readers write
Culture: Readers Write
Mondays with Shelby
Learning life lessons from a special pup

The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in. —Morrie in Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

In September of 2009, my boyfriend of two years passed away. Just days away from talking to our family about our planned engagement, and I was left alone, wondering how I could love again.

Coasting through life on autopilot the first few months after his death, I turned to family, friends and therapy for support as I journeyed through the grieving process. Two years later and doing much better, there are still days when the thought of “starting over” is daunting.

Earlier this year, I met Shelby, a Border Collie who belongs to my friend Al. He’d often shown me pictures of her on his phone but all of these did her no justice. Shelby, who turned 2 in November, instantly wowed me with her energy, vibrant personality and companionability. And we cannot dismiss her charming good looks and black and white coat. Al trained Shelby when she was just a young pup, and she is by far the smartest dog I know.

When I first met her, Shelby was showing off her athleticism and intelligence. We played Frisbee for a few hours at a park, followed by an afternoon swim in a river. It started to rain but she kept on swimming and running as if she didn’t have a worry in the world.

While Al drove home, I spent the whole ride, turned around in the passenger seat, facing Shelby, petting her and letting my mind wander.

All through the week back, I couldn’t stop thinking about Shelby and the smile she put on my face throughout the day I’d constantly ask Al about Shelby, and he’d often email me pictures of her, until one day he offered her therapeutic services.

On a day off from work, Al dropped Shelby off at my apartment in Boston, around 9 in the morning. She ran circles around my kitchen and started to whimper, so I immediately took her outside. We walked to the South End, the most dog-friendly neighborhood in the city, where we played Frisbee at the local dog park and enjoyed treats at a dog bakery.

We met Al for lunch and I couldn’t stop talking about all of the adorable things Shelby did in the morning—the way she hops over the subway grates on the sidewalk; her love for squirrels and the way she approaches them with caution; her fear of sprinklers and water faucets; how she shakes her entire body when you approach her singing her name. Nothing I told him was new material, but I just couldn’t keep my love for her inside.

On our way back to my apartment, we stopped at a local dog boutique on Charles Street, where Shelby tried on various Halloween costumes and admired the selection of cookies and pupcakes.

Back in my apartment, she climbed onto my bed and took a nap. Being a little obsessive-compulsive, I was surprised that I allowed a dog onto my bed. Fur was everywhere (and still is) but it was so irrelevant to the happiness I was feeling.

The next day, I was in an amazing mood and owed it all to Shelby. It was becoming clear to me that this pup put pep in my step and was helping with my healing process.  

I spent the following Monday with Shelby as well, but this time we played soccer in Boston’s Public Garden. Shelby had an audience of adults, children and even other dogs watching her with awe. I felt like a kid again, free-spirited as I kicked around a soccer ball with Shelby. One boy even asked if she could join his school soccer team.

After three hours of play, Shelby was covered in mud so I took her to a do-it-yourself dog spa. I was nervous to give my first dog bath but the groomer showed me the ropes. I gave Shelby a good scrub and was soon covered in soap. She was happy until it came time for the dryer.

Back at my apartment, Shelby got comfortable in her favorite spot on my kitchen floor next to a small, red area rug, all curled up next to her new favorite toy, the iBone. I had to do some work on my laptop, so I called Shelby over to the couch and she immediately came running. With her nose nestled on top of my keys, she began to snooze as I sent a few emails. The day was filled with nothing but smiles, laughter and love.

And so Mondays with Shelby was born, inspired by one of my favorite novels, Tuesdays with Morrie. In the novel, author Mitch Albom spends fourteen Tuesdays with his former Brandeis University sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, who had been diagnosed with ALS. Morrie teaches Mitch about love, life, communication and happiness.

Even though I’ve only spent a few Mondays with Shelby, this magnificent canine companion has taught me similar lessons. Through the tilt of her head when I give her a kiss, the left ear curled over when I tell her she’s amazing or the way she head butts the soccer ball at the park, she is my Morrie. I look forward to spending more Mondays with Shelby, the pup that brought me back to life.

