Sassafras Lowrey, author of the recently released Chew This Journal, was recently interviewed by Zazie Todd, PhD for Companion Animal Psychology and she was also featured in an article for The Seattle Pet Collective.
“Chew This Journal really came out of a desire to support people having more fun with their dogs and to make everyday interactions as enriching as possible.”
By Zazie Todd, PhD.
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Sassafras Lowrey’s Chew This Journal: An Activity Book for You and Your Dog is part activity guide and part bullet journal, with a bucket list of activities and challenges for you and your dog. I spoke to Sassafras about hir book (for which I had the honour of writing the foreword!), all the different kinds of activities, and the importance of being an advocate for your dog.
Chew This Journal is out now on Kindle and will be published in paperback on 15th December.
Zazie: Why did you decide to write Chew This Journal?
Sassafras: Chew This Journal really came out of a desire to support people having more fun with their dogs and to make everyday interactions as enriching as possible. I wanted to bring together a lot of the activities that I love to do with my dogs and that I’ve found are really helpful for other people as well, both in terms of building confidence, building engagement with challenging dogs, that kind of thing. So for me it was really about helping people to have a structured way to implement enrichment, because it can feel very overwhelming, especially if it’s not something you’ve really spent any time thinking about.
Zazie: You divide the book into different sections of different kinds of activities. Can you give some examples of the types of activity you’ve included in the book?
Sassafras: The book’s divided into a variety of sections which are really about there being something for everybody and for every dog. Things like arts and crafts activities, both arts and crafts that you’re helping your dog to do like paw print art as well as more trick-driven crafts where you’re actually teaching the dog to draw holding a marker in their mouth. So there’s crafts to trick-based activities that can translate into sports like parkour or agility. As well, there are activities you can do on your walks like really thinking about how dogs are seeing the world through their nose. So scent-based games, how to add enrichment into walks that you’re already taking without needing to have equipment, so letting your dog lead the way through documenting what your dog is up to. So there’s really something for dogs of all sizes and all ages.
Zazie: I think that’s one of the things that I really love about it, that you’ve thought about which activities are appropriate for which kind of dog. That is something that you did in Tricks in the City as well. How do you go about deciding what kind of activities will be appropriate for particular dogs?
Sassafras: I like to try to give an array of options. I really try to highlight and focus on low-impact activities and tricks. There are very few things in the book that most people would consider high impact and I try to really highlight those when they do show up. In terms of how to identify what’s most appropriate for different dogs, I try to highlight things that off the bat you don’t want to do with a young puppy or you probably don’t want to do with a senior dog, depending on their accessibility. But beyond that I really try to make sure that folks are thinking about it for themselves. They know their dog best, being in consultation with their veterinarian, to make a decision for themselves about what is best for their dog. Because it’s not something that, from the page, I can dictate that ‘this is great for every dog.’ That said, I try to be as aware as possible of what that looks like. For me I’ve had a Chihuahua who just passed this year, and I have a Newfoundland, so I’ve had pretty much as extreme of a size range as you can have. My Newfoundland also had both of her knees reconstructed and we worked with a sports medicine vet, so I‘m really thoughtful about health and safety and not encouraging people to do wild and crazy things.
Zazie: Of all the activities in the book, which one is your favourite and which one is Sirius’s favourite?
Sassafras: My favourite would probably be one of the challenges. There are different challenges in the book. Probably the paws up challenge is one of my favourites. I love it. What that looks like is, for 30 days it’s the goal to find something new every day for your dog to put their front paws up on. That can be on the couch, that can be in your neighbourhood, that can be on your walks. Everything from a rock to a tree stump to a bench. I really like it as a confidence-building game. For dogs who haven’t done this before or who you’re thinking about doing sports like agility with or really tricks anything, I really love that game because I think it’s challenging and it makes it exciting. We go on walks and I incorporate it into my daily life. We found a trampoline on somebody’s trash pile yesterday. That was a very exciting dog walk find.
I think Sirius’s favourite would probably be where we teach the trick orbit, where the dog goes backwards in a circle around the handler. It’s her absolute favourite trick. If she could do it all day long she probably would. So that’s maybe her favourite and I definitely thought of her when I put that in the book.
