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Pug of love story: Why nothing beats hugs from our dogs

Ahead of a walk to raise cash for a pug charity, Julie Neill and other fans of the breed tell Una Brankin what makes their pets so special.

To Julie Neill, Pog is much more than a snuffling bundle of black fur with a comical wrinkly face. For the chunky little pug was instrumental in the Bangor woman's recovery from not one – but three – brain haemorrhages in 2010.

Four years on, Pog will join Julie (45) in a sponsored walk in Bangor on Sunday to raise funds for the Pug Dog Welfare & Rescue Association, a charity that helps protect these valuable pooches, which are prime targets for illegal puppy breeding farms.

But while Pog came at a hefty price tag of between £600-£800, he is priceless to Julie.

"I was bending down to tie my son Philip's shoe-laces when an aneurysm burst in my brain," she recalls. "It was the most awful pain in my head; it lasted ages.

"When I got into hospital for emergency surgery they found two more ready to burst, so I had to have three operations in one year. I was very nearly a goner – I was in hospital the first time for nine days.

"The second one was a hair's breadth away from my optic nerve so I would have been left blind or dead. They operated through my groin to get to my brain – it's an unbelievable type of surgery."

Julie is one of the one-third that survive a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a form of stroke which can lead to severe disability, even when recognised and treated at an early stage. Some 10–15% of casualties die before reaching a hospital.

To help with her recovery, Julie's father Adrian Lightbody, also from Bangor, bought her the pug she's always wanted.

"We had an old Staffordshire who wasn't going to last and dad saw an ad for pugs in Portadown," she says.

"There were four of them and Pog came over to me and that was that. He has been so therapeutic for me; they're a really lovely breed of dog to have for company.

"He had a calming effect on me – after the haemorrhage, I wasn't able to walk and I was off work for six months. Your body goes into shock. In fact, my mum had to move in to my home to look after me.

"But once I got Pog I started bringing him out for little walks and began to feel better, and after a while I thought he needed a friend, so we got Roxy from an ad on Gumtree.

"They're like the odd couple – he's crazy and outgoing; she's very calm and patient and floats about the place. They're just great company. Put it like this, I wouldn't be without a pug for the rest of my life."

Julie lives with her son Philip (14) and partner Stephen. She still has to attend hospital for scans but she has made such a good recovery she's now in training for the Belfast Half Marathon.

Her rehabilitation was further helped by joining the Belfast Pug Club, started by Brazilian/Italian Cintia Garland (41) in July 2012.

Club members meet for monthly 'pug-nics' in various parks, and at the community hall in Bangor.

It's a bit like a mothers-and-babies club – the pugs might be not as cute as newborns and toddlers, but they're cuddly and affectionate. They do wheeze, snort, expel wind and snore loudly, but – unlike infants – they're not yappy.

And when I bring up the obvious 'pug ugly' reference, there's no offence taken – beauty is in the eye of the pug-holder in this case.

"In our meet-ups on Sunday afternoons, our pugs can play together and carers have a chat and enjoy an afternoon together," says Cintia. "We take photos and share stories about our pug pooches, and we also support a charity for local pet shelters and the Ananda Marga school in Lusaka, Zambia."

Cintia has two pugs, a three-year-old fawn female called Sheba, and a black male called Dusky, who's seven.

She fell in love with the breed after seeing a television programme about them in her native Brazil 20 years ago.

She bought her pugs through the internet when she moved to Belfast with her Dublin-born husband Sean to work as a hotel reservations agent.

"They are so affectionate and tame, you can't help but love them," she says.

"We don't have any children but Dusky and Sheba are like kids, in a way.

"Dusky's very sensitive and quiet and Sheba's the opposite – very bossy. They'll eat anything but we have to be careful because they have sensitive stomachs. We have to buy hypoallergenic food for them, though thankfully it's not too expensive.

"Pugs that live a mostly sedentary life can be prone to obesity, though you can avoid that with regular exercise and a healthy diet.

"The biggest problem is that they shed a lot of hair – a good Hoover is very necessary."

Pugs have an average life-span of 12 to 15 years. Since they lack longer snouts and have prominent brows, they are susceptible to eye injuries like scratched corneas.

They also have compact breathing passageways, leaving many prone to breathing difficulties or unable to efficiently regulate their temperature through panting.

