Meet Jane Burke, co-founder of Sighthound Strolls

Jane Burke, along with Suzanne Ryan, set up Sighthound Strolls. Their work in creating a better understanding of, and compassion towards, Greyhounds, Lurchers and Whippets is inspiring. Jane lives with her family in Dublin.

Tell me about Sighthound Strolls Jane, what exactly is it, why and how did you set it up? 
Sighthound Strolls is an initiative set up to bring owners of pet sighthounds in Ireland together for group walks, while at the same time promoting them as pets.  In what seems like another lifetime, one before kids, dogs, a massive mortgage and other grown up responsibilities came into our lives, my partner Dan and I took a holiday in the South of France and over a number of dinners where wine was in plentiful supply I convinced him that we needed a dog in our lives!  When we returned we visited our local animal rescue centre and told them we were interested in adopting a dog, possibly an older one or one they were having trouble rehoming.  We were invited to meet a number of lurchers who they were sadly struggling to rehome, we fell for one called Luna and while I didn’t know it then, the seed of Sighthound Strolls was sewn!

What is a Sighthound and why set up an organisation that supports them – what is so special about them?  
The 'sighthound' group includes greyhounds, whippets, salukis, and wolfhounds etc., as well as their breed mixes. When we first adopted Luna we had no idea how these dogs were perceived by many people but we quickly learned!  People would cross the road when they saw us coming, scooping up their dogs and/or their children in the process.  As we minded our own business and Luna walked beautifully on the lead by our side people would shout at us that our dog was vicious and should be muzzled.  We even had people tell us he was ugly. Imagine saying that to someone!  And there I was looking at this beautiful, elegant, graceful creature beside me and wondering what they saw that I didn’t and vice versa.  We look back now and laugh, but at the time I found it very stressful and upsetting and it was made worse by the fact that we knew no one else with a sighthound who could empathise with what we were going through.  A few years went by, we hardened ourselves to the comments and then amazingly we started to get some positive interest and we started to meet the odd person here and there who also had a sighthound and understood our pain! 

I would have been a regular reader of some sighthound forums in the UK at that time and I was always very envious of the events they organised and decided to take the bull by the horns and Sighthound Strolls was born.  The main aim was to bring together other owners for walks, to create a sense of ‘community’ but another strand to it was to try to create a platform where the public could meet loved, happily homed dogs, chat to their owners if they wished and we could begin to dispel some of the myths associated with them – the main ones being that they are vicious, highly strung, need lots of exercise, not safe around children or other dogs – all of which couldn’t be further from the truth.  Anyone who really knows these dogs knows that in the main they are sweet, gentle, playful, good with kids and other dogs, laidback, easygoing and very, very lazy!  They get under your skin and are a huge passion of mine and most of the people who attend our events.

How long has the charity being going and what have been the major milestones (both good and bad)? What are the ups and downs of doing volunteer work such as this?   
We held our first walk in 2011 and haven’t looked back!  I believe we had approx 20 dogs on that walk and I was beside myself with excitement as it became apparent that there were other lovely people out there who chose to share their home with dogs who seemed to stir such feeling in random people on the street!  One of the highlights for both Suzanne and I was our Christmas walk in 2012.  We had upwards of 90 dogs in attendance, all dressed in fancy dress.  It was great fun and the only time I would be brave enough to wear a pair of novelty antlers in public!  It’s great to see the message getting out there.  Most people I speak to seem to have heard what great pets sighthounds make and we have new people signing up to our walks every month. 

I don’t see any better way to drive our message home then by letting people meet the dogs.  They are the stars of the show and with their elegant looks and wonderful personalities they can’t fail to charm!  We also encourage people thinking of adopting a sighthound to come along to our walks to meet owners and ask questions and at the same time we welcome other rescues to come along with dogs they have for rehoming and as a result a number of dogs have been homed through the walks.  Last year we teamed up with Positive Dog Training in Sandyford www. to run an off lead playdate at their training and daycare centre.  It is held every second Saturday between 1pm and 2pm and it’s a great chance for the dogs to socialise and have fun in a safe environment.  A number of people with nervous dogs have found it very helpful for them.  Because a lot of people would know me from running the group, I was often being contacted about a stray sighthound that someone had found so inevitably a natural progression of what we do has led to us helping to rescue and find new homes for a number of sighthounds here in Ireland and the UK.  We take a small number on ourselves who we vaccinate, microchip, spay/neuter and try to find suitable homes for and we also teamed up with Kildare Animal Foundation and work closely and successfully with them to help them rehome their sighthounds.  As they are a mixed breed rescue, they found the sighthounds in their care were often being overlooked.  We are very proud to have helped over 50 sighthounds since we set up and we get regular updates on most of them and see many of them at our events.  At times it can feel like a uphill battle as there are just so many sighthounds needing help and there are still people who don’t believe they make suitable pets but the good outweighs the bad for sure.

In what way is it different from other animal welfare organisations and do you get funding from the State?  
I’m not sure we are any different really!  There are so many dedicated groups plugging away trying to make a difference.  The harsh reality is that Ireland has a poor record when it comes to animal welfare and thousands of young, healthy dogs are euthanised in pounds every year.   Added to that thousands of greyhounds are unaccounted for each year, with many ending up being dumped in pounds where they are euthanised or taken to the vets by their owners where they are euthanised.   Only a very small percentage of the greyhounds that retire from racing are rehomed as pets abroad or in Ireland and this is what we are trying to change.  We don’t get any funding from the State. The great thing about our model is that it doesn’t cost us anything to hold the walks or the off lead playdates so with the support of the walkers and some generous people who have given us their time for free to design things like leaflets and websites we don’t require a lot of money, although endless supplies of it would be nice and would enable us to do a lot more!