Zazie: That’s lovely. In order to do the activities in the book, people don’t actually need very much do they, apart from lots of dog treats?
Sassafras: No, you don’t need a lot of equipment, you don’t need lots of supplies. I lived in New York City for a long time with dogs and so I’m really sensitive that not everybody has a ton of time or a ton of space or a lot of disposable income to spend on getting a whole lot of trick props or dog exercise equipment. That’s just not in everybody’s lifestyle and that’s totally okay. You don’t need any of that stuff to do enriching things with your dog. All you need is your dog, some treats, and a leash if you’ve leaving your house.
Zazie: It’s really nice and accessible like that. You also have a section on advocacy. Why is it so important to be an advocate for your dog? When do you have to be an advocate for Sirius?
Sassafras: I think being an advocate for your dog is one of the most important things we can do regardless of who your dog is, what their needs might or might not be. I got really good at telling people no and learning how to advocate with my late dog Charlotte who the book’s dedicated to. She was a former street dog who went on to become a trick dog champion. An amazing dog, but also a very, very, very challenging dog. She was very reactive, she had lots of fears and anxieties and challenges in the world and so to help keep her safe I became her advocate everywhere in New York City to keep as much space around her as she needed from other dogs and things. So that really taught me in a lot of ways. I’ve been in dogs and dog sports for a long time, but it really cemented for me the importance of being a voice for our dogs and keeping them comfortable. And even if your dog will tolerate something, like somebody running up to them and making a giant fuss over them, if they don’t enjoy that – and a lot of dogs don’t enjoy that – then they don’t need to put up with it. It’s my job, as the person who can most easily communicate with the other person, to say we’re not going to do that today. So that’s where that really came from.
And then in terms of Sirius, it’s better now because we exist in a pandemic, and one of the very few pros of the pandemic is that people are social distancing. But she’s a Newfoundland, and she’s adorable, and she looks like a giant walking stuffed animal. And I learned really quickly that people completely lose their minds when they see her and want to greet her. And she is not a particularly cuddly dog in general. She wants to play, she wants to work, she wants to do things, and she definitely is not cuddly with strangers. And people will come up to her and throw themselves on the ground and treat her like this very strange animatronic stuffed animal! So now the answer is no, you cannot pet her. That’s really where being an advocate for her is. Not asking her to put up with people acting foolish like she’s a character at Disneyland!
Zazie: Yes, she shouldn’t have to put up with that.
Sassafras: No, you’d think people could handle it, like ‘oh you’re going to act like a reasonable human’. No, you’re going to literally throw yourself to the ground and start screaming and hugging, and I’m like, no, please don’t. I feel uncomfortable so I can guarantee my dog is.
Zazie: One of the things you say in the book is “For me training dogs isn’t about telling dogs what to do, rather it’s about developing ways to communicate with each other.” Do you think Chew This Journal will help people learn to communicate better with their dog?
Sassafras: I hope so. If that can happen, then I’d feel like the book was beyond successful. My hope is that it opens up conversations for people to have, both with themselves about what kinds of things they want to do with their dog, how they want to do that, how they want to achieve that. But then ideally also to open up that conversation with their dog. It’s not enough, or to me it’s not desirable, to tell my dog what to do. I want to be in conversations where I try to really shift that language. We’re not commanding the dog to do something, we’re cueing the dog to do something. I think that subtle language shift can really help to open up a different way of thinking for the person.
Zazie: You are also a Certified Trick Dog Instructor. What trick are you and Sirius working on at the moment?
Sassafras: Our big trick at the moment is we are working on backward leg weaves. So while I’m walking backwards, she is also walking backwards through my legs, which is challenging because I am a very short person and she is a very large dog. So that is one of our we’ll-see-if-we-can-master-it tricks.
Zazie: Great. And I can see a whole load of ribbons behind you, for which many congratulations. Are they all for tricks?
Sassafras: They are mostly for tricks. They aren’t all Sirius, but many of them are Sirius’s. Sirius is a Championship Dog, she’s also an Elite Performer Trick Dog at the Kennel Club which is their highest trick dog title. And then some of the ribbons are for rally. She’s done novice and intermediate rally titles. The parkour title there is Charlotte’s. So most of them are tricks with some rally and parkour thrown in there.
