Q&A with the creators of the new series
Guess who’s coming to PBS? It’s Martha, the unassuming, loquacious and forthright mutt whose ingestion of alphabet soup turns her into, as one reviewer noted, the “Mr. Ed of the canine world.” Bark recently connected with Susan Meddaugh, Martha’s creator, and Carol Greenwald, WGBH Senior Executive Producer, to learn more about this milestone event.
Bark: Who is Martha? How did you develop this remarkable dog—was there a “bulb going off” moment? Did you immediately run your studio and start sketching?
Susan Meddaugh: Martha was our first dog. She was a stray, a real combo package of breeds. She had been on the street for a while when a friend of ours found her. Actually she found our friend, who was working in her front yard. Martha sat down beside her and refused to move, thereby cleverly forcing her to help her. After all her attempts to find Martha’s home failed (and since she had several cats and no room for a dog), our friend called us.
Martha was so skinny we could see her ribs, plus she had the whole flea population of eastern Massachusetts on her back. We were soon to discover that she wasn’t housebroken, and had a habit of eating the furniture. We wondered whether it had been a good idea to take her home. We named her after our friend Martha, who had been the one to call us, and was therefore responsible for our new addition to the family, however it might work out.
Fortunately, after a while, the essential Martha began to emerge. She was smart, interesting, expressive, opinionated and very drawable. I was writing and illustrating children’s books, and it was obvious that Martha needed a book of her own.
Which leads me to my son, Niko. I had the right occupation, the right child, the right dog and the perfect moment. I had already put Martha in some of my children’s books, usually just slipping her into the background. She had also found her first co-starring role with Helen in The Witches’ Supermarket. But she wasn’t yet talking. My son, seven years old at the time, was sitting at the table eating alphabet soup. Of course, Martha was right next to him, almost in his lap. It was his creative question—“Mom, if Martha-dog ate alphabet soup, would she speak?”—that put all the pieces together. The personality of the dog, plus Niko’s question, immediately suggested a visual image of the soup letters going into Martha’s mouth and up to her brain. Of course, this required a novel approach to the way the brain is connected to the digestive system.
I did not rush to my studio and immediately sketch out the story. This idea was just the beginning of a story, which would go through a couple of versions before it fell into place. The main question after the initial idea was, what would Martha do or say if she had the gift of gab?
B: How much of this was informed by Martha herself?
SM: Obviously, the personality of Martha is completely inspired by the real dog, and the attitude was already there. Martha would let me know what to do with the story. So what would she do, being Martha? She would be opinionated, outspoken—she would speak for the dog, letting people know what dogs are really thinking. But being a dog, she wouldn’t necessarily know when not to say what was on her mind. In Martha’s world, she is still a dog. The only thing unusual about her is her ability to speak. She’s not a person, and she will always see the world through the eyes of a dog.
B: Have you ever heard of children feeding alphabet soup to their dogs, hoping that their dogs would talk too?
SM: I have heard of that happening, but I’ve heard it from adults who mostly are happy that their children are so taken with a story that they would try that. As for the kids, I think it’s just a wonderful possibility, sort of like the children who ask me, “Did Martha really talk?” I can tell they don’t really believe she spoke, but still, they hold on to the sliver of hope that just maybe she did. Also, it’s quite clear in the books and in the TV series that Skits cannot speak, even after many bowls of alphabet soup. So they are forewarned that even the family’s other dog isn’t bilingual, and that so far, there’s only one Martha.
Carol Greenwald: We heard from a public television colleague that when her son was four and a half, he asked to have Martha Speaks read to him, over and over. When they went grocery shopping, he reminded her to get alphabet soup; she began finding unopened cans of soup on the counter, which she put away, thinking she’d left them out by mistake. And then one day she came into the kitchen and saw her son standing with their standard Poodle, his foot holding Martha Speaks open to the page that shows the cross-section of Martha’s brain filled with letters. With one hand, he held up the dog’s earflap, and with the other, he shone a flashlight into the dog’s ear. Then he looked at his mother and said, plaintively, “But how will I know?”
B: What role does Martha have within her family? And can you tell us why you chose to make her young companion a girl rather than a boy?
SM: As I mentioned, Martha and Helen had already been paired in The Witches’ Supermarket. But although Martha’s personality has been evident since the first book, Helen’s character had to be fleshed out for the TV series. Martha will continue to be Martha: Confident, honest, loving, talking and acting before thinking, sometimes wrong but seldom in doubt. She’s learning about the world (and learning some words along the way). Helen is somewhat shy and cautious, a kid who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight, an artist, and the more sensible part of the duo, who tries to pull Martha back when she goes too far. For her part, Martha will push Helen into new situations and adventures that Helen would ordinarily be reluctant to try. It’s a loving relationship of opposites that works for both of them … usually.
CG: WGBH was attracted to the property specifically because it has a female central character. The majority of cartoons and TV shows for young children have boys at the center. We were thrilled to have a girl.
B: The goal of this series is to expand the vocabulary of its audience. How did you go about doing that? How are the words introduced so that the young viewer will understand their meanings?