To all dog-lovers out there, have you turned to pup to help you through a crisis?

Culture: Readers Write
Family Dog: Ray & Freckles

At Ray Quesada’s childhood home, there was always room for one more dog. As his daughter, Chrissy Quesada Valentine, tells us, most of the family photos of her father and his sisters include a pooch, usually one they’d found or who had followed them home. Here’s Ray with Freckles in about 1934 on the front porch of the family home in Wilmington, Calif. The inset shows Ray today at 87, visiting with his niece’s dogs, Stitch and Midnite.

Culture: Readers Write
A Poem: Getting Tired
I see it in your eyes and in your walk
I see it in your eyes and your walk, the way you close them more quickly, walk more slowly, the way you insist, even while exhausted, on following me everywhere-- even as I dash around, putting olives, nuts, and homemade caramel corn in the living room, stuffed peppers, corn casserole, and paprika potatoes in the dining room, dishes on the side bar, candles in the lav, as I put out more chairs and relocate your pillows, push your bowls against the counter.   Even after hours of dining, singing, of talking about our goals and ghosts and who we were 300 years ago, even after you rouse from your nap and crawl out from beneath my arm, after walking with our guests to the Magic Tree to lose ourselves for a moment in a million colored lights, even as I struggle to pick up the plates and put away the perishables, You struggle harder.   So I carry you up to bed.   By the time I have brushed my teeth, you are sound asleep against my pillow, with those slightly wheezy exhalations you have sometimes started to make   and I could give a damn about the stiffening food, or parties, or anything.   Today, I am tired, too.  You have less to do as I slow myself down so you will rest, as I stop to sit on the floor beside you, touch your silky peach hair under your homemade blue sweater, as I watch you, curled up and content in your stuffed chair, your eyes half closed, but watching me writing this.   (You are now woofing in your sleep.  I stop this poem to watch and listen, to wonder what you are dreaming.)   My Beecher Boy, I see Barkleigh in you, again. I see him in your sometimes clinginess, the way he was at exactly your age--14.   This week it hit me in the car, as your squeals of delight were a little more piercing. It hit me hard: like Bark, you are loudning to hear yourself better. At some point, this will stop, along with your clear, expressive voice-- and I will need to stomp on the floor and clap my hands to tell you that I’m behind you or in front of you or there at all.    I comfort myself right now only with my unyielding certainty that you, like Boo, are with me forever.    (January 2011)


Culture: Readers Write
Puppies in Poppies
Letter to the Editor

On March 25, 2010, our local police department removed 16 Golden Retrievers from an illegal backyard breeder. The home was filthy and many of the dogs were crated and a mess, physically and psychologically. There were too many dogs for our local shelters to find housing for, so my friends Colleen and Melissa, who have a Cesar Millan-type dog facility, Kings Kastle, took them in.

Two of the females were pregnant and my husband and I offered to foster one of the pregnant mothers. We used to be breeder caretakers for Canine Companions for Independence and had six litters born in our home.

The mama, Lilly, was having her third litter at the age of two and was very malnourished. We had a week to love her and fatten her up. On April 14th and 15th, she delivered five healthy puppies. The last five were stillborn due to her depleted state and she ended up with a Caesarean section for number ten.
v We believed that Lilly and her five puppies were a miracle and we spent the next nine weeks keeping everyone nourished and loved.

This enabled Colleen and Melissa to have time to provide all of the other Goldens with loving homes, plus take care of the four puppies that were delivered by the pregnant Golden they fostered.

Our town really went overboard with donations and help. The local Girl Scouts even raised $800 towards all the dogs getting shots and fixed.

And then this past weekend, Lilly and her five puppies went to permanent homes. I was a little sad yesterday, but today when I was actually able to sleep until 6 am, I knew it was time for all those new families to love them and raise them.

We had some California poppies growing in our yard and my husband was determined to get a picture of the puppies in the poppies. He is not a photographer and does not even know how to download pictures from our little digital camera! Even so, he got this terrific shot!

