Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ann Elwood & Louie

Who is in the photo at right?

The human is Ann Elwood, a historian and writer, and the dog is her friend, Louie, an eight-year-old German shepherd.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

Louis and I often have coffee with Pat Keller [photo below left], his dog walker (actually dog runner), at the shopping center in our town, Cardiff-by-the-Sea. While Pat and I talk about world and local events (as well as more low-down subjects), Louie waits for something edible (not lettuce) to drop from the table and happily greets the people who stop by to say, “Oh, I love German shepherds. When I was a kid, we had a German shepherd.” Louie hears not just blah-blah-blah but the sound of affection and responds by licking their faces – if they're bending low enough. If not, it's a tail wag or even a rollover, waiting for a belly rub.

What's brewing?

Whatever Seaside Market, the grocery store, has in the pot. We could go to Starbucks, which is quite close, but it means waiting in line. Besides, it's cooler to go to Seaside.

Any treats for you or Louie on this occasion?

Louie always gets something. Often it's a quarter pound of roast beef, while Pat and I usually split a tuna sandwich from the Seaside Market deli. I try to stay away from evil treats for myself, though on occasion I've been known to indulge in a red velvet chocolate cupcake.

How were you and Louie united?

After one of my dogs, Abbie, died at age 14, and my other dog, Casey, also 14, was nearing the end of his life, I decided I wanted to adopt another dog, perhaps a year-old mixed-breed, but, looking through Petfinder, I saw a litter of five three-month-old puppies, almost identical to each other in looks and personality, identified as possible German shepherds. I'll just go look at them, I said to myself, puppies are so much work. So I looked – they were so cute – and left. Then, knowing I was smitten, I came back. Louie was the puppy who came up to me to say hello. I filled out the paperwork and stowed him in the back seat of my car. Immediately, he found a way to put his paws on the console between the front seats, in copilot position, and that's how he's ridden in the car ever since. Once home, he insisted on trying to play with poor old Casey, who by then found puppies irritating, so I put him behind a child's gate, which he promptly jumped.

People kept asking, “Is he a purebred German shepherd?” So I had his DNA tested and found out that indeed he is, at least according to his saliva.

How did Louie get his name?

He's named after Louis XIV, because he is a king, and Louie Armstrong, because he has soul. His nicknames are Lou and Lou-Lou.

What is Louie's influence on your writing?

Louie has taught me a great deal about how to be in the world – to sit and really study something, to approach a stranger expecting friendliness, to ignore the insistent hostility of a bully. Through Louie, I have met many people, some of them close friends, whom I might not have gotten to know otherwise; some of them are not like me except in their love of dogs. This has given me a better understanding of life and human nature, which of course makes for better writing of fiction. My book of short stories, The Dog Park, is available on Amazon.

Louie also played a big part in my decision to learn about about the history of dogs and their relationship with people. A couple of years ago, I taught a history seminar in Animal and Human Relations. (Louie came to the last class session.) At the same time I started a non-fiction book on the history of dogs in 20th century America, which I abandoned to write my biography of Rin-Tin-Tin. Louie, of course, is its inspiration. He even looks like Rin-Tin-Tin.

Please tell us about your book on Rin Tin Tin.

You can find Rin-Tin-Tin: The Movie Star at Amazon. (I also have put up a website about the book. The first Rin-Tin-Tin, a movie star of the 1920s and early 1930s, was as famous a hero as Rudolph Valentino or Douglas Fairbanks. His athletic feats astonished audiences – he could scale an eleven-foot fence, leap over chasms, and climb trees. His acting brought tears, laughter, and amazement. At train stops, when he was on tour, crowds gathered to give him ice cream. Thousands of children wrote him fan letters, and he answered with a paw-autographed photograph. This book is a biography of both Rin-Tin-Tin and Lee Duncan, his owner and trainer. It places their lives in the context of their times, especially France, where they met, and Hollywood, where Rin-Tin-Tin became a star. At the heart of the book are the questions: “Why did a dog, at that particular time, become so famous?” and “How much of the legend of Rin-Tin-Tin is really true?” A good deal of the legend is false. For instance, I am almost certain that he was not born on a battlefield in September, 1918, but was the son of a male German shepherd found on that battlefield – I have a great deal of evidence to support that.

Does Louie have a favorite place to go for a walk?

Del Mar Dog Beach. When he was three months old, I took him there and he immediately ran into the surf. He likes to stand on the rocks and look regal. But he also plays chase and hide-and-seek games among the rocks with all manner of dogs, including the occasional pug.

Who is Louie's best pet-pal?

He's had several. There was Sprocket [photo above right], a long-legged black mixed-breed. Gracie, a very talented black lab and Gus, a sweet yellow lab. Hugo [photo left], a Hovawart, who lived down the alley from us. Now Sequoia, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, and Emily, a street dog from Texas, who has had the good luck to end up here in the care of someone who calls her his “girl.” And of course, our cats – Fred, Clio, and Arthur. Louie likes to take Arthur's head in his mouth, sometimes to discipline him, and Arthur likes it.

Squeaky toy, ball, Frisbee...?

Louie doesn't pay much attention to toys much anymore. He thinks that's for puppies. However, he does like to play with tennis balls in the surf. He thinks they are alive.

What is Louie's best quality?

Soul. He connects, and not just with me, but with all creatures, in a way that I cannot even explain. He is a therapy dog with Love on a Leash and likes to work with children. He allows a three-year-old to think she's in control when she takes him for a walk; he also lets her stroke his fur backwards and pat him vigorously on the head. However, he has a few limits on how far he will go in entering the human world. As one child pointed out when she was reading to him in an after school program, he “doesn't pay enough attention.”

If Louie could change one thing about Californians, what would it be?

One-third of them would move away so that there would be more space for dogs.

If Louie were able to speak in an Ann Elwood biopic, who should do his voice?

Richard Burton or Don Ameche (who played Shadow in Homeward Bound).

If Louie could answer only one question in English, what would you ask him?

“What can I do to make your life even happier?”

Visit Ann Elwood's website, and learn more about Rin-Tin-Tin: The Movie Star.

--Marshal Zeringue


  1. Louie sounds like a GEM! Thanks for sharing. I have a good friend who has German Shepherds (down to one, when we met she had three. The mom and two pups) and I used to be somewhat intimidated by their massive head/snout (I have lab/collie and mini aussie) but then realized they can be as sweet and loving as their owners.
    Ruth G. Zavitsanos

  2. Awww, what an additional insight into who my favorite aunt in the world is. And I learned a bit more about how Louie came into her life.