Why Sussex-based TV broadcaster Katie Derham plays her dog 'whale music' to calm his nerves

Haywards Heath, UK. 14 October, 2021.
Katie Derham with her dog Sunny at her Sussex home near Haywa

Katie Derham with Sunny at her Sussex home - Credit: Jim Holden

TV and radio broadcaster Katie Derham, 51, lives in Horsted Keynes, near Haywards Heath in West Sussex, with husband John Vincent, their two daughters, Eleanor, 19, and Natasha, 15, and 12-year-old Sunny, a golden retriever

‘When we decided to get a puppy, we went along to a breeder who opened the door with the most perfectly coiffed hair in the style of early Maggie Thatcher. The house was very smart and completely kitted out for puppies so everything smelt of Dettol. We chose Sunny because he had the smiliest face.

My husband John had a retriever when he was a little boy so we knew that was definitely the dog.  

We’d been sent to that breeder by our neighbours, Nick and Carol, who were about to get a retriever puppy. We got Sunny and they picked Finn, his half-brothers with the same father.

John and Sunny hit it off instantly. We’ve always said that John’s spirit animal would be a golden retriever: enthusiastic, affectionate, a bit chaotic, noisy, and jumps up and down a lot. John speaks retriever and that’s how they interact.  

Katie Derham with her dog Sunny at her Sussex home near Haywards Heath

Katie Derham loves Sunny as he reminds her of her husband. Picture by Jim Holden - Credit: Jim Holden

As Sunny grew, I realised he was getting quite big and while I gave him plenty of cuddles, I wasn’t as rough-and-tumble with him as John. Sunny’s 12 now and they’re so close. I think it’s because they’re so similar.  

We used to call John ‘binary boy’ as he only had two modes: sleep or running. Sunny’s identical, and I love him so much because he’s so like my husband.  

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John is Sunny’s master. It riles Sunny if John wants to give me a hug when I get in from work. Sunny gets very upset and jumps up a lot because he thinks John should give him all his attention. 

Sunny is very sweet with me, though. I love him to bits, and he’s definitely the family dog, but he does love his dad.   

Sunny’s basically a large soft toy. Lovely, smelly and a bit of an escape artist from time to time 

Sunny’s basically a large soft toy. Lovely, smelly and a bit of an escape artist from time to time. He gets so muddy on a walk and then suddenly he’s clean and I’ll think “hmmm, where did all the mud go?”  

We glammed him up for today’s photoshoot with Sussex Life. There’s a great groomer in the Cinder Hill Estate but mostly it tends to be a home-grown affair.   

Katie Derham with her dog Sunny at her Sussex home near Haywards Heath

Katie Derham says her dog Sunny is a big teddy bear and occasional escape artist - Credit: Jim Holden

For the last five years I’ve been running a lot and until this year Sunny was my companion. We took him to the vet because we weren’t sure why he was slowing down so much. We discovered he’s got very stiff arthritis in his paws.  

We both miss doing that together. He still gets so excited when I put my trainers on, so now I change my shoes outside so he doesn’t see.   

Instead, we’ll hang out in the evenings, in front of the TV. He wants to be close whatever you’re watching.  

Sunny hates thunder and literally wants to be held. He shakes and is so desperate to get into our bed, we have to stroke him, and then keep one hand on him just to calm him down.  

We were so desperate once we used a channel for calming dogs. It sounded like whale music but Sunny was transfixed 

We were so desperate once that we tried a YouTube channel which was for calming dogs. It sounded like whale music and he was transfixed by that. 

Talking Dog  

I talk to Sunny all the time. I’m not quite sure what he’s saying back. When our girls were small, they loved the film Up about a dog with a magic collar so that he could speak.  In the middle of a sensible conversation, the dog would suddenly go ‘squirrel’. Eleanor, our youngest daughter, was desperate for Sunny to have a magic collar, although he would just have been saying ‘squirrel’. 

Katie Derham running after her dog Sunny at her Sussex home near Haywards Heath

Katie Derham used to love running with her dog Sunny at her Sussex home near Haywards Heath - Credit: Jim Holden

Sunny has a girlfriend – a border terrier called Olive who hates all other dogs except him. Sunny and Olive are the Romeo and Juliet of the Sussex canine scene, but he’s not extremely loyal. 

He’s been extremely amorous with visiting dogs and pretty indiscriminate. Sometimes I look and say: ‘Seriously, Sunny, seriously, that dog is not interested - it’s far too small and, also, it’s another boy. 

In lockdown, I downloaded the ordinance survey app and we discovered so many lovely loops for walking. The Birch Grove Estate has amazing ponds and beyond the Bluebell Railway, up to Highbrook, you almost get into Pennine-style country with sheep and stone walls.   

We love walking with Sunny to Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex, but my favourite is between Horsted Keynes and Danehill for the wonderful variety of terrain. 

Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex, never gets boring but my favourite is between Horsted Keynes and Danehill, for the wonderful variety of terrain. Sunny’s just happy to be out. I hesitate to say it, because people have shoots round here, but he loves chasing a pheasant. 

He’s so laid back. Our two girls are his big sisters. That poor dog has had to endure bonnets, outfits, everything. His expression is hilarious. He’s like ‘yes, I’m wearing a funny hat, yes, I know it’s Christmas antlers.’ 

He thinks we’re complete pushovers. He’s a naughty beggar. We’re quite strict while we’re actually eating, while he looks longingly at us, but everybody caves in massively with any leftovers. 

Sunny just sort of does his own thing really, he pootles around, and has a nice life. We leave the door open and if he’s finished all the snacks here, he’ll go down to Nick and Carol’s house.  

He barks fiercely at all the people he knows terribly well when they come in. Then he rolls over for a tickle. 

Kirstie’s 7 fascinating facts about Sunny 

Katie Derham with her dog Sunny at her Sussex home near Haywards Heath

Katie Derham fell in love with her dog Sunny as soon as she got him 12 years ago - Credit: Jim Holden

For a retriever, he’s not very good at retrieving. We throw a lot of balls for him to run after but then he sits with them in his mouth looking at you. 

He’s a good dog and he does come when he’s called if it’s important. 

He chases squirrels. He never catches them but he has that wonderful optimism. 

Our vet is Oathall, in Haywards Heath. 

He’s called Sunny because our three-year-old daughter said he was yellow like the sun. 

There’s a very nice coffee shop in Lindfield, Coffee Works, and The Griffin in Fletching who don’t mind you taking a dog – it’s not that local but our favourite. 

Sunny chooses the muddiest moment to be on the cleanest floor. 

What Katie's up to  

Just the Tonic with Katie Derham, a podcast series, has just launched. It’s all about the transformative power of music and I wanted to shine a spotlight on all the good works that are going on in terms of social prescribing and the different ways that music can help you.