and they were caked in mud the other day after some training.

‘When it’s time to get them ready for a show we give them a bath and we still take them outside to do their business when they are at a show.’

Aside from a timely bath, Christine also makes sure to give her canine companions a haircut.

‘They’ve all had a haircut because they are going to an event this weekend. The Ceskys are clipped with electric clippers and I’ve got a whole toolbox of brushes and combs – the dogs have more hair products than I do!’

Cesky Terriers have a beard and a top-knot – hair that protrudes over their forehead.

‘Cesky Terriers are designed for hunting and the top-knot protects their face,’ explains Christine. ‘A pack of these, would you believe, can keep a wild boar at bay until the hunter gets there.’

Yes, it would take a lot of believing. If her Ceskys are anything to go by, the breed is mild-mannered and gentle – if extremely energetic. Her Ceskys also have healthy appetites, according to Christine.

‘Lots of people ask, “Oh, can they see with all that hair over their face?” and I say, “You drop some food and they’ll see it.”’

Ten years ago the organisers of Crufts, the Kennel Club, were strongly rebuked in a BBC documentary for allegedly allowing certain breed standards, judging standards and breeding practices which were all said to compromise the health of pure-bred dogs.

Pugs and bulldogs are popular across the British Isles, but some experts have said it is unethical to breed such dog types because many struggle to breathe properly due to narrow noses and pinched nostrils.

The Kennel Club has since imposed new breeding standards. However, after last year’s Crufts dog show, the animal welfare charity the RSPCA wrote: ‘We remain concerned that many pedigree dogs are still suffering because they’re bred and judged primarily on how they look rather than with health, welfare and temperament in mind.’

Christine is adamant that the Kennel Club is moving in the right direction.

‘The UK Kennel Club is working to address the issues. Certain breeds are put on “breed watch” and the dog that wins best in breed is checked by the show vet before it’s allowed to go any further in the competition.

‘If the vet doesn’t feel that it’s healthy, they won’t allow it to go through to the next part of the competition.

‘There’s been a lot of bad press for pedigree dogs, which is such a shame because even your mongrel has health issues. If you look at some cross-breeds, there are issues with both sides of the pedigree breed so you risk doubling [the problems] when you’ve crossed two of them together. It’s a myth that mongrels are healthier than pedigrees.

‘And when we bred our litters we did all the relevant health checks first.’

Christine says her passion for pooches was passed on to her from her late father, Graeme Pitman.

‘I can blame my dad for my love of dogs because he had a guide dog before I was born, so we’ve always had a dog in the house. Chico, his boxer guide dog, used to look after me when I was in the pram!’

It would appear her enthusiasm for dogs is hereditary, as Christine and Mick’s sons, Adrian and Russell, have canine-led careers.

Adrian (33) undertook a postgraduate course in journalism and worked at Dog World newspaper some years ago. He now works for the Kennel Club in London and has also judged categories at Crufts. Russell (30), meanwhile, runs his own pet-sitting business in Exmouth, Devon.

Christine and Mick spend a lot of their time in the UK too, attending shows with their dogs, and they also serve as scout leaders at the 2nd Jersey Grève d’Azette Scout Group in St Saviour.

‘We’ve each done over 40 years in the Scouts,’ adds Christine, who worked as a veterinary nurse for 12 years in Jersey before motherhood. After that, she ran the former camping shop Trek Plus in town, which was founded by her father.

Our interview reaches its natural end as her pets grow ever so slightly restless. It is time for Christine and her dogs to scout out a good walk – or perhaps in Didi’s case, a good book.

  • To vote for the Jersey Dog Handlers Association in the Pawscars awards, go to pawscars.co.uk and follow the instructions. Voting closes on Wednesday 28 February 2018.

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