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Who will be crowned top dog? Heart-warming stories about the bond between people and their pets

After being whittled down to the final quintet, Stephanie Bell meets the canines whose bravery, intelligence, hard work and loyalty are to be rewarded in a brand new competition.

Meet the bravest and hardest working dogs in Northern Ireland. These five family pets are the province's cutest canines as chosen in a new competition and are now all vying for the title of Northern Ireland's Top Dog - with the chance to win a luxury doggy holiday in Scotland.

The search to find the province's most deserving tail-waggers was launched last month by Visit Scotland and Stena Line, with dozens of pet lovers putting their pooches forward for consideration.

It will now be up to the public to choose the overall winner.

<< To vote for your favourite click here >>

Each of the top five has a compelling story to tell, ranging from their own personal tragedy, to bravely helping their owners and the wider community.

With more online searches last year for "pet-friendly accommodation" than "romantic accommodation" on the Visit Scotland website, and Northern Ireland boasting the highest rate of dog ownership in the UK, the organisers decided that a doggy holiday to Scotland was the perfect prize.

Each finalist will receive a dog goody bag, courtesy of Stena Line and VisitScotland, worth £50 and the overall winner will receive return ferry travel for a family of four - and their dog - on-board Stena Line.

This fantastic prize will also include an exclusive VIP on-board experience and three nights stay at the Trigony House Hotel located in Dumfries and Galloway. Ahead of the public vote lines opening the Belfast Telegraph had the exclusive pleasure of meeting our top five dogs and hearing just why they deserve some special pampering.

'Floyd has helped me cope with losing my dad ... and  given a warm welcome to  baby Evie'

Floyd, an eight-year-old Jack Russell, is a much loved family pet from Belfast who had a canine catastrophe earlier this year. At the start of the year he was enjoying his favourite game dunking for rocks on the Co Down coast when he was stung by a swarm of hundreds of jellyfish.

The intense pain left him foaming at the mouth and he had to be rushed to the vet, where he was treated with pain relief and antihistamines.

Fortunately, after a short period of rest he made a full recovery.

It has been an eventful year for Floyd, who also welcomed a new addition to the family in April, when baby Evie came along. Even though his life was turned upside down with the new arrival, he loved the baby from the start.

Floyd lives with Jayne and Simon Bailie and little Evie, who is now four months old.

In June the family also experienced the trauma of losing Jayne's dad and, even though Floyd has obviously missed him, he has also been sensitive to everyone's hurt and provided great emotional support, with licks and cuddles every day.

Jayne (35), a school teacher, and Simon (34), a sales executive, have had him since he was a puppy.

It was Jayne who had taken him to one of his favourite spots, Brompton Pier, to go rock dunking when she very quickly realised Floyd was in trouble.

"He just loves jumping off the pier and into the water to look for rocks, and that day he ran ahead of us as usual," she says.

"When we got there, people were shouting to get the dog out of the water and when I looked down there were hundreds of jellyfish everywhere.

"Floyd got himself out of the water but was foaming at the mouth and rolling around on the ground. It was quite scary. He couldn't walk properly and his back legs were giving away on him. We carried him to the car and my mum held him while I drove to the vets. He was crying and panting in pain.

"The vet treated him and luckily he was back to normal about a week later. Although, emotionally, it took its toll as it was some weeks before he would jump into the water again. Thankfully, he is now back dunking for rocks again."

Any concerns Jayne had about Floyd adapting to a baby in the house were soon overcome when her gentle pet took to little Evie from the moment she came home.

"We were concerned because he had been the baby in the house, but he has been great with her and won't budge from the front door to go for a walk unless she is coming, too," she says.

The loss of her dad Jackie Mount (67) from cancer in July, five months after his diagnosis, was a terrible shock for all the family.

Jayne says her dad was the only person Floyd obeyed and he still misses him while giving everyone else comfort.

"We've all been upset and he has given us great support. He is a great wee dog and we've all been through a lot this year," she adds.

"You tend to forget that he has, too - which is why I entered him for the competition. I'm very proud of him and would love it if he won."

'Becky has raised £5,000 for charity over the years' 

Becky is a 10-year-old mongrel who is a hard-working "Pets as Therapy" dog in her home community of Bangor.

