Belfast Telegraph

If only I knew then what I know now

By Frances Burscough

I've been invited to appear on a chat show. It's for BBC Radio Ulster and the presenter, Vinny Hurrell, will be asking about my life, my choices and what I wish I'd known when I was 25.

So I've been casting my mind back far, far away to 1988 and in retrospect, it really was one humdinger of a year for many reasons. I moved to Liverpool; I bought my first house; I passed my driving test; I got a top job working as a fashion designer for Marks & Spencer and I got married. But within weeks of 1989, we had packed up and left everything behind us for a brand new start in Belfast and the rest, as they say, is history.

So there certainly will be plenty for me to talk about on the night and I'll save most of the salacious details for Vinny. But there is something I'd like to share with you which came to my mind when I was reminiscing.

One thing I wish I'd realised when I was 25 was my love of dogs. Now this may seem strange to any of you who have loved dogs all your lives, but I generally did not know this about myself until I was 40-years-old and bought our first dog, Bailey. Before then I'd been nervous around them. My grandma had two fluffy wee things that used to snap at my heels and that was my only close experience of dogs for the first half of my life. They nipped and scratched and yapped loudly. They would wee on my favourite shoes and they shed hairs everywhere that made me sneeze. Dogs were a messy, noisy annoyance, end of.

And that's the way it stayed. Even after I had two boys both of whom were desperate to get I dog, I resisted for those reasons.

But when I was aged 40 I was getting divorced and needed something to distract my boys from the trauma of separation from their dad. I finally gave in. We chose a Bichon Frise because they don't shed hairs or irritate allergies. If he'd had a label it would say 'Easy care/Hypo-allergenic/A Perfect First Pet'. And he was, in every way. Within hours of bringing him home and seeing how much joy he had brought along with him, my mind was changed forever. From that day onwards my love of dogs - all dogs - flourished from nowhere. What a revelation it was!

I discovered that I couldn't walk past a dog without stopping to say hello, patting him on the head and asking all about him. I became fascinated with all the different breeds and cross breeds, about their history, their behaviour, their personalities and their skills. We decided to get another, not just to keep Bailey company but to satisfy my new-found love of dogs. The boys and I spent ages researching what type of dog would be a compatible companion for him and us, that would suit our lifestyle and fit in with our routines. So we chose our next dog, Heidi, a Miniature Schnauzer because they too were hypo-allergenic, with a friendly calm temperament, sociable character and a love of children.

By this stage my sons and I were totally absorbed by dogs in general and our two in particular. Our favourite TV programmes were The Dog Whisperer, It's Me or the Dog, Best in Show and Crufts; we built up a small library about dog behaviour and I even wrote a book (as yet unpublished) all about the subject. I had started dating again by that stage and one of the first thing I asked of anyone was "Do you like dogs?" If it was a no, then it went no further. Later I founded a webpage called DogBlog, I taught myself how to make miniature dog figures using needle felting and also took up portrait painting again - portraits of dogs that is. And now to top it all I am working part time as a volunteer at a dog shelter. Just imagine if I had never questioned how I felt at 25-years-old and had remained afraid of dogs ever after. My middle-aged life would be so different and half of my hobbies and interests would never have materialised.

And the latest news on the canine front is that my youngest dog, Walter, and our wee Heidi have successfully mated and we're now awaiting the patter of tiny paws. I'm so excited. But that's another story for another Weekend...

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