CG: Surprisingly, first-grade vocabulary knowledge predicts eleventh-grade reading comprehension. So achieving our educational goal is incredibly important to us. People often assume that when you’re talking about teaching young kids vocabulary, you’re talking about words they are learning to read, like “hot,” “cat” and “top.” However, we’re focused on helping kids learn the meanings of more sophisticated words, so that when they begin reading—and particularly when they move from learning to read to reading to learn—they will understand the meaning of what they are reading. It doesn’t matter if you can sound out “aggravate,” “plot” or “custom” if you don’t know what they mean.
We worked closely with a board of academic advisors to figure out how we could use television to build children’s vocabularies. Because the vocabulary gap between at-risk kids and their more advantaged peers is so great, our advisors encouraged us to incorporate as many words as possible. Thus, we are teaching 800 words the first season (through 40 shows). They also confirmed that the best way to teach vocabulary is by providing context, so we are integrating the words and the definitions into the dialog of the stories, supporting them visually whenever possible, not teaching them in isolation. Because repetition is key to learning vocabulary, each of our words is repeated at least five times in the story, and more than that in the paired story (each episode has two stories) and across the series. We work closely with our content director, Dr. Rebecca Silverman from the University of Maryland, to both choose appropriate words and provide age-appropriate definitions.
B: Besides vocabulary building, what other lessons do you hope your viewers come away with?
CG: We have worked hard throughout the series to depict pet ownership in a positive way, to model good owner behavior. We hope viewers will come away with an appreciation for the important role dogs and all pets play in our lives. We also hope, through the series and our national partnerships, to raise awareness for animal shelters and encourage more families to adopt.
B: In one show, Martha finds herself in an animal shelter and sets out to free the other animals. How did that episode come about?
CG: Susan and her late husband, Harry Foster, have always been very supportive of shelters and humane societies, so when we were brainstorming story ideas, we knew we wanted to do a story about a shelter. Our writers loved the idea of Martha finding herself in the pound because it offered a lot of possibilities—a dog’s-eye-view of the experience. And we were particularly sensitive to the idea of encouraging shelter adoptions once we began reading about the surge in shelter pets post-Hurricane Katrina, and now with mortgage foreclosures.
CG: Houghton Mifflin is re-releasing the “classic” Martha Speaks books this fall, with new editions (the hardcover version of the original Martha Speaks book includes an audio version, and the paperback includes stickers), and they will be publishing tie-in books based on some of the TV scripts beginning fall 2009, which will include tips for families on building vocabulary.
As with all PBS KIDS series, there is a wonderful website, pbskids.org/Martha, on which kids can play games and watch short videos of Martha and her friends, and parents, teachers and caregivers can find out more about the series and curriculum and get educational support materials. All of the games are designed to support the educational goal of the series. In addition, a selection of video clips and Martha episodes is available on PBS’s new broadband service (pbskidsgo.org), so kids can watch Martha online.
The series is also supported by educational outreach activities. Public television stations are hosting community events to celebrate the premiere of Martha. Some stations will be launching “reading buddy” programs, which will pair 4th- and 5th-graders with kindergarteners to share books and vocabulary-building activities in the classroom. WGBH is also working closely with the ASPCA, Intermountain Therapy Animals, humane societies, the American Library Association and other groups to encourage local partnerships with public television stations.
Martha Speaks premiered on PBS KIDS on Labor Day, Monday, September 1. Visit Martha online for more.
Sharon Hunt Gerardo realizes her original dream
A mid-life career change is not uncommon. Nor is going back to school to get a second degree. Going back for a fourth degree, however, is more of a rarity, and graduating side by side with your daughter—well, that’s downright extraordinary. This is Sharon Hunt Gerardo’s story. In June, at the age of 51, she received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from UC Davis alongside her 27-year-old daughter, Angelina.
Both women had harbored dreams of becoming veterinarians since childhood. Angelina Gerardo, for her part, never considered another profession. Her father, Mike Gerardo, was a vet with a small animal practice—pocket pets, as he called them—and Angelina grew up steeped in the everyday drama and routine of caring for animals. But Sharon, who in Mike married her high school sweetheart, wasn’t accepted to veterinary school back in the 1980s; instead, she embarked on a career in microbiology. Following her husband’s untimely death in 2000, she started thinking about switching vocations.
By the time Angelina applied to college in 2003, Sharon’s decision was made, and she, too, sent out applications. Angelina thought it was a terrific idea for her mother to become a vet … right up to the day it became clear they’d both been accepted to the prestigious, all-consuming veterinary program at UC Davis. “I was not thrilled at first,” says Angelina. “I didn’t look forward to having classes with my mom every day.” In practice, though, things worked out very well. The two agreed to cultivate different sets of friends, and made arrangements to be in different lab groups. Their similar work habits and pace of learning made them ideal study partners, and in the end, they wound up cramming for many exams together, often over glasses of wine.
Today, Angelina’s veterinary career is well on its way. After joining the Army Veterinary Corps and finishing basic training, she is stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where she spends her days looking after hard-working military dogs and the pets of service members. Sharon, on the other hand, is back at UC Davis pursuing a master’s degree in Preventive Veterinary Medicine (MPVM). A fifth degree, if anyone’s counting, may seem excessive until seen in the context of her past education—she holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC Davis and a PhD in immunology from UCLA—and her years in medical research. Sharon’s career change was less an about-turn and more of a course correction. Sure, in her youthful fancies she was always the hands-on vet, rinsing ears, setting broken limbs, palpating claws and paws, and removing ingested chew toys, but for decades, her passion has been for big-picture stuff. Things like disease control and prevention in whole animal populations—large-scale projects for which the MPVM program is a direct ticket.