For more on the story go to the Kings Kastle website. You can see the sweet picture of Lilly cuddling one of her puppies a few hours after her surgery.

-Marybeth Sobecki
Cloverdale, CA

Culture: Readers Write
A poem about a singing dog

Arrayed in black and white

You warm your voice with sumptuous runs

You are a wolfish divo with soft loyal eyes

Breaking into song of brazen impulse

A pitched aria capturing the passion of bliss

  Pleasure flooding your upturned muzzle You are absorbed in letting go Which I do admire But see, the thing is, I’m practicing   Yet inspiration has struck you As you continue your opera buffa Chords from your ancestral forepaws Intercepting amorphous classical tones   Tap tapped by my bow, you watch my stern face closely Your thoughts jumbled between here and the eternal Thwarted in song Tail bowing, you rise To search for your black swan of wolf packs.  

⇒ Listen to Sam, the Tibetan Terrier who inspired "Divo," sing along as Christine Thomas Tsen plays her cello.

Culture: Readers Write
Rescuing Rosie
How I Found My Dog

When we lost a much-loved little Mexican street dog last fall, we began to search the various adoption sites for an adult dog to keep Virgil, our 10-year-old Hound, company. Preferably a mutt; we’re convinced they’re smarter than purebreds. Not too heavy to lift into the sink for baths (we have a horse farm and all our dogs have found horse manure irresistible— to eat and to roll in).

Finding a small grown-up dog in New England wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There were plenty of Lab and Shepherd and Rottie mixes but few lightweights available. Finally,we found and adopted, after extensive paper and phone interviews, a little brown dog from Tennessee.

Ten-year-old Rosie came in a trailer truckload of at least a hundred dogs shipped up from the South to a park-andride beside the highway about 50 miles south of our farm in New Hampshire. Terrified at first, she gradually absorbed the house, barn and acreage as her very own dynasty. She didn’t know much but proved a fast learner. A week to become house-trained. Six more to master walking on a loop leash and simple commands: Come, Sit, Stay, Off! (she is a tireless jumper-up on people and big dogs and, alas, can’t always resist).

Watching Rosie adapt to her new freedom has been enormously rewarding. Apparently, she had been found in a house with several dogs and a corpse, dead five days. She has a deep scar on one shoulder from the dogfights that finally alerted neighbors to call the police. Rescued, she spent her outside hours secured to an overhead run and nights indoors confined to a crate. Other dogs in her foster home were adopted; she remained. Perhaps her looks were not appealing enough.

Yes, she’s somewhat strangely proportioned, but her appearance grows on you. What breed is she? One part bat (the ears), one part anteater (the nose), the rest some sort of Terrier. She runs like a deer, stalks frogs like a heron and rolls wriggling on the grass like a puppy.

Once we were satisfied that she would not run off,we allowed her to accompany us off-leash to the pond, the pastures, the barn. She trolls the horses’ stalls for any tidbit of dropped grain, spends hours paddling around the perimeter of the pond, fascinated by the small plops of water striders, the occasional emergence of a turtle. She walks on stone walls, loves to ride in the golf cart to the vegetable garden, and indoors, migrates from chair to chair to couch—but not to beds, forbidden.

When we took Rosie to the vet for vaccination against Lyme disease, an issue in New England but not a problem in the South, we learned that she has a serious heart murmur. Now she gets a daily pill wrapped in something yummy. And, of course,Virgil also gets something yummy, without a pill. He’s very tolerant of his new companion. In her exuberance, she frequently jumps on him and he never protests. Although he has slowed down from his earlier turbulent years of racing in woods and fields, baying as he went, Rosie inspires him to run to keep up with her. She is our sixth rescue in a line of superior remarkable special outstanding mongrels. Our vet, who has looked after every one of them, tells us that Rosie, despite her ticker, despite her just-visible cataracts, could live another 10 years. But even if she has only this one in paradise, it will be a memorable one.

