The Dogs of War, Bonfire Night, and the Incredible Story of Betty Boop!

So who reckons they could spot a ‘Summer Dog’ walking down the street?

Confused? Well in the First World War, cross-breeds were referred to as Summer Dogs because they were made up of ‘Summer This’ and ‘Summer That’. But don’t panic all you pedigree fans, as there were also purebreds recruited to aid warring Britain as well, and they included Border Collies, Airedales, Lurchers, Old English Sheepdogs, and Retrievers.

These British War messenger dogs, trained at a special War Dog Training School down in Shoeburyness, Essex and identified by a scarlet tally or collar, carried vital messages inserted into the tins slung around their necks (see picture); and for this reason it became a grievous offence to stop any dog in the line of duty.

A message dog with a canister
A message dog with a canister

Most dogs sent over to the main military kennels near the front line in Étaples, France, were sourced from Battersea Dogs Home in London; and then as demand grew, from the Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester Dogs homes too.

As further demand even outstripped these ‘suppliers’ an official order went out to all police forces in the UK to send all strays to the War Dog School, and even after this the general public were asked to send in any dogs they were unable to keep properly with the ration system in effect.

This last idea was more successful than originally thought, and many of the general public actually sent in their own dogs.

Dogs under training in Flanders
Dogs under training in Flanders

Sadly it wasn’t just the humans and dogs that were devastated in the Great War. Millions of animals, notably horses and donkeys, as well as homing pigeons, camels and glow-worms, were drafted into service and forfeited their lives for us. They didn’t volunteer – they had no choice.

So this Sunday I will once again be attending the Remembrance Day service for the animals at the Animals’ War Memorial at Brook Gate, Park Lane, on the edge of London’s Hyde Park (nearest tube Marble Arch) at 10.30 am, and I urge you all to join me there.

This moving and unique service is a respectful commemoration of those creatures who were wounded and died in wars and military activity – and unfortunately continue to do so – and people of all denominations and faiths, or none at all, are all very welcome. For more information please visit, and don’t forget to bring your dogs along!

My next story of canine courage and bravery (seems an appropriate theme this month?) is that of ‘Betty Boop’ , the Italian Greyhound I had the great pleasure to meet for the first time when she rolled into my consulting room at Beechwood Vets in Seaford last month.

I say ‘rolled’ because Betty Boop uses a wheelchair. Now the subject of disabled pets, wheelchairs and decision-for-euthanasia always promotes a strong reaction amongst people whether they’re dog-lovers or not, and even then they can be (and usually are) extremely divided.

Walkies on wheels
Walkies on wheels

Personally speaking it’s always been about ‘quality of life’, and when I met Betty Boop and her proud owner Jo, I was hard-pressed to imagine how her life could even have a better ‘quality’, despite her obvious and severe handicap.

When we think about dogs in wheelchairs, most of us automatically picture in our minds tragic old-age German Shepherds suffering from the neurological degenerative disease CDRM (Chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy), but Betty Boop’s reason for her hind-limb paralysis is due to an acutely traumatic incident that happened when she was very young.

On that ill-fated day back in the summer of 2007, owner Jo, accompanied by her loyal pack consisting of two lurchers ‘Bailey’ and ‘Blue’, and Betty Boop, were all out enjoying a lovely picnic in Runnymede, near Windsor – complete with picnic rug, strawberries and cream.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a rabbit appeared and was duly chased by Blue the lurcher, who was in turn chased by Betty Boop – an extremely fast sprinter – and like all sight hounds thoroughly enjoying every split-second of the chase. But neither dog saw the ditch – especially Betty Boop who was purely focused on Blue’s tail bobbing up and down ahead of her.

It all happened not 20 metres from where Jo was standing, and as she watched them both run off, Blue suddenly twisted and leapt into the air mid-gallop whereas Betty just disappeared with nothing but a scream followed by an eerie silence.

Jo arrived expecting the worst. Anxiously she peered over the edge of the ditch and saw Betty Boop lying quivering at the bottom, squashed-up against an iron railing fence the that someone had built inside the ditch.

She had hit the fence full-on and the impact must have been like a car smashing into a brick wall; without even having a chance to brake or even roll onto the soft grass to break her fall. Blinking up at her master Jo, Betty Boop remained calm, and didn’t appear to be in any apparent pain either.

Gently scooping her up in her arms Jo tried to stand her up but her pathetic back legs just crumbled down beneath her, her back-paws knuckling over. Jo knew this was bad and clutching her beloved Betty Boop half-ran – so as not to jolt her anymore than was necessary – back to her car to take her to the nearest vet which, luckily, was just at the end of the road.

Within 15 minutes Betty was being examined by the vet, thoroughly assessing her and confirming the guarded prognosis – strongly recommending euthanasia as top-of-the–list of things to do next.

But Jo’s brain just wasn’t physically able to link the words ‘putting Betty Boop to sleep’ with ‘for the best’ as she lay there in no pain and seemingly no distress either; and she just wanted to give her a chance more than anything – because as long as she wasn’t suffering she couldn’t see the harm in waiting a bit longer?

The vet asked Jo to say goodbye to Betty, to leave for the night and they would send her to the very excellent Royal Veterinary College in London first thing the next morning (if she made it through the night of course).

Betty Boop lay on a dusty board on the floor of the surgery looking confused so Jo lay down next to her and talked to her, not even sure if she would ever see her again, and telling her all the things she wanted her to know. Like all Jo’s dogs, Betty Boop was very much part of the family so it was her responsibility to do the right thing for her dog; and right now that thing was to give her a chance, and that her gut reaction would tell her if and when she had had enough.

