Friday, March 22, 2013

Margarita Engle & Maggi and Chance

Who is in the photo at right?

I'm Margarita Engle. As the Cuban-American author of young adult novels in verse about the island's history, I never imagined that I would spend a great deal of my time hiding for dogs. Yes, that's right, hiding in Sierra Nevada forests, to help wilderness search and rescue dogs practice finding lost hikers. My husband is a volunteer trainer and handler, and I am a "volunteer victim." Our SAR dogs, Maggi and Chance, live with us as our own personal pets, but they are also working dogs. Chance is a four year old Yellow Labrador Retriever, fully certified as an active SAR dog for local and statewide search and rescue canine organizations in California. Maggi is a thirteen year old Australian Shepherd/Queensland Heeler mix, recently retired from SAR work.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

After a good hide and seek game (also known as search and rescue training), we love to share caffeinated candy bars in a cup. Maggi and I have notorious sweet teeth, so we like caramel macchiatos, but we also have to watch our weight, so we make sure we order the guilt-free (not calorie-free) "skinny" versions, without whipped cream. Chance is fit and slim, so he never worries about sugar or fat grams, but as usual, athletic dogs don't have sweet teeth. He drinks his Cuban rocket fuel full strength, in a tiny espresso cup, because he's really too busy chasing tennis balls to slow down and enjoy nature's outdoor cafe.

What's brewing?

Maggi's cattle dog instincts are strong, so she loves any drink that contains dairy products. Chance cares more about the container. He likes round things, so cups small enough to fit in the mouth are favored, especially if they're chewable.

Any treats for you or your dogs on this occasion?

Maggi is observant and pays attention to detail. A single peanut, or a motionless grasshopper, can fascinate her for hours. Chance sees the big picture. He gulps his food, so it really doesn't matter what he eats, since he never tastes it anyway. While waiting to be found in the wilderness, I always pick the candy out of trail mix.

How did your dogs get their names? Any aliases?

My husband chose Maggi's name because he was convinced she was born to be a Maggi, and he felt certain that it should be spelled without a final e. It was really very awkward at the time, because our daughter's best friend was named Maggie, so we were constantly embarrassing everyone by barking orders to "Come here, Maggi!" or "Drop it, Maggi," and of course, our daughter's well-behaved friend thought we were yelling at her. Chance was much harder to name. He started as Chase, and changed to Chance as a way of remembering that lost people do have a chance of being found, thanks to search and rescue volunteers, both human and canine. On ordinary days, he often gets called Booger Brains instead.

How were you and your dogs united?

Maggi was a starving stray who moved onto a farm my husband was managing, and announced her intention to stay. She did this on my husband's birthday, so he really couldn't argue, and it didn't matter that we already had 3 dogs at home. She introduced herself to the others, and they accepted her immediately, after she explained (in canine and English---she's quite fluent in many languages, both spoken and body) that she would be the boss from now on.

How do your dogs help, and how do they hinder, your writing?

At various times, dogs have moved into my stories, and stayed, so I have no choice. I have to include them. My newest novel in verse for young adults is The Lightning Dreamer, Cuba's Greatest Abolitionist, but while I was writing it, Chance inspired me to write a middle grade novel in verse called Mountain Dog. Around the same time, Maggi helped me write an extremely cute, sweet poetry picture book for young children, called When You Wander, a Search and Rescue Dog Story. Amazingly, all three books will be released within a few months of each other, starting with The Lightning Dreamer.

Squirrel, postman, cat....?

Our dogs are friendly, except for the time at a Sheriff's auxiliary training, when Chance ran away from a bomb squad officer who was wearing an outfit that made him look like a robot. As far as chasing animals, they wait all day, every day, for something interesting to chase, but when two wild peacocks finally landed in our backyard, they chickened out and sat perfectly motionless, birdwatching without binoculars.

Squeaky toy, ball, stick...?

When Maggi was a stray, she had to hunt for her dinner, so she still loves anything that sounds like a squeaking ground squirrel. Chance is passionate about round objects of any sort. If you don't have a ball to throw, he'll pick an orange off a tree, and give it to you. He has tried, on occasion, to chase the moon, but he never quite catches it.

What is each dog's best quality?

Maggi is sweet, sensitive, and more intelligent than most humans. She actually cares about the lost hiker, and wants to make sure he is found. Chance is athletic and enthusiastic. He cares about winning the hide and seek game so he can get back to playing fetch.

If your dogs could change one thing about you, what would it be?

They would like me to spend more time without a book in my hands. They wish I understood that from a dog's point of view, opposable thumbs evolved to open refrigerators, not volumes of poetry.

If Hollywood made a movie about your life in which your dogs could speak, which actors should do their voices?

Maggi would be Angela Lansbury. No mystery would ever go unsolved, and all the proper herding dog etiquette would be followed in every delicate situation. Chance is definitely Ashton Kutcher, because he's tall, lanky, handsome, goofy, and unlikely to ever grow up.

If your dogs could answer only one question in English, what would you ask them?

I would ask Maggi to tell me the story of her first year, before she found us. Did she ever have a chance to herd cattle? Was she abused, and if so, how did she manage to be so forgiving? She loves people, and tolerates our failures, patiently training us to serve as reasonably acceptable companions. I would also love to ask Chance what it feels like to have such a smart nose, instead of a smart brain. Is it the scent that makes him swallow inanimate objects, or does he just enjoy watching us panic and rush him to the veterinary emergency room?

Visit Margarita Engle's website.

--Marshal Zeringue


  1. I love that these pups are such a huge part of your life and you can really feel that connection! Yea!

  2. What a great interview today...I love that Margarita has been given a job as assistant to Maggi and Chance Thanks for sharing

  3. What wonderful dogs. I really like the part about hiding for the SAR dogs. MOM and I do that for our SAR team here. I LOVE it! ANd what wonderful work these dogs do. I bow to them.

  4. Fantastic interview. So fun to read! I'd love to be friends with Chance, Maggi, and Margarita.

  5. Wonderful article! Much love and ladridos to margarita and her four legged friends!

  6. How funny about the choice of Maggi's name despite your daughter's friend being named Maggie; your husband, Margarita, has a wicked sense of humor!