Culture: Readers Write
Q&A with Katerina Lorenzatos Makris
A two-day writing binge was medicine for one finalist in The Bark’s fiction contest

A flinty old woman searching for a dog at a shelter and finding something more is the central arc of Katerina Lorenzatos Makris’ story “Small Change” (Nov/Dec 2010), which was a finalist in The Bark’s 1st Annual Short Story/Fiction Contest. Any of us who have worked, volunteered or adopted at a shelter know this is a setting for life-changing experiences. We recently asked Makris—who is the author of 17 novels, hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles and Your Adopted Dog with Shelley Frost—what was behind her short story and the role of dogs in her life and her fiction.

  TheBark.com: What inspired this story? Katerina Lorenzatos Makris: In the U.S. and around the world billions of dogs, cats, farmed animals and wild ones suffer in horrifying and unnecessary ways at our hands. It’s overwhelming, and I long for a magic wand to stop it. There’s no such thing. But there are small changes. Groups and individuals in almost every country struggle to help. While we all search for bigger, better answers, my hat’s off to anyone who makes even a bit of effort.   On a more personal level, elder care might be another thing behind this story. I’ve done my share, for both human and canine family members, and know how it is to feel worn out and bereaved. I also know how it is to feel embittered, and to have a dog cajole you out of it. Or to be nearly numbed by life’s knocks, and be brought back to your senses by a dog. They excel at restoration. Their little flames burn away fog. They might have evolved for it. An inert human isn’t going to do them much good. It’s in their interests to pep you up—even when you’re doing your best to avoid it—and get you to explore, play, love, and, of course, eat as often as possible.   Do you have a dog or dogs? My gallant husband and his canine-compulsive wife have rescued over 120 dogs and a few kitties. Some have found other families; some have stayed. We’re at our limit now (hear that, honey? I promise) but I wish we could care for more. So many dogs, so little time!   Have dogs shown up in your novels? You bet. For example, The Five Cat Club (Avon Books) is all about cat and dog rescue. In Crosstown (Avon), a German Shepherd helps see the heroine through. But one of these days, I’d like to do some books with dogs in the lead.   How did you get the idea for “Small Change”? Largely The Bark is to blame.   Back in the summer I’d read about the contest but didn’t have time to give it much thought. In December, while my husband was away visiting his folks for the holidays, I was home alone with too many dogs—three of them active (euphemism) teenagers—feeling tired and a little blue. Maybe the story came along as a bit of self-medication. The Bark had issued a challenge. I’m daunted by short fiction, but giving it a try just two days before the deadline (in between collecting the remains of a dismembered sofa, mopping puddles and interrupting dominance displays) felt daring—my version of a hang-glide.   The phrase “small change” kept rolling around in my head. I just let it. At the last minute my writer pals Shelley Frost, Meera Lester, A. Bronwyn Llewellyn, Brad Schreiber, my husband, and my parents-in-law took the time to read a draft and make invaluable suggestions. I think I sent it in about 11 minutes before the deadline on New Year’s Eve, flipped on the TV for the ball drop, then ran around the living room kissing all the dogs at midnight.    Do you have a favorite dog character in a novel, story, movie or painting? Argos in Homer’s The Odyssey.   Who is your favorite writer? Oh, impossible! Sorry this answer is so long, but gosh… Homer, Lao Tse, Euripides, Socrates, Cicero, St. John the Theologian, Edward Gibbon, G.W.F. Hegel, Thomas Hardy, Abraham Lincoln, Andreas Laskaratos, Anna Sewell, C.P. Cavafy, William Faulkner, Octavio Paz, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker, Tanith Lee, Ursula K. LeGuin, Harriet Doerr, Diana Wynne Jones, Louis de Bernieres, Alan Paton, Alexander McCall Smith, Dana Facaros, Laura Esquivel, Mary Pipher, Sylvia Earle, Karen Dawn, Jonathan Safran Foer... That’s leaving out countless more favorites, such as all my writer friends. So many books, so little time!   Would you mind telling us your age? Seven, in dog years.