Cintia says: "We have to watch their body temperatures carefully. A pug's temperature can rise to 105F (41C), which means their oxygen demand is greatly increased and we have to cool them off immediately.

"They can suffer organ failure if their body temperature reaches 108F (42C). We have ours minded when we travel because their breathing problems can be worsened by the stresses of travelling in air cargo, due to the high temperatures. Many airlines banned pugs' transport in cargo because some of them died."

The Belfast Pug Club's Facebook page is full of happy pictures of the pugs and their adoring owners at parties for Christmas, Halloween and the doggies' birthdays.

Club member Jacqui Robinson's one-eyed pug Audrey features prominently. She was found abandoned on a Belfast street, almost completely blind.

"We've another one who was used as a stud for breeding and then thrown out on the street in Banbridge when they'd finished with him," says Jacqui, from Bangor.

"These puppy farms have become far more prevalent because pugs are trendy at the minute – they're all over the TV and in ads for this and that, so they can fetch a good price.

"You also get people cross-breeding them with beagles, for instance, to make 'puggles'. They don't know what they're doing; they're experimenting.

"The Pug Dog Welfare & Rescue Association do all they can and have strict rules on welfare, rescue and rehoming but no profits are made and everyone gives their time and talents freely. That's why we'd really like as much support as possible for our sponsored walk on Sunday."

The pug's name is thought to come from the Latin word for fist because its face resembles a human fist. Audrey has a particularly wrinkled one.

"She always making us laugh," says Jacqui. "Pugs are clowns at heart, but they carry themselves with dignity. They are playful dogs, ready and able for games, but they like to keep close to their owners. They love to be the centre of attention and hate being ignored.

"All the pugs at the club get on well together. They're very laid back around each other. The only time there was a squabble was when a terrier came along to one of our meet-ups and created havoc.

"Pugs are happy and affectionate, and loyal and charming. They are very intelligent but they can be wilful, which makes training challenging. They can be good watchdogs, too, even though they're not be yappy.

"Because they are a small, quiet breed and are relatively inactive when indoors, they are a good choice for apartment dwellers.

"Audrey loves to get out for walks but because of her flat shape face, she does not do well in extremely hot or cold weather, so we keep her indoors at the height of summer and winter. But she's be coming out for the walk on Sunday – rain or shine!"

The Belfast Pug Club will be walking from Marquis Hall, Castle Park, in Bangor to the Town Hall in Bangor to help raise funds for the UK Pug Dog Welfare and Rescue Association UK. A charity draw will take place after the walk.

Check neill2 and BelfastPugClub

Stars who think they're pawsome

  • The late Robin Williams was a dog lover and had a pug named Leonard Bean, who was adopted from the Curly Tail Rescue Centre in New York, and was regularly featured on the comedian's Twitter account. "I have a gay rescue pug called Leonard, who I take for walks, because I am very secure in my sexuality," the actor once said. "He has a boyfriend and they are planning to adopt a Siamese kitten together. We're very modern."
  • Jonathan Ross has an obese pug called Mr Pickles who sleeps in his bedroom
  • Kelly Osbourne's pug wears designer jackets and fits in her handbag
  • Mickey Rourke has a pug called Raphael that he admits to spoiling like a child
  • Kelly Brook always has a toy on hand for her pug pooch to play with
  • Socialite Paris Hilton keeps a pug along with an army of miniature dogs
  • Actress Jessica Alba takes her huge pug shopping in Hollywood

A favourite with William of Orange

  • Originally bred in China as lap dogs, the pug became the official dog of the House of Orange after one of the little dogs reportedly saved the life of William, Prince of Orange, by warning that the Spaniards were approaching in 1572. When William of Orange (later William III) went to England in 1688 with his wife, Mary II, to take the throne from James II, they brought their pugs with them
  • The famous 18th century artist William Hogarth was a pug enthusiast. He portrayed a black pug and many others in his famous paintings. In 1785, Goya also portrayed pugs in his paintings
  • Marie Antoinette had a pug named Mops before she married Louis XVI at the age of 15. Another famous Frenchwoman, Josephine Bonaparte, had a pug named Fortune. Before she married Napoleon Bonaparte, she was confined at Les Carmes prison. Since her beloved pug was the only visitor she was allowed, she would conceal messages in his collar to take to her family

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