The MPVM program is to veterinary medicine what public health is to human medicine. Graduates might work with food safety, livestock health, or wildlife and disease ecology. One current student is investigating a mysterious neurological disease that kills horses and cattle on Easter Island, and a recent graduate has just returned to her native Uganda to work on wildlife conservation. Sharon wants to focus on epidemiology and infectious diseases. Computer modeling particularly appeals to her; this is a technique that allows scientists to calculate the impact of potential outbreaks on ecology and economy, and aids them in the preparation of a response should the worst happen.
What’s the worst? Take the looming specter of mad cow disease. Britain’s mid-1990s epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy devastated the country’s beef industry, from farmers to food manufacturers to restaurants. At least 140 people lost their lives to Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating infected beef, and 4.5 million cattle were destroyed—of those, less than 200,000 were confirmed as infected. The rest were simply old enough to possibly carry the disease agent.
Nothing quite so ruinous has yet befallen the U.S., but outbreaks of one kind or another happen more and more often. Think of recalls of hot dogs or beef patties or frozen chicken pizzas. Of “species jumpers” like bird flu and bovine tuberculosis, or the pet food recall of 2007, still fresh in our memories. As the world grows ever more interconnected, ever more interdependent, anything that ails another country may soon show up in our back yard. People and animals everywhere face the challenges presented by industrialized farming and food processing. So there could hardly a better time for a scientist and researcher like Sharon to return to her original career choice.
To others with dreams of new beginnings she says, “Find a way to make it happen. If it means going back to school, do it. It may not be easy, but it’ll be well worth the time and effort.” Of course, she also recommends enlisting your friends and family for support—as she did so fruitfully herself. Consider this: If one day, in the midst of Sharon’s world-saving efforts, her dogs Annie and Black-Jack or her cats Deco, Prissy and Gracie should need complicated surgery, she can simply call her daughter.
Dog's Life: Humane
An "ah-ha" moment led baseball manager Tony La Russa to establish the Animal Rescue Foundation
Tony La Russa, manager of this year’s World Series champs St. Louis Cardinals, is the only manager of any professional sport who is also a champion to rescue animals. Twenty years ago he and his wife started the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) in Walnut Creek, California, that had its start when a liittle kitty ran out onto a baseball field… A few years ago we published this profile of the man and his shelter:
A great moment in animal rescue history took place in an unlikely venue: the Oakland (California) Coliseum, home of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. In May 1990, the A’s—managed at the time by Tony La Russa—were playing a home game against the New York Yankees when a feral cat ran onto the field. The game came to a halt until La Russa, a lifelong animal advocate, rescued the terrified feline.
After the game, he took her to a local shelter, only to learn she would be euthanized; not a single no-kill facility existed in the East Bay’s Contra Costa county. That discovery got the ball rolling, and it wasn’t long before La Russa and his wife, Elaine, founded Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF). La Russa later said he couldn’t remember whether his team won or lost that night. (For the record, the A’s won, 5 to 1.)
ARF, the first privately funded animal shelter in Northern California, came into being in 1991. Since 2003, it has been housed in a state-of-the-art, 37,700-foot facility in Walnut Creek, California. From this lively and welcoming headquarters, ARF operates a variety of programs, including adoption, dog training and emergency veterinary assistance; it also functions as a national resource center.
Outreach programs focused on students, at-risk youth and the elderly promote humane education and animal welfare. For those who need a breather from the cuddles of dogs and cats, there’s a condo with sports and entertainment memorabilia: a 1988 World Series trophy, autographed shoes from Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neill, a guitar autographed by the Eagles, a Jose Canseco bat signed by (of all people) Joe DiMaggio.
La Russa, a man of action and passion, also has a law degree; (La Russa did not co-author the book but is the main subject of the book) New York Times bestseller, Three Nights in August; and has taken his teams to three World Series. Thanks to the La Russa family’s energy and compassion, more than 20,000 dogs and cats have found loving homes through ARF. It’s about teamwork, La Russa says, which is something that baseball and animal rescue have in common.
La Russa lives in Alamo, California, with his wife, two daughters and 18 rescues—12 cats, 5 and 1 rabbit. He and his family, all of whom are vegetarians (even their dogs are on meat-reduced diets), live by the ARF slogan: People rescuing animals … Animals rescuing people.
For more information visit ARF.net.
Lee Harrington talks to novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell
Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of several books, including American Salvage, a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest novel, Once Upon a River (W.W. Norton), is being hailed as a “dramatic and rhapsodic American odyssey,” with a central character who’s a “female Huckleberry Finn.” We at Bark have a particular affinity for Bonnie, whom we published when she was a relatively unknown writer. Her quirky story “My Dog Roscoe” (in which a woman is convinced her boyfriend has been reincarnated as a stray dog) appeared in our book Dog Is My Co-Pilot, and her comic essay “What My Dog Has Eaten Lately” appeared in Howl, our humor anthology.
Lee Harrington: We all know you are a devoted dog lover. Tell us about some of the dogs who have appeared in your fiction.
