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Supporting London's dog owners
  1. Heather Cutmore


Heather Cutmore, VN, is a veterinary welfare officer with Dogs Trust. She splits her time between working with the homeless and providing dog health and welfare advice to London's dog owning communities

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I DECIDED from an early age that I wanted to work with animals. Growing up we always had a menagerie in the house, including dogs, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters and a cockatiel called Jeffrey.

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After completing work experience at a local veterinary practice I pursued a career in veterinary nursing. I was lucky enough to get a job as a trainee and began the twoyear NVQ course at the College of Animal Welfare in Potters Bar. Over the course of the next 10-and-a-half years I worked in various practices, ranging from a small local solo vet practice to a large referral centre. I saw everything from cats, dogs and rabbits to lizards, snakes, fish and even, on one occasion, a marmoset monkey.

During this time I also held a temporary position with the PDSA, and this was where I found a love of working in the charity sector.

I had been thinking of having a career change for a while but, as I still wanted to use my nursing knowledge and skills, I was unsure of which direction to take. When Dogs Trust advertised for a veterinary welfare officer I instantly knew that I wanted the job. I liked the fact that it would mean working for a charity again, and that it offered the added bonus of working hands-on with dogs. I was also drawn to the educational element of the role, speaking to dog owners and helping them to give the best care they can to the dogs they love so much.

My role is split between two teams. I spend half of my week working on the Hope Project, and the rest of the week working with the London education and community team.

Hope Project

The Hope Project was set up by Dogs Trust 20 years ago to offer help and support to homeless people and their dogs. For many of the people we work with, their dog is their best friend and main companion. Dogs can be a great comfort and support to homeless people at a difficult time in their lives but few homeless people can afford even basic veterinary care for their dogs.

The Hope Project is unique as Dogs Trust is the only charity running a veterinary scheme specifically for dogs whose owners are either street homeless or living in temporary accommodation. We run the scheme in more than 100 towns and cities and we cover a large area of the UK.

My position as veterinary welfare officer is a new role for the project. The charity was getting a lot of requests from homelessness organisations wanting someone to visit their services to talk to their clients with dogs. Now I'm onboard, I go and talk to owners about all sorts of things, from responsible dog ownership to common dog health problems. I can also give their dog a health check and talk to them about anything that's worrying them as regards their animal.

My main priority is to make sure as many dogs as possible are signed up to our veterinary scheme. Once they are registered, their owner can take them to any of the veterinary practices that participate in the project. We work with over 130 vets – private practices and charity-run hospitals and clinics. Our relationship with homelessness organisations and veterinary practices is vital to the scheme as we couldn't run it without their help and support.

One of the hardest things for homeless dog owners is not being able to access support because of their dog. Very few hostels in the UK accept dogs so many people choose to stay with their dog on the streets rather than give them up.

We also work with hostels to help them begin accepting dogs. Part of my role is to visit hostels to offer advice on things like health and safety, hygiene and behaviour. We aim to provide them with as much information, resources and support as we can so that they feel confident enough to start accepting dogs.

London education and community team

My work for the London education and community team is split between going out with the City Dogs team and carrying out microchipping training.

The City Dogs project was initially set up to provide advice and financial assistance to young people with dogs in the Greater London area. Team members also aim to help educate people about so-called ‘status’ dogs. It may have started in the city, but we now work across most of the London boroughs and some parts of Essex, and we will help any dog or owner in need.

We are usually found in parks or housing estates and you can't miss us underneath our bright yellow gazebo. We provide free microchipping to anyone who turns up with their dog on the day. We also issue vouchers for free health checks, vaccinations, flea and worm treatment, and free or low-cost neutering.

We will also give basic dog care, behaviour and veterinary advice. I particularly enjoy being out with the team at our events. No two events are ever the same and we always see a variety of dogs. Although the lovable ‘staffie’ remains ever popular, we are seeing a huge number of toy breeds too, especially chihuahuas.

I find the behaviour aspect of working with dogs increasingly interesting. We are asked about many things from the more common chewing and toilet training problems to dogs with deep-rooted issues, such as separation anxieties. This has given me the opportunity to continue my learning by reading behaviour books and articles and speaking to our in-house behaviourists. I may have little previous knowledge in this area, but I am really interested in it.

The last part of my job involves training council staff, dog wardens, Dogs Trust staff and other kennel staff on how to microchip dogs. With the requirement for compulsory microchipping coming in England in April 2016, we are seeing a great demand for people to be able to microchip dogs. I give a day's course that involves a morning theory session and an afternoon practical session.

My role with Dogs Trust is varied and that is one of the reasons I love it so much. No two days – or even two weeks – are ever the same. I can be in the office one day, chip training the next, visiting a hostel and then out in the park chatting to owners and cuddling their dogs. It can be exhausting but I go home with a smile on my face every day and hopefully so do the owners.

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