Q&A with Maria Goodavage author of Doctor Dogs

By Susan Tasaki, December 2019
Doctor Dogs by Maria Goodavage

Photo by Laura Altair Hanson

In conversation with a writer whose focus on working dogs has contributed mightily to our understanding of the canine skill set and how it’s harnessed for our benefit.

Bark: In the course of researching Doctor Dogs, did you learn anything that surprised you?

Maria Goodavage: Yes, almost every day! Like when I saw a dog detecting ovarian cancer in a single drop of blood plasma that had been diluted with one drop of saline; the test drop was taken from this mixture. That blew me away, and gave me even more respect for the incredible training that goes into something like this, and for dogs’ phenomenal sense of smell. This dog’s paycheck? She got to choose her favorite from a box of doggy toys!

I was also surprised to learn that cats have been known to detect disease in their people. These were untrained cats who just did this on their own. Freelance kitties. Because cats are, well, cats. I devote at least a couple of fun footnotes to felines! (It’s a pretty safe bet, though, that my next book will not be called Clinician Cats.)

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BK: What was it about the subject that drew you to it? 

MG: Doctor Dogs was a natural segue from my previous books about working dogs. Military working dogs and Secret Service dogs rely on their noses and their bonds with their handlers to do their work. They keep bad guys and bombs away by virtue of their incredible olfaction and how well their handlers know them, and how much the dogs know, trust and like their handlers. The work doctor dogs do relies on these as well, only they’re sniffing for disease and medical conditions.

The big draw for me initially was when I learned about dogs detecting ovarian cancer at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. Ovarian cancer seems to run in my family; sadly, my amazing mother died of it. The fact that these dogs were detecting it as early as stage 1 was fascinating and so hopeful. I loved the idea that our best friends might one day lead to early diagnosis of this and other cancers that are usually detected too late.

BK: Your focus on working dogs has brought you face-to-face with many heart-rending scenarios. We assume they affect you emotionally; how do you deal with that?

MG: What an insightful question! I try to be a pro while interviewing people with these heartbreaking stories. I have deep empathy for those who tell them, and tears can well up, but I’m usually able to blink them back. It’s when I’m by myself, especially when I’m writing, that their full weight lands squarely on my heart and soul.

Since I like to write at night, I’m usually alone when this happens. I don’t keep it in. I think that’s helpful. And being so close to the raw feelings seems to help me write the stories in a way that wouldn’t happen if I were more emotionally detached.

It also helps to get out in nature. I like to take Gus (or before Gus, Jake) on big off-leash coastal hikes in beautiful natural settings, where the heaviness usually lifts. In addition, I’ve taken up taiko drumming at San Francisco Taiko Dojo, and it’s a great release of stress. Everything is focused on the task at hand, and for two hours, I lose myself in the challenging and exhilarating work. Afterward, it’s like I’ve rebooted.

BK: What are you and Gus up to these days?

MG: He seems very glad I’m done with all the travel that researching Doctor Dogs required; it took me away for a total of at least five months within an 18-month period. And at this point, I’m also done with most of the traveling for book publicity. He’s home with my husband while I’m gone, so it’s not like he’s in a boarding kennel, but I think he would still like to lock the door to the suitcase closet and throw away the key, since I’m definitely “his person.” I love being able to spend time with him. These days, when we’re not enjoying the great outdoors, he can be found curled at my feet as I start stitching together the threads of my possible next project. (Gus has his own page on Goodavage’s website—check it out!) Read our review of Goodavage's book here.