Culture: Readers Write
Q&A with Shawn Kobb
Unpublished writer sees ink as a finalist in Bark’s 1st Fiction Contest

“Street Dog,” about a homeless man and a stray dog, is Shawn Kobb’s first published story (Bark, Sep/Oct 2010). Kobb, 33, was one of three finalists in our first fiction contest earlier this year. In his non-writing hours, Kobb is a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, currently living in The Bahamas with his wife and their adopted Doberman puppy, which they adopted during a two-year stint in Ukraine. Kobb recently shared with TheBark.com a little about the real man and dogs who inspired his story.

  TheBark.com: What inspired your story? Shawn Kobb: The story was inspired in part by a homeless man that lived in the neighborhood in Washington, DC that I stayed at last summer while training for my current assignment. I used to see this man almost daily, always sitting in the same spot on the same street as tourists and locals walked by him. He never asked for money, just watched people walk by. At the same time, we have just finished living for two years in Ukraine and stray dogs were a constant problem there. I decided to join up two groups that seemed like they could use each other.   This is my first published piece of fiction and I’ve never entered any other contests. I’ve always been interested in writing and have written several pieces, but I’ve never published any of them before.   Do you have a favorite dog character in a novel, story, movie or painting? I would say one of my favorite dogs in literature is Laika from the graphic novel of the same name. It is the true story of a homeless dog taken from the streets of the former Soviet Union who later became the first dog in space. To be honest, I’ve only ever skimmed the piece, because although it is beautifully illustrated and written, it is too sad for me to make it through. My wife and I adopted a female Doberman puppy while living in Ukraine and she is named Laika in honor of this dog.   Who is your favorite writer? Like many people, I have many favorite writers. Right now, I would go with Dan Simmons. He’s a terrific writer that refuses to stick to one genre. He has great books that are science fiction, historical fiction, horror, suspense, and even non-fiction. His historical fiction The Terror is one of my favorites.


Culture: Readers Write
A Dog by Any Other Name
The science and art of naming your dog or Sometimes, what you say is what you get.

“His name is ‘Baby,’” Helen told me as she stroked her dog’s massive black head. “Baby” weighed in at about 65 pounds, was seven years old and had bitten 13 times. The last bite had been to Helen, when she tried to stop an attack on her disabled son. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about, and one of the topics was her dog’s name. Helen explained to me that Baby had always been “her baby,” and that she did everything she could to make him happy. I countered, as graciously as possible, that Baby wasn’t actually much of a baby anymore. Rather, he was the equivalent of a 50-year-old man living in her house rent-free, not helping with the housework, and getting full-body massages on demand. Half jokingly, half not, I suggested that Helen change the dog’s name to something more fitting of his age and appropriate role within the family.

And that’s when I lost her. As soon as I mentioned changing Baby’s name, Helen’s face snapped shut like a book. Of course, we continued to talk through the appointment, but as I drove away, I guessed I’d never hear from her again, and I didn’t, even after calling her twice and leaving messages. In hindsight, I should’ve waited to talk about her dog’s name. Names are important, so important that Vicki Hearne wrote an entire book —Adam’s Task—about the weight of words in our relationship with dogs. What we call our dogs has meaning, and can have important consequences, both for ourselves and for our dogs.

One of the reasons that names are so important is the effect they have on us when we say them. Calling a male dog “Baby” makes it difficult to think of him as an adult dog, and makes it easy to excuse his behavior—it gives him “puppy privileges” that should’ve expired long ago. Labeling a Rottweiler “Brute” (as did one of my clients) does little to convince the neighborhood that your 85-pound Rottie plays well with Yorkies. Names evoke emotions in us, and those emotions influence our behavior. Since our behavior influences the behavior of our dogs and others around us, a name—all by itself—can have a surprising amount of power.