But try as she might, Jo couldn’t bring herself to leave her so waited out in the car park instead. Sat comfortably in her big jeep well-stocked with drinking water and dog beds, every 20 mins or so Jo would go back in and check on her. After an hour or so the duty vets got so fed up with her that they decided to find an on-call veterinary neurosurgeon that they could send them both along to that night.

So less than two hours after the accident, The Jo, Betty Boop, Blue & Bailey Show were off on the road again; but this time in search of the Holy Grail of veterinary practices: Fitzpatrick Referrals in Surrey.

Practice owner, pioneering surgeon and über-vet (and good friend) Noel Fitzpatrick was expecting them, coming out to greet them as soon as they arrived. After taking fresh X-rays euthanasia was once again discussed purely on the grounds of Betty Boop’s future quality of life but as none of the possible negative long-term effects were actually guaranteed (she wouldn’t cope, Jo wouldn’t cope, she’d get depressed, etc) Jo asked Noel to at least try to put her together so they could see how she did.

Pre-op X-rays
Pre-op X-rays
Post-op Xrays
Post-op Xrays

Noel suggested that Jo stroke Betty Boop and tell her she loved her while he gave her some sedation, and later admitted that he wanted her to do that as he believed her spinal cord would be so badly severed when he looked inside and he would have to let her go – then at least Jo would’ve had a proper chance to say goodbye.

Performing the reconstructive surgery then and there – on the very day of the accident – Noel eventually finished operating at 1.30am. Her spinal cord, he reported, wasn’t severed after all, and he had managed to cement and pin her back together. What’s more she was now waking up and seemed to be doing ok.

It was the start of Jo and Betty Boop’s journey of rehabilitation; neither one of them, I bet, expecting they would ever know how rewarding and inspirational it would become. And via spiritual healers, acupuncturists, hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, electro-pad muscle stimulants, as well as spinal stem cell research programmes and even a few neuroskeletal realignment massage treatments, Betty Boop and Jo ended up in my consulting room, just for her yearly booster, and what a moving and awe-inspiring double-act they are!

Betty's swimming cap
Betty's swimming cap

Now Betty Boop’s quality of life is fantastic. She’s out every morning chasing rabbits, cornering on one wheel, and is so full of fun making everyone laugh with her antics; and all because Jo believed (and still believes) in only doing what’s best for her. But that’s not the end of the story.

Because Jo and Betty Boop have applied to join the Pets as Therapy programme with the incredibly touching foresight of visiting local children’s hospitals to inspire disabled children and to give them hope too. Jo and Betty Boop are also going to be joining me on a few of my school visits, the first of which is this week and I’ll be reporting back about how it went next month; and if you’d like to watch Betty Boop running around in her wheelchair click here.

Other news now, and this weekend also sees the nation celebrating once more the unsuccessful attempt of a terrorist group’s second-in-command to blow up our beautiful Palace of Westminster.

It always strikes me as a strange event to celebrate but pyro-pioneer Mr Brock who created it seemed to do rather well out of Mr Guy Fawkes!

You’ll all know only too well our country’s annual Bonfire Night shenanigans usually prove to be an intensely stressful nightmare for our dogs with a few bouts of extreme fear and panic thrown in for good measure. Not only do they get scared but many will suffer needless and sometimes fatal injuries; so here are a few handy hints for you and your dog if you’re spending your first Guy Fawkes Night together.

Ideally, you should move your dogs to a safe, calm and quiet environment, preferably indoors where possible or other shelter e.g. shed, conservatory, garage – making sure it’s both fume-free and well-ventilated.

Play some gentle music and give your dog their favourite treats as it will help to keep their minds off things – but don’t be shocked if they appear to have lost their appetite.

Try to keep outside windows and doors firmly shut to prevent escapes in case dogs are startled by loud bangs and try to run away. However if they do manage to escape, please make sure they are identifiable – there really is no better time to get your dog microchipped than right now.

If your dog is particularly nervous then please contact your vet about the many possible ‘calming methods’ available, including clever pheromone sprays and tranquilizer drugs (mild sedatives) which can offer help. These drugs will take the edge off their anxiety by temporarily and most importantly safely sedating them.

Why not even buy hand-held cascading fireworks instead of noisy ones? By keeping your dog safely indoors it doesn’t mean that cats or other wild animals will not be affected so please always check bonfires before lighting them to ensure that no small animals (e.g. hedgehogs) are curled-up asleep inside.

The rest of November’s obvious highlight is of course Discover Dogs at (and for the first time) Earls Court 1. This annual canine extravaganza is such a great place for all dog-lovers to meet and chat about all the different breeds, rescue dogs and of course enjoy all the shopping and doggy displays too.

I’ll be there both days interviewing members of the prospective-puppy purchasing public about ‘Choosing a Dog’ so please come over and say ‘Hi’. Discover Dogs is on 14th & 15th November, for more info click here.

Finally, at the end of November, I’m off to the Amazon to volunteer with the very exciting-looking charity Amazon Cares. I’ll tell you more about what I’ll be doing with them next month but for further info please visit

So see you next month and don’t forget you can keep right upto date by following me on twitter at

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3 replies

  1. Wow Betty Boop is gorgeous and so brave (as are all those wonderful animals who helped out during the war). Sorry I’m too far away to make the memorial, it sounds lovely.

    You’re going to the amazon!!! WOW.

  2. For all the brave animals that served in all wars I have the utmost respect and admiration.Unfortunately I live too far away to attend the memorial but my thoughts will be with you all.
    Betty Boop is a very insperational dog and as for her owner Jo I would like to say a big thank youfor giving Betty Boop the chance to show how she can addapt to a new way of living.
    The bond between pet and owner is so strong that you just have to go with your gutt feeling.Thankfully it’s usually the right thing to do.

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