The first Sunday of each February marks, for most Americans, the Super Bowl, a day of fierce football rivalries and an overload of fatty foods. For dog trainer and author Victoria Schade, though, it marks the airing of an event she spent a whole lot of work helping to put together nearly four months before: the Puppy Bowl. Schade, whose sophomore novel, Who Rescued Who, will be published in paperback by Berkley on March 24, is the official trainer for Animal Planet's signature puppy-related event. And last year, following the filming, she sat down with PW to discuss her work as a dog trainer, writer, and Puppy Bowl coach.
You've written four books about dogs. This is your second novel about dogs. What made you want to move from nonfiction about dogs to fiction about dogs?
They're two very different animals. (Pun intended.) Nonfiction I've done for the past ten-plus years, and you have to be very diligent, because people want to be able to replicate what you're telling them how to do. Whereas fiction is fun! Not that it's not fun writing about how to teach your dog to sit, but it's definitely more fun writing about adventures in England. It makes sense, because the pieces of my nonfiction books I enjoyed writing the most were the stories that went along with the instructions. Those stories were partially inspired by real clients, but sometimes they were embellished or incorporated pieces of stories from a bunch of different clients. And those were the parts I really enjoyed. Plus, life with dogs is rich, and rife with storytelling.
What makes this novel different from Life On the Leash, your first novel?
A major thing is how the main character interacts with dogs. That novel's main character was a dog trainer. She knew everything. This one, however, is not quite sure. She had a negative experience with a dog when she was younger and it shaped her feelings about what dogs are, and when she happens upon this little lost puppy, she doesn't know what to do with it. Even the most skilled pet parent is confounded by everything that goes into raising a puppy. Couple that with someone who has no clue what she's doing, and it makes for a very different character and requires a very different approach.
How did you choose the title for this book?
I'm so lucky that I'm surrounded by brilliant people in the publishing business. I was having so much trouble coming up with a title, and we were coming down to the wire. And I'm going back and forth with my agent, Kevan Lyon of Marsal Lyon Literary, who one day just said, "Who Rescued Who." And there was no question. That was it. It beautifully encapsulated the story inside. I think any pet parent understands this incredible role their pet plays in their life. It's such a powerful, magical relationship, and obviously we both get something out of it. Sure, we're rescuing those animals from whatever circumstance they came from, but they're here for us too.
You're a novelist, but you're also a dog trainer. How did you incorporate your practical knowledge about dogs into this book?
I took the way a pet parent views a puppy and amplified it. "Gosh, this puppy is biting me. What's going on here?" Every client that I deal with has some version of that complaint. But Elizabeth, because she knows nothing about dogs, thinks something wrong with this puppy: "Does it have rabies?" I also infused the book with a voice of reason, the person who knows dogs—her aunt, who shows her the way.
Most relationships between characters in novels are between people and people. What are some of the differences you find between writing person to dog relationships and writing person to person relationships?
We anthropomorphize a lot. We give our animals human qualities, rightly and wrongly. Sometimes it's very wrong. To right them correctly, it's about looking at the characters and not giving them too much human emotion—I want to respect the dog in the dog—but also helping people understand where their actions are coming from. Animals do have conversations with us. We just need to learn how to read their body language, an honor I don't think we bestow upon them enough. And I have Elizabeth's aunt act as something of an interpreter in the novel for that reason.
How do you balance a dog-training career and your writing career?
For my first decade plus as a dog trainer, it was full-time—get up at eight in the morning and do private lessons all day long. But things have shifted over the years. Right now, I'm lucky in that I'm able to focus a lot on my writing, both my novels and my nonfiction writing for various pet outlets. I'm definitely still training, but it's a different case load. I'm also lucky enough to work with Philadelphia shelter dogs. I volunteer for ACCT Philadelphia, which is the only open intake shelter in Philadelphia. Every animal that's surrendered goes to this place.
And then there's the Puppy Bowl. Tell me about that experience.
My role on the show is making sure the puppies have a good time and making sure that everything's safe. And any coaching that needs to be done—say there's a specific action we need one of the puppies to do—I'm the one who's coaching them. Because they're all untrained! So someone on the direction side will say, "Get that dog to do a 30-second stay and look at the camera," and I'm the one who has to make that happen. I call upon my years of training to make that happen for all the puppies. Oh, and I do the cats, too!
How did you get involved?
Fifteen years ago, I wanted to do a puppy-training DVD, because all of my clients kept coming to me with the same questions, and I thought a visual answer to these questions would help. I found a production company that was willing to take a gamble. Rather than requiring me to pay them to produce the DVD, they agreed to split the process. They called in favors with their sound guy, their camera guy—every piece of the puzzle—and the cameraman, Rob Lyle, had filmed the first two Puppy Bowls. So he asked me if I wanted to help him on the show, and the rest is history.
So, what's harder to tame, a dog or a story?
Neither. I love it all.