Bonnie Jo Campbell: My first story collection, Women & Other Animals, contains two stories that feature dogs prominently. “Old Dogs” is the story of three older women who live in poverty with four older dogs (all named after Shakespearean heroes). My goal was to show how the dogs and women bring comfort and dignity to one another’s difficult lives.
In “The Fishing Dog,” a young woman without resources lives on the river with a difficult man who is much older than she is. Across the river lives a gentler, kinder man, whose dog sits by the river’s edge and hunts for fish. The narrator becomes obsessed with this dog and gradually, by extension, falls in love with the new man.
LH: I understand that this story largely inspired your now-famous novel, Once Upon a River. In the final pages of that book, Margo decides to adopt a recently orphaned dog. What does this say about Margo and her transition from child to adult?
BJC: Margo has always wanted to share her life with one or more dogs, but her situation has never allowed it. Her parents forbade her from adopting a dog while she lived at home, so she hung out with her cousins’ dogs. When she left home to make her way in the world, she was never in a stable enough situation to properly care for a dog. Finally, at the end of the story, Margo knows she is ready to care for someone.
LH: How do you decide to include a dog in a particular scene or story?
BJC: I’m a realist writer, so I try to work with what seems naturally to flow from a situation or a character. Many people need a dog in their lives to make them whole and happy, and that’s true of fictional characters as well. Many of the characters in my stories, especially the women, live their lives entwined with the lives of animals.
LH: In many works of fiction (and in life, actually) dogs are included as accessories or part of the setting rather than as characters. To me, a character is a being who has the capacity to change the direction of the story. Where do you stand on that — dogs as characters vs. accessories?
BJC: Agreed! A dog is generally too powerful a force to pose as mere decoration. I won’t address the misguided real-life situations, but it would be a shame to waste such a potentially active story element. In movies and plays, almost any dog who wanders onstage will steal the show. Of course, it depends upon the story itself — every narrative operates according to its own rules — but in general, we writers should always be looking to where the energy and empathy lie in a story, and a dog is a good place to start.
LH: Your beloved three-legged dog Rebar died a few years ago, and travel and work commitments have kept you from getting another dog. What has your new life as a successful writer and professor been like, sans chien?
BJC: I’ve missed the company of dogs desperately. I’m all over everybody else’s dogs, like a childless auntie who can’t keep her hands off her nieces and nephews. Some of what I wrote about Margo’s longing for a dog in Once Upon a River was what I’ve been feeling. I plan to stop roaming soon and find myself a new canine companion, one who can get along with my two donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, who live on my mom’s farm. Rebar was great around the barnyard, though I didn’t like the way he chewed donkey dung. I still dream about Rebar. The writing life requires a lot of sitting quietly in a room, and that makes a lot more sense when there’s a dog beside you.
Two of college basketball’s top performers see parallels between the game and life with their canine companions
Dogs and basketball may seem like a few bounces off the court of comparison, but Tennessee’s head coach and their All-American player think canines can teach them a lot about the game.
Pat Summitt, the iconic coach of the Lady Vols, now in her 33rd season, and Candace Parker, the 6' 5" sophomore All-American who was one of the youngest players to ever suit up for the USA women’s senior national team this past summer, share more than a love of basketball: They are both devoted to their dogs.
For Summitt, a native of Tennessee, it is Sally Sue (Southerners typically give their dogs two names), and for Parker, who is from Naperville, Ill., it is Fendi. Sally Sue Summitt, as the human Summitt says when speaking of her, is a five-year-old yellow Labrador. Fendi is a one-year-old St. Bernard mix that Parker rescued from an adoption center operated by the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley in Knoxville, a few miles from UT’s campus. Despite her humble beginnings, Fendi is named after an exclusive line of handbags because “she’s high maintenance,” says Parker, a fashion maven off the court.
Summitt, 54, a perfectionist coach who started this season with 913 career wins—the most in NCAA history, men or women—and Parker, 20, a perfectionist player hailed as one who will change the game (and who won a slam-dunk competition against boys while in high school), are both in heavy demand by the national print and broadcast media. But Bark magazine scored a first—neither has ever been interviewed for a dog publication until this fall .
Summitt might accurately be called the alpha dog of the Lady Vols, but she can look to Sally Sue for tips on how to work within a pack. She also draws parallels between training Sally and instilling discipline in her team, though Summitt will give an assist to her son, Tyler Summitt, 16, for teaching Sally.
“Trying to train them to do what you want them to do—that’s a big part of it,” Summitt says of dogs and players. “Of course, I have to give Tyler a lot of credit for training Sally. I’m amazed at how disciplined she is. You figure if you can train a dog to do what you want them to do, you should be able to train a player to do what you want them to do.”
She adds, “Early on, the puppy stages, you have to be patient. If they have an accident, you have to teach them when you’re trying to potty train them. And actually, again, Tyler did a great job. [Sally] only had three accidents.”
For Summitt, patience is an acquired trait. She began coaching at Tennessee at the young age of 22, and—although nobody would say she’s become less intense—she has learned to adjust as both the game and the players have changed. Sally has had a role in Summit’s mellowing out. But the dog also has a competitive streak that was likely learned in the Summitt household, specifically, outside at the pool.
“Tyler taught her to go off the diving board,” Summitt says. “She climbs the ladder like a human. She’s taught me to share because if we’re at the pool, she wants the float. If she beats me to the float, then I let her have it. I have to be competitive to beat her to the float.”