For the past eight years, Becky has become a regular and most welcome visitor to a local EMI unit and a residential home. She has also raised a serious amount of money for the charity and accompanies her "mum" Margaret McKnight when she gives talks to raise awareness about Pets as Therapy.

Disaster struck Becky last year when she ruptured her right cruciate ligament and had to have major surgery. She had just got back on her paws when, six months later, she ruptured her left cruciate and faced another operation.

Just as she was recovering from this surgery, the vet discovered that she had a leaking pancreas which is being managed now with a low fat diet and medication. Despite what she has been through, she is back visiting at Sumerhill Residential Home and bringing joy to the residents.

With three big operations, it's been a hard year for Becky but she keeps on wagging her tail and spreading happiness around. Becky is no stranger to being recognised for her special qualities.

She made history in 2013 when she became the first mongrel ever to win the new Crufts category UK's Best Mongrel Dog.

This led to an offer of a lead role as Sandy in a production of Annie in the Grand Opera House, where she made her stage debut working alongside 240 young people.

And all this from a puppy that was abandoned on the side of the River Lagan.

Her proud mum Margaret explains: "Becky was one of a litter of puppies found abandoned on the Lagan and rescued by Assisi Animal Sanctuary. I've had her since she was a small puppy.

"She has always given something back. She works so hard for the charity and as a pet therapy dog.

"She goes into the centres and residential homes and greets everyone in the room, she is a real professional and gets the conversations going and gives everyone cuddles.

"She is a people-orientated animal and loves hugs and attention."

Margaret (63), a retired school teacher, animal lover and co-ordinator of the charity Pets as Therapy, is thrilled that Becky has been chosen as one of Northern Ireland's top dogs.

She says: "She is such a hard working dog and I reckon she has raised £5,000 for charity over the years. She has been through a tough year with her health, but has bounced back and will be doing nine talks with me between now and Christmas for Pets as Therapy.

"I know everybody's dog is special, but Becky has brought so much joy to everyone, it would be great for her to be able to go to Scotland for a three-day holiday. I am so chuffed she has got this far."

'Before we got Jack, life for the family was very difficult ... he's our guardian angel'

Three-year-old Jack, a golden retriever from Carnmoney in Co Antrim, is an Autism Assistance Service Dog for five-year-old Zach McFall.

In the past year-and-a-half, Jack has not only transformed the quality of life for young Zach but also for his whole family - mum Jenni (34), a legal secretary, dad Michael (35), an IT specialist, and younger brother Caleb (13 months).

He is a hard working dog and a much loved family pet.

Young Zach was diagnosed at the age of two with non-verbal autism and has significant learning difficulties.

Jack joined the family to help Zach through his life, to improve his independence and help build his confidence.

He is trained in autism awareness and also to respond to Zach's needs. The youngster has no awareness of danger and struggles with everyday situations such as bright lights, loud noises and sensory situations.

Incredibly, Jack senses danger before Zach and is trained to anchor the child's body, preventing him from running onto roads or stumbling into a dangerous situation.

Also, if Zach becomes distressed Jack will push his body up against him offering the sensory input the five-year-old needs to feel safe and calm.

Mum Jenni describes Jack as the family's 'guardian angel' who has helped transform their lives.

"We had Googled to see if there was anything that might help Zach and discovered the charity Northern Ireland Assistance Dogs who were training five dogs in autism awareness," she says.

"We applied on the off chance that we might be lucky and 18 months later we were selected.

"We got Jack in January 2014. The way it works is this; he is tethered to Zach and when you put his coat on he goes into work mode.

"Zach has no concept of danger at all, but Jack is trained to sense anything which could be a potential threat to Zach. Again, he will anchor Zach and stop him from moving as he is bigger than him.

"Also, when we go out and there are lights or noise, which Zach can't cope with, Jack offers him the support he needs.

"Before we got Jack, life was very difficult. We couldn't go out to normal places like a shopping centre or restaurant because Zach would become distressed.

"The difference Jack has made to our lives is like night and day. We can do anything now as a family - and we even went on holiday this year.

