I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Zazie Todd over the past 7 years or so, and it was a true honor to receive an Advance Readers Copy of her debut book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. I found Wag as engaging as Zazie’s long running blog Companion Animal Psychology and full of information that’s both important and actionable for dog owners. For me, this is the best thing about Wag: it’s full – not just of information – but ways to put that information to use with our dogs and make their lives better almost as soon as we start reading.
It was such a pleasure to talk to Zazie about her inspiration, her work over at Companion Animal Psychology and the book. Today (3/10/2020) is officially launch day for Wag, though it was released a bit early on Amazon and has been listed as a #1 Best Seller ever since. The Academy is thrilled for Zazie and what this means for dogs everywhere.
LN: Before we dig into talking about your book, there is something I’ve always wondered: how did you decide to focus on companion animals?
ZT: I was really inspired by my own pets and wanting to know more about how to give them a happy life. Wag is dedicated to my dogs, Ghost and Bodger. I’ve always been interested in animals, even though I couldn’t have any pets as a child. But the real impetus came after we adopted Ghost and Bodger, separately, within a 6 week period. My background is in Psychology and some of the things I read or saw about dogs just didn’t fit with that. Then I read John Bradshaw’s book In Defence of Dogs (titled Dog Sense in North America), and started reading some of the scientific research on dogs and cats, and it was so interesting. So I started my blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and everything came from there.
LN: How did you decide on the overall concept for your book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy?
ZT: I wanted to write something that would help people understand their dogs better and give them lots of tips to use in everyday life. I love writing about scientific research on dogs for a general audience, and I wanted to pull out the bits of information that are useful and practical. I wanted to include a lot on dog training, but I also wanted to write about other aspects of a dog’s life which are important to dogs’ welfare, such as enrichment, helping senior dogs, and how dogs interact with children. Each chapter covers the relevant science, includes some personal stories about Ghost and Bodger, and ends with some tips to apply the science at home. And interspersed through the book are experts’ answers to the question, what’s the one thing that would make the world better for dogs?
LN: Tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you start with a broad concept and boil it down, say something like enrichment or is it the opposite- “sniffing is important” and then that expands to more related topics?
ZT: This was a big project but the thing about writing nonfiction is that you start with a book proposal. So when it came to actually write the book, I already had a list of what the chapters were and a short summary of what would be in them. For each chapter, I started with a broad concept and broke it down into sections, then sometimes I had to revise the sections based on what I found in the scientific literature. I had some notes on my computer but I also have a favourite notebook (it’s a Leuchtturn 1917) that lives on my desk and that I use to keep track of everything. I make a lot of lists, and I also do a lot of revision over time.
LN: Were there certain things you felt were more imperative than others? Anything you were willing to go to the mat on?
ZT: I felt it was really important to include something on how dogs learn, because dog training is not regulated. That means dog owners really need to understand how dog training works so that they can avoid aversive training which we know has risks. When we use food to train dogs, it has the added advantage of being a fun activity too. Also I have to admit that as a dog training geek, I love the studies that look at the effects of training methods and the kinds of rewards dogs prefer and so that was fun to write about. But I tried to make the book quite comprehensive and to think about all aspects of dogs’ lives, which became quite a challenge because of course there was a word limit! I had to focus on the things that I thought would make a difference to dog owners and be helpful to them.
LN: Your ability to hone in on what the research says is one of the things that makes this book so valuable – you point to specific studies to back up your narrative. Why do you think this is so important?
ZT: Thank you! I think it really helps to understand why things are the way they are. It’s one thing to know that positive reinforcement is the best way to train dogs, or that enrichment is good for dogs, but the more we understand about how we know that, the easier it is to appreciate why people are saying it. And I think it helps to be able to fit everything into a framework of what dogs need, and to know that if we provide it, they will be happier.
LN: I love the way you round out each chapter- with practical tips for how people can apply the science. I also think this is so important, because putting the information to work in the real world is how things start to change and improve for dogs. What was the inspiration for this?
ZT: I wanted to make the book practical, as well as being a science book, and so it made sense to make the tips easy to find. I also made a checklist for a happy dog which is at the end of the book, which summarizes some of the main points from the book. I hope people can use this to see where they are already doing well, and maybe they will also find one or two things that they might like to try too.
LN: I also really love the way you weave in stories from your own life with your pets. It’s a lovely way to help people relate not only to you, but their own pets. Did this cause you to become more observant of your pets overall? It did just that for me. I have always found my pets fascinating, but your book really provides some insight, not just in words, but through imagery, as well.
ZT: Yes, I think it did make me more observant. When you’re writing, you have to pay attention to every detail in order to pick the bits you are going to describe. The details of dogs are so lovely: the upcurl of Ghost’s tail when he was happy, Bodger’s expressive eyes, both of their play bows. And being able to read body language makes such a difference, because it means we notice if our dogs are stressed and can do something about it. But the funny thing is that often, when I was sat at my desk writing, I was also being watched, by Ghost or by Bodger. And I think the mutual gaze between human and dog, dog and human, is a beautiful thing. Though I have to admit Bodger was especially observant when it was getting close to the time for his walk! I’m also glad that it made me more observant, because I write in the book about how we lost Ghost, and just a few weeks ago we lost Bodger because of cancer, and I am glad I will have the memories in the book.
LN: What do you most hope your readers come away with after finishing Wag?
ZT: I hope they come away with a better understanding of their dog, and some practical tips they feel inspired to use. When we provide what dogs need, they are happier, less likely to have behaviour problems, and will have a better relationship with us. I think that’s what everyone wants. We love our dogs and want them to be as happy as possible.
LN: Finally, where can people find the book and your public profiles?
ZT: Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy is available in all good bookstores, and people can find me on my website, Companion Animal Psychology, and they can sign up to follow by email if they like. I also have a list of upcoming events – including a book signing – on my website.
Thanks so much to Zazie for taking the time to talk all about Wag and for her incredible contributions to our field. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t thank her dogs Bodger and Ghost for inspiring Zazie, and other dog lovers, even after their passing. Their legacy lives on.