Both Summitt and Parker use the same word to describe their admiration for Sally and Fendi: loyalty.
“They are incredibly loyal,” Summitt says. “Sally is so loyal. They know your moods. She knows when I’m in a good mood. She knows when I don’t feel well—very sensitive and very caring.”
“Loyalty, loyalty to your teammates,” Parker says when asked what specific lesson she has learned from dogs. “My dog Fendi is the most loyal dog ever. She’s always there, no matter what, always happy.” That’s one of the intangibles for dogs and teammates. But there are other qualities that can be measured, such as speed and anticipation.
“We go to the park with my dog,” Parker says. “She is the quickest dog. She can stop on a dime; she can turn on a dime. If I had her quickness … she’s everywhere. She anticipates a lot of things.”
For Parker, anticipation on the basketball court can lead to stealing a pass or beating a defender on a cut to the basket. During those trips to the park in Knoxville, Parker observes that Fendi, while obedient, will also take opportunities to explore her surroundings. “She follows me everywhere I go, she knows commands, but sometimes she goes off on her own, explores things,” Parker says. “So learn from that. You can go off on your own but always come back. She knows I’m always going to be there.”
So how does that translate to the court? Consider the March 2006 Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game. Though Tennessee was the underdog going into the title matchup because their point guard was on the bench with a broken wrist, they made it to the final game against Louisiana State University. With 37 seconds to go at Alltel Arena in North Little Rock, Ark., the Lady Vols were down by one, 62–61.
It took a team effort to get Tennessee that close, as LSU had been favored to run away with the tournament title. But with 17 seconds left in the game, it was time for Parker to go off on her own. The coaches called an isolation play for Parker, and her teammates cleared away from the basket to open up space on the floor and draw the rest of the defense away from the rangy forward. With 17 seconds left, Parker floated in an eight-footer that brought the score to 63–62 and won the game. In the remaining seconds, the team converged and shut down LSU’s attempt to retake the lead. The Tennessee team returned from Arkansas with the tournament trophy; Parker took home the award for most valuable player.
Summitt hadn’t considered the link between dogs and basketball until asked. But once she pondered the questions, she had no trouble drawing comparisons. “If you’re throwing the ball with her or trying to give certain commands, you can tell she’s very in tune, and she anticipates what she’s going to do,” Summitt says—of Sally in this case, not Parker. “I hadn’t thought of it that way because I had been coaching so long when I got her. But I can now that you ask me. I can see a lot of similarities.” They also have another desirable quality: “You know what?” Summit says with a smile; “They don’t talk back. That’s the best thing. They don’t seem to have all the answers.”
Summitt and her players are looking for answers this season. The Lady Vols haven’t won a national title since 1998—a drought by Tennessee standards—and although the 2006–2007 team is talented enough to claim a championship, the players must avoid injury—their nemesis of late—and win with a small pack of 10. And like a group of dogs, they are learning their roles, identifying the leaders and hoping to protect their desired territory, in this case a coveted spot in the 2007 NCAA Women’s Final Four in Cleveland, Ohio, in April.
At least Summitt and Parker know that no matter what happens on the court, their dogs will be happy to see them when they get home.
“Absolutely,” Summitt says. “She hears me before I ever turn down the drive. It’s like she knows my car. She’s right there, excited to see me no matter what. I’ve gotten more attached to her than I probably should. She’s unbelievable—if I come into the house and I’m not feeling well, she won’t leave my side. Anytime I’m going out the door, she wants to go. It’s hard to leave her. She loves to go in the car. She loves to be outside. She likes to play. It’s just fun. It’s fun to go home to Sally and just spend time with her.”
The pressure of playing Division I basketball, performing in the classroom—Parker is a dean’s list student studying business, sports management and communications—and trying to live up to the implicit expectations of being one of the best women’s basketball players ever can wear down even the most grounded person. For a pickup, Parker needs only to go home, where Fendi waits on the other side of the door.
“She definitely lives in the moment, no matter what,” Parker says. “We can learn a lot from them because they are just happy all the time, no matter what is going on. I was telling my mom this the other day. I don’t know where I would be right now if I didn’t have my dog. She sleeps with me every night, and she’s always there when I wake up. She makes me feel a lot better. I don’t know where I would be without her.”
A year ago, we reviewed David Wroblewski’s debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which the author has described as “a boy-andhis- dog story for grown-ups.” A surprise hit of 2008, the book raises intriguing questions about—among other things—the nature of wildness and domestication, and training’s role in that process. Here, we learn more about the author’s perspectives on the subject.
Bark: In the book, Brooks, the animal behaviorist,writes “it would be better to imagine how men might become more suitable for dogs and not the other way around.” Is this your personal belief?
David Wroblewski: Yes.When I look at dogs as a species, I am astonished at how we have changed the wolf genome to suit our own purposes.Humans certainly have not changed much over the centuries. It doesn’t seem like a fair equation.Maybe we have changed dogs too much.
Dog training, done thoughtfully, is our chance to balance that inequity. I think the arc of Edgar’s story illustrates this. There’s an enormous difference between the kind of training Edgar does before he goes into the woods and after he is alone with the dogs. By the end of the book he says, in effect, no more commands. From now on, we— the humans and the dogs—choose what’s right together.
B: Were you always in tune with your dogs?