"When you take Jack's coat off he knows he is not doing a job anymore and just becomes our pet. He is a big part of our family and very lovable.

"We did not expect to get this far in the competition, but Jack so deserves it.

"We always say he is our guardian angel who was sent to us. He has given Zach so much more confidence and independence - it would be out of this world if he won."

'We thought Jet was dead and couldn't have survived the fall'

Jet is a six-year-old labrador from Belfast, who is a true wonder dog. In June, while enjoying a walk along the Causeway Coast at Port Noon, he plunged 70 foot off a cliff.

Jet lay motionless on an outcrop of rocks hidden from view while his owners launched a frantic search.

Coleraine and Ballycastle Coastguard Rescue teams joined the hunt and it was some hours before the pooch in peril was finally located and rescued.

Incredibly, Jet survived, although he sustained two broken legs and a broken rib and has had to undergo surgery three times.

He had his third operation just last week and is still with the vet recovering.

Jet's owner is 23-year-old trainee solicitor Rory Eakin, whose parents Pat and Donald were walking him at the time he fell.

Rory's mum Pat will never forget the horror of realising Jet had gone over the cliff edge. She says: "We had walked along the coast and were on our way back when Jet ran ahead around a bend. We heard two yelps and when we turned the corner he wasn't there.

"We started looking for him and realised quite quickly that he must have fallen off the cliff. We lay down and peered over the edge but there was no sign of him.

"We really thought he was dead and couldn't have survived it."

The couple searched alone for two hours before help arrived, and it was several hours before Jet was finally rescued and immediately rushed to a nearby vet who X-rayed him and discovered his broken bones.

It has been a long road to recovery for Jet and just last week he appeared to develop problems with one of his legs. It was discovered that the pin which had been inserted during surgery had become dislodged and he had to undergo another operation from which he is still recovering.

Pat says: "He now has an external metal rod on his leg. After everything he has been through he is in great form and the vet described him as stoic, and he is. He never whimpered and is such a placid animal."

Jet loves the outdoors and, unfortunately, has been unable to enjoy long walks for several weeks as he waits for the broken bones to mend.

Pat adds: "He is a very lucky dog and he has had a 'ruff' time and we are delighted that he has been chosen as one of Northern Ireland's top dogs. He really deserves a holiday after everything he has been through."

'Ivy is my best friend and asks for nothing in return'

Six-year-old labrador Ivy is a loyal guide dog to her owner, Vicky (38) from Larne, who lost her sight six years ago due to diabetes.

Everything that was familiar to Vicky changed after the devastation of losing her sight and life as she knew it stopped, until Ivy came along.

Frightened to go out on her own, Vicky, a former nurse who had to give up her job when she lost her vision, has enjoyed a new lease of life with Ivy, and now the duo are both hard working volunteers and fundraisers for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Ivy and Vicky have been together for four-and-a-half years. The proud owner has also suffered kidney complications due to her diabetes and is now on the transplant list.

Ivy takes her to all of her hospital appointments and Vicky says: "My life would be empty without her."

Vicky also had to give up her home and move back to living with her mum when she became registered blind six years ago.

She says: "It's devastating and, not even the fact that you have lost your sight, but everything else that goes with it. You lose your independence and your confidence. I had to leave work and move back home, and all the little things you take for granted go.

"Suddenly, you have to learn a new way of living and it's like starting again. Before I got Ivy, I wasn't going out.

"Ivy not only guides me and keeps me safe, but she keeps me upbeat and active. She takes me to all my hospital appointments and gives me the best reason to keep fighting. She is my best friend and asks for nothing in return. She is so hard working, loving and loyal.

"She has given me my confidence back and now we volunteer with the Guide Dogs for the Blind charity. She comes with me when I speak to groups and help fundraising.

"My health has improved since I got Ivy. My kidney function is now so low I am on the transplant list, but I have, so far, been able to avoid dialysis and I believe that is due to Ivy keeping me active.

"She is so sweet and cuddly and has a real wee cheeky personality, as well. When she is working, though, she is totally focused.

"I can't believe she got to be one of the top five dogs - she totally deserves it.

"She is a winner to me and I believe she does deserve a lovely holiday to relax and have fun because she is a true hero."

Belfast Telegraph


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