Emotions evoked by a name can have a profound effect even if you’re not conscious of it. Much of our behavior is driven by the unconscious—just look at the research of psychologist John Bargh, who found that people walk more slowly if you ask them to play word games with phrases that include indicators of age (like the words “wrinkled” and “bingo”). Believe it or not, if you’re named Georgia, you are more likely to move to the state of Georgia than you are to the state of Virginia, and vice versa. (To quote columnist Dave Barry, I am not making this up.) According to David Myers in the book Social Psychology, people’s careers are also affected by their names. Geologists and geophysicists are named George more often than is statistically predictable, and if you’re named Dennis or Denise, you are more likely to go into dentistry than if you’re named Tom or Beverly. Amazing stuff, yes?

Reflect, then, on the impact of naming your dog “Baby” or “Brute.” You say your dog’s name often, and the above-quoted research suggests that the repetition will have an effect. The good news is that the effect can be good as easily as it can be bad. I love spring tulips almost as much as chocolate (okay, not quite), and naming my huge white fluff-ball of a Great Pyrenees “Tulip” was one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. Just saying her name, “Twooooo-lip,” makes me smile. In a joyful swirl of classical conditioning, my love for her and for tulips have become intertwined in the best of ways. Surely Tulip is aware, either consciously or unconsciously, that her name, and thus she herself, make me happy—what a wonderful start to a relationship. Along those same lines, a friend of mine is considering naming her new dog “Sparkle.” After losing four beloved pets in the last year, she is more than ready to add a daily dose of light and joy into her life.
Moving to the other end of the leash, your dog’s name has another and more direct effect on his or her behavior. The structure of a sound—whether it consists of soft vowels or hard consonants for example—has an influence on how your dog responds. Most of us say our dogs’ names because we want their attention; that is, after all, the way we use names in human communication. No matter who it is spoken to, dog or person, “Margaret” means: “Margaret, please pay attention to me at this moment. I would like to communicate with you.”

Thus, it’s useful to know that different types of sounds vary in their ability to get your dog’s attention. If you analyze the acoustics of spoken language, you’ll find that saying hard consonants, such as “k,” “p” and “d,” create what are called “broad-band” sounds, with lots of energy across a range of frequencies. If you were looking at a picture of the word “Kip,” you’d see a vertical spike (the broad band) for the “k” and another for the “p.” Those types of sounds are good at capturing your dog’s attention because they stimulate more acoustic receptor neurons in the brain than do the flatter sounds made by vowels and soft consonants. (That’s one of the reasons that clickers work so well—lots of broad-band sound.)

Thus, if you want your dog’s attention, you’re more likely to get it if she’s named Kip rather than Gwen. Of course, you can train a dog to pay attention to any sound at all if you condition her well enough, so if you want to name your dog Gwen, go right ahead. However, it’s useful, especially in performance events, to be aware of the effect of sound on your dog’s behavior. For example, short names with lots of hard consonants are great for people working dogs in fast-action events, such as agility and herding. The value of a short name is obvious: speed (you don’t want to be singing “Gwennnn-de-lynnnnn” when you’ve got a tenth of a second to get a response out of your dog) and focus (the consonants at either end of a name like Kip help you keep your dog’s attention). Indeed, so many working Border Collies are named “Hope” and “Jed” and “Drift” that conversations about the lineage of some dogs sound like “Who’s on first?” jokes. “Is your new little bitch related to Knox’s Hope?” “No, she’s out of McGregor’s Hope, sired by Jed.” “Is that Glynn-Jones’s Jed?” “No, I mean the Jed owned by….” And on and on. I’ve joked that for every 100 handlers in the sport, there are only 20 names for dogs.

That said, I must add that there’s something satisfying about a two-syllable name; “Pixie,” “Tulip” and “Sparkle” all flow off the tongue in a way that just feels good. I’ve also wondered if, in some cases, two-syllable names can actually help get a dog’s attention, in that the first syllable acts almost as a primer for the second. Perhaps the handiest names are the ones with a lot of flexibility. My forever dog’s name was Luke, but his recall signal was his name said twice: “Luke Luke!” When we were working sheep and the pressure was on, I’d belt out “LUKE!” to bring his attention back to me. In quieter times, if he did something silly, I’d say, in a rising, drawn-out drawl, “Luuuuuu-cas, what are you doing?”

