Thursday, March 26, 2015

Judith Claire Mitchell & Josie

Who is in the photo at right?

I’m Judith Claire Mitchell—Judy—novelist and professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where I teach creative writing and direct our MFA program. The dog is Josephine Mitchell-Friedlich—Josie—a white highland west terrier. Josie is seven years old, but is generally assumed to be much younger given her toned physique, her endless capacity for sprinting, and her puppy-like attitude toward life.

What's brewing?

Today, as we do most mornings when I don’t have to be on campus, Josie and I are spending some time at our local coffee shop, Cargo Coffee. Brianna, Stephanie, and Candy, the baristas there, know us so well that they often begin making our drinks as soon as our car turns into their lot. My usual is a 16 oz. nonfat latte with one Sweet ‘n’ Low (my carcinogen of choice). Josie, who is caffeine-free, prefers a small ice water. But because today is a special occasion, maybe she’ll order a small decaf hazelnut roast. I’m figuring hazelnut is as close to peanut butter as we can get. Josie is a big fan of peanut butter. [Note jar of Jif in photo right]

Any treats for you or Josie on this occasion?

Along with our drinks, Josie has enjoyed her usual complimentary slice of cucumber.

How were you and Josie united?

After our beloved cat Ruby died, my husband and I planned to adopt another cat. But then Don mentioned that shortly after Ruby’s passing, the headache he’d had for the entire fourteen years she lived with us had gone away. That’s when we realized we could not continue owning felines. We decided to adopt a hypo-allergenic, non-shedding dog instead. Westies fit the bill, so we got in touch with a small family breeder and adopted the one puppy they had left: our Josie. Don’s headache has not returned. However, the bit about non-shedding turned out to be a big lie.

How did your dog get her name? Any aliases?

We had a hard time coming up with her name. We called her Rosie for a couple of days, then switched to Josie. We still aren’t sure the name suits her, but she responds to it, so now we’re all stuck with it. Don tends to call her Josie-Bear. I tend to call her Mouse.

Does Josie do more to help or hinder your writing?

It depends on her mood. If she’s feeling mellow, she’ll often lie by my side or on my feet when I’m writing, which is a great help: since I don’t want to disturb her, I wind up spending more time writing than I otherwise might have. But if she’s in a frisky mood and wants to play, then she’ll hit the back of my laptop’s screen with her paw until I stop what I’m doing. She once ruined a computer doing that. But who could get mad at that face?

Have any actual dogs inspired fictional dogs in your writing?

There’s a golden lab named Beef in A Reunion of Ghosts, but he’s not based on any real dog. However, I did swipe his name from my former dental hygienist’s basset hound.

Cat, postman, squirrel...?

We live in the woods and have to walk up the road to get our mail, so Josie hasn’t actually met our postman. And because there are coyotes in our neighborhood, the local cats tend to be kept indoors, so she rarely gets to hang with cats, either. However, Westies were originally bred to rid farms of small critters, and because I cannot convince her that we do not live on a farm, Josie cannot be dissuaded from trying to kill any rodent who makes the mistake of visiting her pen. The squirrels know to keep out, as do the chipmunks, but she has, I’m afraid, done in two bunnies. In addition, many a possum visiting our yard has learned the value of playing dead.

Ball, squeaky-toy, stick...?

Definitely ball. The first time she spied a ball as a tiny puppy she wanted to learn how to catch it. This is not typical terrier behavior, but she was clear—we were to throw her that ball over and over again until she’d mastered the fine art of grabbing it between her teeth. These days she prefers balls that are bigger than she is. She’s very small for her breed—she weighs only 12 pounds—but she can nose a basketball around a room like nobody’s business.

Who is Josie's best pet-pal?

Although Josie adores people, especially children, she’s not really into other dogs. The one and only dog she has ever loved was the late Holly Barrett, a bichon who used to live a few houses down. Our theory is she has never gotten over the loss of Holly, who was, indeed, an exemplary dog and charming neighbor.

What is Josie's best quality?

She’s a genius. I’ll give you an example. Once, she came downstairs where I was watching TV and began barking. I thought she was asking to go outside, and I reminded her that she’d just gone out a few minutes before and she was not going out again. She thought about what had transpired, then trotted into the adjacent bathroom and gazed into the toilet. Then she looked at me. She did this twice more—looked into the toilet, looked back at me—until the light dawned. “Do you want water?” I asked. She recognized the word “water” and cocked her head, the universal Westie sign for “Hallelujah, you finally got it, you dolt.” We went upstairs and sure enough, there wasn’t a drop of water in her bowl. Now, is that brilliant or what?

If Josie could change one thing about Madisonians, what would it be?

Madisonians are very sporty and are always zipping around on bikes and skateboards and rollerblades. Josie is morally opposed to those kinds of wheels—if God wanted us to get from point A to point B via wheels, why would he have given us paws?—and she does not mind loudly sharing her point of view.

If Josie could answer only one question in English, what would you ask her?

How can we help you be at peace during thunderstorms?

If Hollywood made a movie about your life in which Josie could speak, who should voice her?

I think Josie should sound like Butters on South Park. So Matt Stone, I guess.

What advice would Josie give if asked?

When life hands you pills, wrap them in peanut butter. (Josie would mean this both literally and metaphorically. But mostly literally.)

Visit Judith Claire Mitchell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue


  1. During thunderstorms I bet Ms Josie would like a snug t-shirt! My greyhound was comforted by a regular t-shirt, with the excess knotted on top. 'Thundershirts" are sold on line, but anything that swaddles, works for some furkids.

    1. Thanks, Rusty. We have tried! We've tried everything from Thundershirts to doggie valium to Beethoven to holding her during the entire storm to rubbing her with anti-static sheets to herbal calming remedies to about a dozen other things. At least she isn't petrified like some dogs I know. She doesn't tremble or hide or cry or have unfortunate physical reactions. Mostly she seems furious--she reacts the way she does when she spies a rodent interloping on her territory. Non-stop, earsplitting barking. Sigh.

  2. I've always thought West Highland Terriers were soooo cute. Thanks for the post!

  3. Miss Josie, if you were not so opposed to socializing with other canines, I bet we'd have a great time catching squirrels, rabbits, and birds together. As for thunderstorm intolerance, my mommy says to tell your mommy to try feeding you some tasty morsels when it's thundering outside. First, you can't bark with your mouth full, and second, you might associate thunderboomers with something good and stop being so mad at them. If that doesn't help, my mommy says, your mommy might have to get you a citronella bark collar. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Woofs from Gage

  4. Calli shares Josie's love of peanut butter - she has her own jar in my studio. Anything for the dog! About thunder phobia: Airedale #2 (Cassie) was terrified of thunder, gunshots, and fireworks, so I finally got her a ThunderShirt and turned up the TV really loud during storms and holidays. Not saying it worked totally, but she was less afraid. A friend of mine gives her three pooches Valium, puts them in their crates in the bedroom, turns on all the lights and runs the TV full blast - extreme, but it works! So far, Calli has no problem with noise, except she did notice when I accidentally set off the security alarm (so did the cops).