DW: Growing up around my parents’ breeding kennel in rural Wisconsin, I may have developed a certain ease about reading dogs, their postures and expressions.
But always in tune? Not even close. I’d characterize my relationship with every dog I’ve had as one of perpetual give and take. I haven’t always thought about training the way I do now, as a mutual exchange. After college, I got a puppy and discovered I was really bad at training. So I sent myself back to school, in a sense. I read every book available on dog training.Among them was Vicki Hearne’s Adam’s Task. Her chapter on “How to Say Fetch” is brilliant. It explores the meaning of this one command, but by extension it illustrates everything important about training.
B: In writing from the dogs’ perspective, how did you get inside their heads without anthropomorphizing?
DW: In writing about dogs—in living with dogs—you can’t avoid projecting human experience onto them. Simply to describe a dog’s thoughts or emotions using words means you’ve inadvertently begun anthropomorphizing.Almondine is certainly rendered anthropomorphically. But I tried to make her distinct by giving her a syntax and diction more evocative of the way I imagine dogs experience the world—based in sensory impressions rather than linear thought.
One of the great joys living with dogs is watching how they address a situation you are in jointly—discovering what is attractive to them, what is frightening. Trying to understand makes me feel I am living a fuller life. I get the benefit of their perception.When writing from a dog’s point of view, conveying that sense of expanded experience may be the best you can hope for.
B: The training techniques in Edgar are reminiscent of the Koehler method. On your website you enthusiastically point out Patricia McConnell’s techniques. What is your understanding of the differences in their approaches?
DW: The training techniques portrayed in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle change over the course of the book. Early on, the Sawtelles tend to train along Koehler method lines, which would have been about right for the early 1970s. But as Edgar grows and matures, as his understanding of the dogs and what they are capable of enlarges, and as the dramatic situation changes, he begins to interact with them quite differently. The “training” he does in the latter half of the book more closely resembles contemporary training methods. Toward the end of the book, he comes to a different conception entirely of his relationship with the dogs —he’s questioning the presumption behind all training: that we humans ought always to occupy the role of choice-maker.He’s wondering, I think, if we’re fit to be the vehicle of fate for dogs.
Beyond what seems to me to be obvious differences in philosophy between McConnell and Koehler—that is, McConnell’s clear preference to practice positive-reward and avoid almost exclusively positive-punishment—I think it is difficult to perform any simple compare-contrast exercise. For one thing, theory and practice have progressed since Koehler’s time; he was in part a product of the old days of radical behaviorism, which had detrimental influences not just on training but on all aspects of our attitudes toward animals. Also,my understanding of Koehler and his techniques is mostly received through the lens of Vicki Hearne’s writing. I happen to like the strain of responsibilitytaking that Koehler-seen-through-Hearne advocates; that to shield a dog entirely from negative consequences is patronizing and arguably cruel. Reward-orignore are stunted. It’s okay to insist on certain things if the person and the dog jointly take training as more than an exercise in command and control. Deep in this viewpoint is an insistence on beauty that, as unfashionable as Koehler and Hearne may be today, I can’t help but admire.
I read Patricia McConnell as a product of the movement from academic theory dictated by doctrinaire behaviorism to one more informed by cognitive psychology and neuroscience. I admire how McConnell relates academic research results to the day-to-day project of living with dogs. She’s the best at saying,“ Here’s a published result. I believe the science is sound.Here’s what it may mean about understanding/training your dog, and here’s what we’re still confused about despite/because of that result.” She’s very careful not to oversimplify.
B: Is there a dog in your life?
DW: Lola—she’s a 90-pound lap dog!
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is now available as a trade paperback. For more about the author and his work, visit davidwroblewski.com.
Living in the Boston area, I had the opportunity and pleasure of reading Susan Orlean in the Globe on a regular basis. From there, she went on to her now highly regarded work at The New Yorker and publication of The Orchid Thief (and its subsequent adaptation as the acclaimed film, Adaptation). She has published two collections of her columns as well as collaborated on a number of other projects. Recently, she was guest editor for Best American Essays 2005. Susan Orlean, who continues to exhibit her great command of ingenious reporting and smooth, lucid and often humorous writing in her signature “oddball” pieces, is presently bringing those talents to bear on her latest project, a “biography” of Rin Tin Tin. Susan and I met for the second time (for more about the first, visit identitytheory.com) at a neighborhood coffee shop in South Boston, not far from her downtown loft. We talked about being a New Yorker, The New Yorker, Rin Tin Tin and this and that.
RB: Are you a New Yorker?
SO: I guess I feel un-entitled to call myself a New Yorker. I haven’t lived there quite as long as I lived in Ohio, but close.
RB: Famously, Harold Ross said that “The New Yorker is not for the little old lady from Dubuque [Iowa].” How true is that today?
SO: The little old lady from Dubuque is a very different old lady these days. . . . The world has shrunk and expanded simultaneously. You can be a little old lady living in Dubuque and be completely tuned into what’s going on in every possible way, in the arts, science, politics, everything.
RB: How “New York” is The New Yorker?
SO: That’s an interesting challenge in the magazine, to both acknowledge its origins and its uniqueness in capturing something about New York. Clearly, it’s about the world—New York has become more of a concept. It still has a real connection to New York, but … almost more as what that implies, what the place means to the world as a center of thinking and arts and culture, rather than necessarily a physical place.