Luke’s name brings up one more thing to think about when you’re naming your dog (and yes, of course you can change a dog’s name if you don’t like the one she came with!). I named Luke’s daughter “Lassie,” not because of the acoustics of the name, but because she came to me as a dog rejected by two people who had missed her potential to be as devoted and responsive as the television star of the same name. But listen to the consequence of that choice—say the names out loud: Luke. Lassie. I gave two dogs in the same household names that start with the same sound, and as hard I tried to keep things clear, it made life a little bit more confusing for the two of them. You can see it for yourself in a video I made, Feeling Outnumbered, in which I tell all my dogs to “Wait” at the door of the car, and then release Lassie by calling her name. If you watch carefully, you can see Luke start to move forward when he hears the “L—,” and then self-correct when the rest of his daughter’s name comes out. Luke and Lassie were so amenable and responsive that my mistake barely mattered, but keep this in mind when you’re naming a new dog. I sure will. Living with humans is confusing enough for dogs, why make it any harder?

In summary, there are several facets of a dog’s name that bear consideration. It’s good to be informed about all of them, but I have to admit: When push comes to shove, I’d vote every time for the name that fit my dog’s personality and that made me happy to say over a name with the “proper” acoustics. It’s good to be aware of all the ways a name can affect your dog’s behavior, but nonetheless, a dog by any other name … will still roll in cow pies.

Culture: Readers Write
Q&A with Don Katnik
Finalist in The Bark’s 1st Annual Short Story/Fiction Contest talks furry muses

A fictional haven called Dog Island is the setting for Don Katnik’s story, “The Stepping-Off Place” (Bark, Summer 2010), which was one of three finalists in our first-ever fiction contest. A wildlife biologist, Katnik shares his 200-year-old home in Maine with his wife Misty and dogs Copper “The Rocket” and Jedzia Dax. Katnik, 44, took a break from writing, home-improvement projects and dancing (ballroom with Misty, free-style with the Jedzia and Copper) to answer a few questions about Dog Island and fictional canines.

  TheBark.com: How did you get the idea for Dog Island? Don Katnik: So often now places advertised as “dog friendly” are really just “dog tolerant.” It is becoming harder to find places where they are truly welcome. Dog Island was inspired by a real island (pictured in the photo) near us that is one of the few places our dogs can be off-leash. Sadly, there are plans to put a marina there, which will ruin it for the dogs. I wish I could buy it and make it a real Dog Island, but I can’t so I wrote a story about the idea instead.   Have dogs shown up in any of your other stories? Yes, usually as characters with roles rather than just props for the humans. In a novel I’m working on, Edge (based on a real-life search and rescue dog) plays a pivotal part in solving a quadruple homicide. One of the first stories I ever wrote was about an elderly man who crashes into a steep, forested ravine. He lingers for three days, then succumbs to his injuries and isn’t found until his canine companion—who refused to leave while his old friend was still alive—goes back up to the road alone. It’s called “Temporary Road” and is based on something that really happened in northeastern Washington.   Have you had your fiction published before? Yes, but I fear short fiction is a dying art.   What sort of dogs are Jedzia and Copper? Spoiled! Jedzia is a Shepherd-Boxer-something mix. She came from an animal shelter in Washington State. Copper is a Golden Retriever, but a little guy. We got him from a rescue organization in Massachussetts.   Do you have a favorite dog character in a novel, story, movie or painting? I love the dog in Andrew Wyeth’s “Master Bedroom” painting (and was even inspired to have a local artist do a knock-off sketch substituting Jedzia on the bed). It’s a pretty fair representation of how she spends much of her time!   Who is your favorite writer? Have to go with Stephen King. I love how he captures life’s little truisms, like in The Body: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, did you?” Simple words, but profound in making you recognize one of the biggest differences between being a grown up versus a kid.   Have you ever entered a fiction contest before? A few, but they were literary contests more interested in prose than plot. I didn’t do well.