Zazie: So you bring a huge amount of experience to Chew This Journal. How has that helped you in writing it? How did you think about making it appropriate for different levels of experience?
Sassafras: I wanted there to be something for everybody. I started in agility twenty-some years ago and I know that world very well. So I wanted there to be things for people who’ve been competing in sports for decades but maybe don’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about dog walks, or what they’re doing on their walks, because that’s just not part of their daily life. And at the same time I also wanted it to be accessible to people of all ages who haven’t ever trained a dog, because I think that breaking into the dog world, as friendly as most of us always want to be, can be really intimidating and really hard if you’ve never done this and you don’t know what any of this language is. I wanted there to be something in there for everybody and so what I really drilled down into was, what do I actually do with my own dog? What do I think is fun? And then that was the basis for what I built up into the book. I didn’t want it to just be, here’s some arbitrary exercises or activities to do that I wouldn’t do.
“The paws up challenge is one of my favourites. For 30 days it’s the goal to find something new every day for your dog to put their front paws up on.”
Zazie: You also write about dogs for a lot of magazines and you write fiction as well. What kind of writing do you like the best?
Sassafras: That’s a super hard question! I don’t know that I like any of it the best. I think that I have been having a lot of fun in the past few years especially being able to write about dog training and behaviour for unexpected places. I love writing for dog magazines and that’s the majority of what I do, but it’s exciting when I get the chance to write about dogs for somebody like The New York Times or WIRED magazine or Apartment Therapy, or places that don’t necessarily have a lot of dog training content and being able to reach readers that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have had a lot of thoughts about what they were doing with their dog. So that’s fun. But I also love writing fiction. I love it all! I can’t pick one!
Zazie: Another thing you do on your social media is share a lot about dogs but also about the writing life. What is your advice to someone who wants to become a writer?
Sassafras: My biggest advice is to just start doing it. I think it’s very easy, especially now, to get very caught up in, what’s the right way to do this? What’s the right way to start that? And it is important to do your research, by all means, do your research and have a reasonable expectation of what a writing life is going to look like and what that hustle is going to be. I’m so privileged to be able to write full-time. I made the transition to full-time writing almost 3 years ago. But at the same time I see people get so caught up in doing the research for how to write the perfect book or how to start freelance writing that they never actually do it. And that I think is the biggest barrier. So my advice is just start doing it. And you’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to take assignments that you kind of wish you wouldn’t have taken. And that’s part of it too. Know what your baseline ethics is but beyond that, not everything is going to be the best that you’ve ever written. But if you don’t write, then you’re not going to get anywhere with it.
Zazie: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Sassafras: No I think you’ve covered it. I hope that people are having fun with their dogs! It’s such a strange and stressful time for so many people. All the activities in this book can be done at home or very near your home, and you don’t need other people to do them. So while I didn’t envision this book releasing in a pandemic, my hope is certainly that because this is where we are, I hope it can bring a little bit of fun to people who might be struggling with how to entertain themselves and how to entertain their dog, especially if they just got a dog.
Chew This Journal: An Activity Book for You and Your Dog is available on kindle and for pre-order in the Companion Animal Psychology Amazon store.
Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author whose books have been honored by organizations ranging from the American Library Association to the Dog Writers Association of America. Sassafras’ dog books include: Tricks In The City, Healing/Heeling, Bedtime Stories for Rescue Dogs and Chew This Journal: An Activity Book For You And Your Dog. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor (CTDI) who lives, writes and trains in Portland, Oregon. Learn more at www.SassafrasLowrey.com and www.IntrovertCircus.com
Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.
What: A fun activity book AND coloring book from a Pac NW writer!
Who: Sassafras Lowrey
Why: From one of my favorite Pac NW dog-centric writers comes both a fun activity book AND a coloring book to help us get through the COVID blahs!
How much: Under $30
An Activity Book for You and Your Dog
Is your dog bored? Doesn’t have to be! From bucket lists and outings to arts and crafts Chew This Journal will inspire you to spend more time with your pup. Chew This Journal leads you through fun activities, while creatively recording your adventures in the pages of the book. This unique journal doubles as your dog’s memory keeper and activity tracker, making it a one-of-a-kind keepsake that you and your dog complete together.