RB: How integral is writing the magazine pieces to you?
SO: I love writing for the magazine. I can’t imagine ever not making it an important part of my life, for a variety of reasons—first of all, it’s an association that I am prouder of almost than anything. So it’s important to me emotionally and professionally and sentimentally to be connected to it. Also, there are a million stories I want to write that wouldn’t work as books.
RB: Why aren’t there more venues for the kind of story you write?
SO: I used to talk with Tina Brown about this a lot. Her take on it was the most insightful: The kinds of stories I really want to do and really enjoy doing rely 99 percent on execution and 1 percent on having a good idea—99 percent on pulling it off. Magazines and newspapers, both correctly and unfortunately, fear sending someone off on a story where doing it really well really matters. Tina and I used to talk about this—it was of interest to her and to me. Her feeling was you can take an obvious subject, a profile of Tom Cruise. Even if it’s not done all that well, it’s easy to promote it. It’s easy to draw a number of readers to it because it’s a ready-made. You have certain audience who may finish the piece and say, “It wasn’t very good,” but they are going to read it. You take a piece about a guy who steals orchids—you begin with zero audience.
RB: You have a young child and a dog. Why would you want to move back to Manhattan, or maybe Brooklyn?
SO: I feel like the longer we are away from New York, the harder it is to picture what we’ll do. In downtown Boston, of course, our life is not different in terms of not having a yard. . . .
RB: You’re over in the Fort Point area of Boston?
SO: Yeah. We have a loft in one of those old warehouse buildings, so we are still living a totally urban life. When the dog needs to go out, you put in your coat and go on the elevator and take him out. We go to the country on weekends and there are times when I think, “Boy, this really is a great way to live,” with a lot of space; you [can] let the dog run outside, and there’s room for the baby, so I don’t know. . . .
RB: You are focused on a bio of Rin Tin Tin. Is it correct to say it’s a biography?
SO: I described it that way, tongue in cheek, because it’s a funny thing to say. In fact, it is the story of a popular-culture character that was also a real living being. So there is this whole history of this particular dog and his offspring, [all of whom] continued as a thread through American pop culture.
RB: Why did you do Throw Me a Bone? Was it (co-author) Sally Sampson’s idea?
SO: She suggested it to me, and my involvement in it was writing the head notes. So it was a fairly low-impact involvement.
RB: Sally took the recipes seriously, and the mix of pictures and quotes was entertaining. I loved the Ed Hoagland quote to the effect, ”People want their dogs to be like them, when they should become more like their dogs.” How was it received?
SO: It did well. They are going to put it in a quality paperback edition next Christmas. It’s one of those books that’s a steady seller.
RB: Have you always liked dogs?
SO: I grew up with cats, and then got a dog when I was 13; I [also] got a dog when I was in college, which was an insane thing to do. I had her for 13 years, took a break after she died and then got Cooper. I love animals, and I really love dogs. But they’re an incredible pain in the neck.
RB: So are children [laughs].
SP: Yeah. It’s true, so is everything actually. It’s also a great deal of pleasure and he’s a great dog. And my other dog was wonderful. I like having animals around. It was interesting to not have a dog for that stretch. It was such a strange feeling. I didn’t have to go home after work.
RB: That reminds me of a wonderful song by Meg Hutchinson, where she sings about being one of those people who only stays out for a short while and then goes home to take care of her dog, and that her rolls of film have no humans on them, and other familiar dog-owner behavior. My relationship with my current dog is a lot different than that with previous dogs. I don’t even think of her in terms of “pet.”
SO: Yeah. It’s a funny term.
RB: Could you write this Rin Tin Tin book without having had your own dog?
SO: No, and yet and I think it’s also sometimes attractive to me to do a story about something that’s totally outside my life. You often think of story ideas because there is something in your life that triggers a connection and a thought, so it’s inevitable—I actually like doing stories that are outside my experience. For one thing, part of the appeal of the story is that I want to learn about this. I want to understand this thing that I know nothing about. And secondly, that the journey through learning about it is very much embedded in the way I write the story.
RB: I recall you saying that you can really only work on one thing at a time. Are you not writing other things as you put the Rin Tin Tin story into a book?
SO: I hate working on more than one thing at a time. I find it really tough. Sometimes you have to, but it’s not what I like to do. I feel like I really need to be immersed in a subject or I have trouble feeling what I need to feel to write.
RB: So there is this emotional imperative that’s perhaps implicit, which people don’t normally consider or talk about.
SO: To me it’s essential.
RB: Who was more popular, Rin Tin Tin or Lassie?
SO: A fundamental question, which I have to deal with, and it’s actually sort of funny. It has become a comical sidetrack in the book . . . the people who manage the character licensing of the two animals are very sensitive about it. Even now. But it is really a funny thing—like, who do you prefer? The Rolling Stones or the Beatles?
RB: Were there any other dogs of that stature?
SO: Even after all these years, they are the ur-dog figures. They were serious figures and were embodied differently, but both embodied a notion of American identity that you would never say Benji does. It was also a period of time when Americans were beginning to think about what it meant to be an American. All the ideas of strength and courage and steadfastness, they really were embodied in the two of them. It’s really about an American identity, and also about a time when the country was becoming more and more urban, and our connection to animals became very different and much more atavistic. Much more connected to this memory of a more rural time.