Tell me about some of the dogs you have dealt with, any in particular that really stand out in your mind?  

Without sounding cheesy they all have a special place in my heart and as you know yourself, I do love people who have adopted a dog from us to keep us updated on how they are getting on.  I’m sure there are many sighs of ‘not her again’ as they open yet another email from me wondering what Winnie the Pooh ate for breakfast this morning or whether Boots enjoyed his holiday in Kerry!  I guess our most well known dog and one who seems to have a huge fanclub on our Facebook page is a little lurcher pup called Banjo.  Banjo was found by a member of the public wandering around a busy carpark.  He was dirty and skinny, had a broken foot and it soon became apparent that he was completely deaf, not that he let that stand in his way.  He is a funny, fun, happy guy with crazy ears which have a mind of their own and an album dedicated to their brilliance on our Facebook page!

Tell me about a dog that you have right now that is looking for a home Jane
We have a most beautiful greyhound lady called Katie looking for a sofa to call her own at the moment.  She actually celebrated her 7th birthday last week and her foster mum baked her a cake (us sighthound people may or may not be a little bit crazy!)  Katie like all greyhounds is a laidback lass who is most often found on the sofa.  Greyhounds really do spend a huge portion of the day just relaxing and sleeping and Katie is no different.  As you can see her dedication to getting her beauty sleep has resulted in a glowing complexion and bright shiny eyes!  She is very sweet, very happy and will make someone a fantastic and elegant companion.

Now, about you...
What's your day job Jane?  A rather boring admin job that can in no way compete with the glamorous world of dog rescue!

How many dogs do you have of your own and tell us about them?  We have 3 dogs, Luna our lurcher who would like people to know that he is a boy despite the female name, Cocoa the greyhound who is the newest member of our family and is fun giddy and silly (she’d probably be Barbie if she was a doll!) and Wanda the greyhound who is the boss around these here parts and keeps everyone in line.

I know you have young children, do you think it is beneficial for kids to get to know animals when they are young and if so, why?  
I do indeed have young children – a 4 year old, a 2.5 year old and an 8 month old.  I think it is hugely beneficial for children to grow up with animals and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I think it teaches them about things like responsibility, compassion and loyalty and gives them great memories they will hold with them forever.  We have little jobs for our kids to do like helping to feed and groom the dogs and they love being involved.  Obviously I am biased but I feel that sighthounds in particular make great family pets and often fit in well in a busy family.

Who is a person you really admire and why? This can be someone famous or your mum...whoever it is, let's hear about them!  
Hmm, that’s a difficult one.  I admire lots of different people for many different reasons but in the main it would be people who are happy to stand up and be counted rather than sitting back and letting others fight for things they are passionate about.  As a teenager I was rather inspired by the riot grrrl movement and the women associated with that!

What makes your heart nearly to burst with joy?
My kids.  And hearing my favourite songs being played live by the bands I love, especially if that band is The Lemonheads. Oh and the fact that my partner Dan loves baking and allows me to be his No. 1 taste tester!

What irritates the Bejaysus out of you?  
Dan often refers to me as an ‘urban vigilante’ as I get irritated by the little things around me such as people parking cars on footpaths, putting satellite dishes on the front of their houses, putting junk mail in our door even though we have a ‘no junk mail’ sign.  I’ve been known to write a strongly worded letter!  I’m sure I’m coming across as a bundle of laughs here!

Do you have any hobbies or do something that helps you relax?  

I’m afraid between work, the kids and the dog stuff I don’t get a lot of me time.  The usual suspects such as reading, listening to music and going to the cinema.  I used to enjoy cycling, at a fairly leisurely pace not the fast paced lycra clad professional style, before my bike was stolen so would like to reignite that flame when I can afford a new bike.  

What is your favourite:

Film? The Beat that my Heart Skipped, a French thriller by Jacques Audiard.  I adore it, especially the incredible charismatic performance of Romain Duris.

Book?  The Windup Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.  It really captured my imagination when I first read it and is one I have gone back to many times.  In fact, I think its overdue another outing!

Place in the world?  I don’t believe I have one.  There have been times in my life when certain place in the world have felt like the best place at that particular time.  But if you pinned me down I’d have to say the Glastonbury Festival.  I’ve only been once and it was many years ago but I met someone very special there and that meeting hugely influenced the direction my life would take.

Colour? Can I pick two?  Blue and Green, although a nun once told me that ‘blue and green should never be seen’ as she cast a critical eye over my blue and green dress!

Any interesting plans/goals for this year? Personal and/or professional.
  Now that I’m done having children, I feel I can slowly start making plans and goals, I just don’t know what they are yet! A holiday, anywhere, just to be away somewhere, anywhere without any responsibilities for at least a week would be thoroughly welcomed and appreciated!

Find out more about Sighthounds and Sighthounds Strolls by clicking on the links below:
And if you can give a loving home to this gorgeous Katie creature, contact Jane!
Next interview is with Brian Finnegan who just published his second book, Knowing Me, Knowing You

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