What exactly is a dog writer? Anyone who puts pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, to tackle a canine topic. Lord Byron was a dog writer, and so were Virginia Woolf and James Thurber.
These luminaries, however, never belonged to the Dog Writers Association of America, founded in 1935, which gives awards to dog writers. Its highest distinction — induction to its Hall of Fame — was recently bestowed on Chicagoan Steve Dale, author of numerous books and a tireless advocates on animals’ behalf, not only via his blog and weekly column in USA Weekend but also through his syndicated radio show, Steve Dale’s Pet World, and his YouTube channel.
Dale identified his life’s calling thanks to one special canine companion: “A Brittany named Chaser came into my life about 25 years ago. She had separation anxiety big time. Whenever I even closed the door to do my business on my side, she did the same on the other side. And, for sure, when we left the house, everything in her came out!”
Although this was before the age of behaviorists and pharmaceuticals, Chaser eventually became a confident dog thanks to patience, good luck, and the advice of a few dog trainers. Still, she was very connected with Dale. “Whenever I was out of town for a few days, she would just stare at me as if to say, ‘How could you leave?'”
Around the same time, Dale began to write about pets. He eventually became, as he puts it, Chicago’s “Pet Guy.” Then, thanks to a 20-year syndication deal with Tribune Media Services, he became America’s Pet Guy.
“I thought about the difference Chaser made in my life, and thought dogs like her might change the world,” he says. “Really, if you have a dog in your life, for the most part, how nasty can you be? I also thought I might be able to help others with their pets.”
Dale is proud to have met and befriended many widely admired dog writers. Becoming the youngest-ever DWAA Hall of Famer was, Dale says, “humbling and surprising.” If he could sit down to dinner with one dog writer from history, who would that be? “Konrad Lorenz tops the list,” he says of the Nobel Prize-winning Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and author of Man Meets Dog.
The toughest part of the job for us dog writers is that our muses are not immortal. The loss of Chaser was a life-changing event for Dale: “I was devastated, but then who isn’t when you lose a pet? Of course, she is still my heart. And every week when I receive an email, call on the radio (or still those snail mails), when people tell me I made a difference, or even saved their pets. I wouldn’t be doing that if it wasn’t for Chaser.”
Even when he travels to faraway destinations, Dale still has dogs on the brain. A recent trip to Africa led to a dispatch only a dog writer could deliver: “The bottom line is, the African wild dogs are all gone,” he laments. “The entire Serengeti, spanning Tanzania and Kenya, and not a single African wild dog. It’s sad, but at least some survive elsewhere on the continent, though they are not abundant. This is really tragic.”
Dale’s favorite method of reaching his audience is over the airwaves. “I just love doing radio,” he says. “What I’d like to do that I haven’t done — at least not frequently –- is to work in front of a live audience.” At home, however, he’s got a captive canine audience of two: mixed breeds Ethel and Hazel, plus a cat named Roxy and a lizard named Cosette.
Hazel is the most recent arrival. About a year ago, Dale recalls, “I was at the Animal Welfare League of Chicago and saw this little white dog shaking in the corner. I asked to see that dog, and she instantly jumped into my lap.” Hazel was a pet accompli. “Of course, we brought her home. It’s as if she was meant to live with us. Who the heck would have given her up? It’s their loss, our gain. And further evidence of how great dogs adopted at shelters most often are.”
It’s also evidence of why America’s Pet Guy has such a large and loyal following. His heartfelt appreciation of animals is the moral center of every tale he tells.