When Julia Hamilton rescued an abused Akita who later died from the injuries inflicted on him, she was desperate to do something to prevent another dog from suffering in the same way.
That’s when she discovered Blue Cross, and signed up to become a volunteer with our Education Team to teach children how to care for and stay safe around dogs.
These talks in schools and youth groups are an integral part of our charity’s work; we hope that by reaching the youngsters of today with our pet welfare messaging, we can encourage a behaviour change across an entire generation – and ensure every pet has a happy home.
Julia, who has been a Blue Cross volunteer for more than eight years, said: “My rescue Akita was only 16 months old when I had to have him put to sleep; he had broken elbows before I got him and he then developed a very rare genetic syndrome due to stress, which left him blind and unable to walk. He had been kicked about really badly. I was just left thinking about what I could do to help.
“I looked online and found Blue Cross, and came across this role. I thought it looked interesting and worthwhile, and I, of course, love dogs, so thought I’d give it a go. And here I am, eight years later.”
Up until six months ago, Julia would take a life-sized stuffed toy dog along to her talks to help demonstrate to her audiences how to approach a dog - but now, she's instead joined by her 14-and-a-half stone St Bernard.
Three-year-old Billy Boo qualified as a canine education volunteer after undergoing a series of assessments, and he has been a huge hit with the children he has met so far.
He is one of 46 four-legged volunteers of this kind who help deliver education talks and, in many cases, are also responsible for children overcoming their fear of dogs.
“As soon as I got Billy as a puppy I decided that I’d like to train him to join me on the talks, as I had already been a volunteer for quite a few years. So I just started taking him everywhere, to give him the most experiences he could possibly have.
"We’d go on buses, trains and he just met so many people and I could see that his temperament was so good; he just loves everybody and everything. I knew he would be a perfect candidate.”
It took three years, and plenty of intensive training, to get Billy ready to be a Blue Cross representative but the hard work paid off as Julia says he is “brilliant” at his job.
“He’s totally different in the schools than he is at home. He knows when he needs to be in work mode and is so calm around the children,” said Julia.
And Billy's popularity was very much apparent on a recent visit to a primary school near to his home in Lancashire.
As he stood on stage in front of the morning assembly at Northern Primary School in Bacup, children of all ages between four and 11 looked on in awe as Julia delivered her talk on how to care for and stay safe around dogs.
After talking about Billy and the origins of his breed, Julia highlighted the welfare needs of pets and how to make sure they remain happy and healthy. She then showed the pupils illustrations portraying various dog body languages, so that they could understand when one was happy or scared and therefore whether or not to consider approaching them.
Some eager volunteers then joined the duo on stage to help demonstrate how to greet a dog in the right way, with Billy dutifully assisting.
The talk even inspired one little boy to become a dog trainer.
What did the children think?
Patrick, 10: “It was really good. I learnt that when a dog goes on its belly you shouldn’t approach, and not to touch a dog on the top of its head.”
Mia, 10: “It taught me how to be around dogs.”
Reece, 11: “It was good because we learnt how and when to approach a dog."
Year 3 teacher, Zoe Stott, said that the talk was really informative and engaging for the children. She added: "As soon as the assembly finished, children in the school were asking when Julia and Billy Boo would return. The whole assembly was fast-paced and informative and we can't wait to have the duo back at Northern Primary School."
In 2017 we reached more than 95,500 young people through 2,553 talks of this kind and, while Blue Cross does it’s best to help young people avoid any danger around dogs, irresponsible dog owners sadly do remain out there and so we teach children during how to protect themselves should the very worse happen.
We also educate parents’ groups at schools so that they know how to prevent any worrying situations.
“All of the talks are fantastic in their own way and it’s extremely rewarding to be able to help like this,” said Julia following the assembly.
“Recently, I went to a nursery and the children were so tiny but loved Billy. They were amazed and they actually went on to raise money for Blue Cross.”
Often, though, the talks can have a far deeper impact and can completely change youngsters’ perspective on dogs.
“I find it quite interesting how different children can have a different take on animals,” said Julia. “For those that don’t like pets, I like trying to change their mind and make them see that animals are a good part of society and are friendly. Some children are absolutely terrified in some of the schools I go to. That’s why Billy is so good in that particular case scenario.”
But in at least one case, Julia and Billy’s talk has completely transformed a child’s life.
Julia explained: “There’s an autistic child at one of the schools that I go to and they always let him come out of the class at the end to see Billy. As soon as he sees Billy he’s really calm, he absolutely loves him.
“And actually, he really wanted a dog but his parents were reluctant to get one as they were concerned that the child might be a little rough. But they were persuaded to get a puppy after seeing what he was like with Billy.
“It’s made a huge difference to his life; the teaching assistant there said that he is a lot calmer than he was and he interacts a lot better with her so I was really pleased.
“At that school I was even asked if Billy could become the ‘school dog’ and go in every day, as he has such a calming, positive influence on children.”
Teachers have told us how having Julia and Billy in their school really has made such a difference, children have learnt an awful lot and they have been amazed at how some children have been so inspired. A young boy who met Billy recently told his teacher he now wanted to be a dog trainer!” Blue Cross Education Officer, Paul Hodson
Blue Cross Education Officer Paul Hodson said: “Julia has been a wonderful volunteer for Blue Cross for many years and has met with thousands of children helping them to understand the importance of looking after their pets and staying safe.
"From when Billy Boo first arrived as a puppy three years ago Julia had always wanted to take him into school to support her visits and in October last year that dream became a reality.
“Julia has put such a lot of hard work into training Billy and often has to get up very early in the morning to make sure he is looking his best before meeting the children but what an impact he makes!
Teachers have told us how having Julia and Billy in their school really has made such a difference, children have learnt an awful lot and they have been amazed at how some children have been so inspired. A young boy who met Billy recently told his teacher he now wanted to be a dog trainer!”