Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Katie Alender & Winston

Who is in the photo at right?

That would be me, Katie Alender, an author, and my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Winston. Winston is four years old and is my buddy and partner in just about everything I do.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

Initially, I thought about walking Winston down to the local coffee shop and doing that thing where you tie the leash to the table and peacefully sip your coffee. But Winston doesn’t believe in being peaceful in public. Winston turns into a raving, yapping maniac—particularly if there are cars anywhere in the vicinity. A pet psychic told me that Winston wants to protect me from cars, but I actually think he wants to kill and eat them. When he was a puppy, a friend of mine who was dogsitting taught him to get really excited and chase shiny lights, and the reflections on cars drive him wild.

Plus, it’s pretty hot, and Winston’s not exactly an athlete.

Instead, I decided to haul dog and coffee out onto our balcony, which overlooks the backyard and the San Fernando Valley. Winston doesn’t get to spend a lot of time out there, because he tends to eat anything that ends up there, including dead bees and occasionally live bees. So I did a bee-check and we headed out. He really enjoys it—just sits in his bed, watches the birds and the cars going by.

Typically, I’ll just take my coffee to my desk and drink it while I check my email, but I’d just sent something off to my editor and was in that very zen moment where you can’t do anything but wait. Although I did make some story notes.

What's brewing?

In my household, we’re good old-fashioned morning coffee folks. I never drink coffee in the afternoon or at night. We use Don Francisco ground coffee with Splenda and organic half & half (yes, I realize how ironic that is).

Any goodies to go with the coffee?

A cheese and butter sandwich on wheat bread. If I had remembered to buy sandwich meat at the grocery store, it would have been a ham and cheese sandwich. Hey, some people drink coffee in the afternoon—I have a ham sandwich for breakfast.

Any treat for Winston on this occasion?

Yes, and in fact, I almost destroyed the togetherness of the occasion by giving Winston one of his highly coveted White Bites. As soon as I gave it to him, he looked at me as if I might try to take it and ran off to eat it by himself on the rug. Eventually he came back and chilled with me.

How did Winston get his name?

It was actually really odd. Winston’s coloring (chestnut and white) is called “Blenheim.” When my husband spent a semester in the UK in college, he visited Blenheim Palace, which is where Winston Churchill was born. So he made that connection, and I was like, “Um, okay.” The name suits him very well!

Does Winston have any tricks?

Oh, Winston is MUCH more than just a pretty face! He’s a very fast learner and loves to work on tricks. We clicker-train, which I recommend for anyone wanting to teach their dog new behaviors. Winston can sit, stay, lie down, leave it, shake, high-five, double-high-five, spin, walk in a circle around me, play dead, swat kisses that are blown at him, and “go say hi.”

He learned “go say hi” when I was working on the dog show—he came to the office with me every day from the time he was 8 weeks old. We had a gate at the office door, and when someone came by, we apparently would say, “Go say hi!” I don’t know exactly how we realized it, but even if he’s asleep, you can say, “Go say hi!” and he’ll get up and run to the nearest door.

We took one Agility class, and Winston rocked, but it aggravated a back injury he got when he jumped off a too-high surface last year. So no more of that. But he loves to work on training. And I highly recommend clicker-training for anyone—my neighbor borrowed a clicker and a book of dog tricks from me and has taught her 16-year-old cat to sit, stay, sit up, jump over a stick… it’s unreal. Anyone with a dog has no excuse.

How did Winston come to be united with you?

Winston came from a breeder in Orange County. (The OC!) He’s our first dog.

So he’s a purebred?

Yes, he is a purebred, which I know isn’t for everyone. But I actually spent the past five years producing dog shows for TV (like in the mockumentary “Best In Show”), so it’s my opinion that there’s a time and place for purebred dogs. I’ll share that opinion with you, if you don’t mind.

In a perfect world, dogs wouldn’t be having puppies willy-nilly—and if their breeding is controlled, then there are naturally going to be breeders controlling it.

If we had to choose between a population of dogs brought about by caring breeders (I don’t mean puppy mills!) and a population of mutts who breed indiscriminately, I choose caring breeders over the people who just can’t be bothered to neuter their pets.

Good breeders (and I’ve met tons and tons of good breeders) care so much about the dogs—their health and their character. They’ve turned their lives upside down to get happy, healthy dogs. They do health testing, they do temperament testing. The thing is, some breeds are exactly right for some families—and when a family gets a dog that’s a perfect match for them, the chances are much slimmer that the dog will end up in a shelter.

All that being said, now that I’m an experienced dog owner, I would definitely be open to getting a mixed breed dog. But I also know that you have to really do your homework when you get any pet. I never want to bring a dog into my home believing less than 100% that it will be the dog’s forever home—which is why it’s so important to find the right dog.

What’s your favorite thing about dogs?

I’m awed by the relationship of dogs and people—two species who actually evolved together (you can blame your lame hunting skills on the fact that your ancient ancestors started relying on their dogs’ good hearing and sense of smell instead of their own!).

I love watching Winston take in the world around him—and watching him work to communicate with me. Just little things like eye contact, body language… it’s completely fascinating.

What does having a dog mean to you?

Having Winston around means I’m never alone. He is truly my companion.

A woman we interviewed once for the dog shows said that the purpose of pets is to teach us how to love deeply and then live with loss. I know that every day Winston feels safe, fed, comfortable, and loved is a perfect day for him. It’s a privilege and a joy to be able to provide that for him—and he pays me back with loyalty, devotion, and unconditional love. What more could I ask for?

Kristina Riggle, author of “Real Life & Liars,” said that Alender's recently published YA novel “'Bad Girls Don’t Die' had me ripping through the pages at the end and kept me up way too late.” Eileen Cook, author of “What Would Emma Do?,” called “Bad Girls Don’t Die” an “intriguing mix of compelling and creepy, ... not to be missed. Ghosts, friendship, romance, and family all weave together in a puzzle that will keep you reading until the very end.”

Learn more about the author, her writing, and Winston, at Katie Alender's website.

--Marshal Zeringue