RB: Do you know Mark Derr’s book, A Dog’s History of America? It’s a well-written, anecdotal, sensible account, and in it, he pursues the idea of that country/city switchover.
SO: It was definitely a moment, also the move to the suburbs, where you could have a dog. It became part of a whole life that people were buying and aspiring to, but also a culture that goes from rural to urban. It’s interesting how you start viewing animals differently. They become more precious, in a different way—more emotional than when you are a farmer, for example.
RB: Is there any surprise in this story, for you? Will the story go somewhere that you don’t anticipate?
SO: I hope so. The whole story was so surprising to me to begin with, because I had no idea that this was a real dog with real person with a really interesting history. So there was already a big surprise. Every story I have ever done has had a moment where it turned, where I found myself astonished, and I hope for that.
RB: Recently, Best American Essays 2005, which you guest-edited, was published . How much work was that?
SO: A lot more than it seemed.
RB: [laughs] I thought (series editor) Robert Atwan did all the heavy lifting?
SO: He really does. But also it’s a lot of reading, and it’s hard to make the choices.
RB: He reads a thousand essays, and you read how many?
SO: He gives the editor about 120, in that range. I am going to do Best American Travel Writing 2006. It’s fun to be on the other side once in a while.
RB: It’s encouraging that there are places that keep publishing personal essays.
SO: It’s either very high-end or very handmade. It’s either the New Yorker and The Atlantic, or these much smaller, much more specific journals. Middle-range magazines don’t really have this kind of writing.
RB: Are you noticing what looks to me like renaissance in small literary magazines?
SO: I don’t follow that world that much, but I do think that it feels like that to me. What’s funny is that this is the worst moment for newspapers and newsmagazines. And [yet] these more particular publications—not that they are drawing in advertising, but in terms of having an audience—they seem to be really thriving. I’d rather work for The Drunken Boat than for Time Magazine, to be honest with you.
RB: Do you have any fears about people ceasing to read?
SO: No. That seems like it is never-ending; the form might keep changing in terms of how things are delivered, but what you are talking about is the basic human impulse to communicate. I just don’t see how you could assume that would go away. And there will [always] be people who will want to be communicated to and people who want to do the communicating. What the form will be, who knows?
News: Guest Posts
Biopic wins five Emmys
At the Emmy Awards on Sunday night, the HBO biopic “Temple Grandin” took home five prizes (out of seven nominations), including Outstanding Made-for-Television Movie. Grandin may have been an unknown quantity for many in the audience and readers of the Emmy’s Blog but not here at Bark. We’re big fans of her work, including the book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. It was great to see her feted at the Emmy’s in her signature cowgirl shirt and tie.Grandin’s influence on the lives of animals and people is considerable. By drawing analogies between the thought processes of animals and people with autism including herself, Grandin channeled her unique world view into benefits for others. She designed humane slaughterhouse corrals for cattle and a hug machine to calm hypersensitive people. She is an outspoken advocate for those living with autism. To learn more about how Grandin sees the world, read Claudia Kawczynska’s interview.
News: Guest Posts
Meet Mija, a shelter smiler with a special story
We don’t often write about smilers on the Bark blog. After all they have their own section on the website, their own pages in the magazine, and their own book, Dog Joy (a great holiday gift, by the way). But when we saw and read about Mija, well, we made an exception. Below is the tale of Mija and her pack, direct from Lynda Demke, manager of the Eleanor Sonsini Animal Shelter:
“This is Mija. She is a 13-month-old Terrier mix residing at the Sonsini Animal Shelter in Pittsfield, Mass., awaiting adoption. Mija was found amidst a feral pack of owned dogs. She was born under a sheet of plywood, leaning against a barn, with seven others—all of whom were taken in as five-week-old puppies.
“There were 27 dogs total on the small, rural property. None were spayed or neutered. Living outdoors year-round, they were very shy of humans. All eight puppies (of three litters) were raised in foster homes and adopted—including Mija, who was returned after eight months for difficulties in house training. One very old dog died before the rescue; I adopted the matriarch of the pack; and one young female sadly had a heart attack during her spay and died. The remaining 16 dogs, all too human-shy and feral, were caught, spayed or neutered and vaccinated. They now live together in their original ‘pack’ at the private home of one of my volunteers. In this sanctuary, they will have good food, a warm barn and lots of fenced area to play outdoors for the rest of their lives.”
To learn more about Mija, contact Sonsini Animal Shelter at 413.448.9800.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
North American rescue becomes the Aussie dock diving champ.
In the dog sport world a lot of importance is placed on picking and raising the perfect puppy. With all the focus on champion pedigrees and breeders, it's always refreshing to see a successful dog come from the animal shelter.
So I was excited to see that Joey, a Border Collie/Kelpie/Cattle Dog mix, was recently crowned the Australian dock diving champion at the World Dog Games last month. Originally from That'll Do Border Collie Rescue in Canada, Joey jumped 23.8 feet to break the Australian and British record for dock diving.
Now Joey is a local celebrity and is recognized by fans all over town. He’s certainly come a long way from the shelter where he was once abandoned.
There's no double that there are plenty of talented rescues, yet there aren't many adopted dogs winning national or world competitions. I think this has more to do with top competitors choosing top bloodlines rather than the inability of rescues to reach the highest levels of competition.
What's your take?
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