Guest blog by © Darlene Arden
I write non-fiction about dogs and cats. Occasionally, fiction authors have come to me for either advice or approval when they’ve added a dog or cat to their novel. It occurs to me that I have information that might be of some help since they can’t be the only ones who are concerned about creating realistic pets for their fictional characters.
There are a few things you should know before you start to add that canine or feline character. Just as in real life you have to know which type of companion would be best for your character. Dog? Cat? One of each? Next you have to understand that choosing a mutt of either species isn’t going to make it any easier to write. There’s no such thing as hybrid vigor (the theory that mutts are healthier than purebreds), and in either case, the animal will have the best or worst characteristics and health issues of its parents and ancestors.
You’re probably thinking that cats are easier to write about. Maybe. Maybe not. None of the old wives’ tales really applies to cats. They’re not independent creatures, they are independent hunters. They crave attention and affection every bit as much as dogs do but they are the ones who tend to solicit it when they want it. The cat is suddenly on top of the book you’re reading, on your computer keyboard, walking across your desk. They need lots of human interaction and environmental enrichment so you will have to think about setting up your character’s home with everything a cat will need from a sturdy cat tree to a sturdy scratching post. Litterboxes. Yes, that was plural. One box for each cat, and one for the house. If there’s more than one cat, the boxes should be open and they should be in different rooms. The food shouldn’t be near the water dishes.
If you do not want to create a mutt with coat color and characteristics chosen by you, then remember that a cat is Pedigreed and a dog is Purebred. Knowing the terminology will make you more believable as a caring author to the person who knows the difference. They are far more likely to put you on their list of favorite authors.
Pedigreed cats can be everything from the very popular Persian who is so flat-faced they have trouble breathing and eating, to the affable and large Maine Coon and Norwegian Forest Cat (Wegies to their fans). There are many specific breeds of cats and there are books full of descriptions or you can search out their breed clubs online or go to one of the larger cat registries like CFA or TICA.
Purebred Dogs have owners who will insist that you get the characteristics right or they will dismiss you as a know-nothing and not worthy of their reading time. You will lose them if you make a major error regarding breed characteristics or color. These things are easy enough to research, either online or in books of dog and cat breeds.
The Border Collie and the Russell Terrier are two extremely active breeds. They are hard-wired to be that way so the person who has one but doesn’t do herding will have to be actively involved in a dog sport or two. This means you will have to learn about the sports in order to add those as well. That may just be a small thing in your book but get the details right. Most people mistake Poodles for do-nothing dogs with a fancy haircut. They’re wrong. They’re also wrong if the think the Poodle is French. It’s not. Poodles were originally bred for hunting and those tufts of hair left on the ankles and the rump are there for the purpose of keeping the dog warm in the water while retrieving. How many of you knew that? Poodles have rather delicate feet. In Europe they are used for finding truffles. Chihuahuas aren’t just yappy. They’re intelligent but their Breed Standard calls for them to be Terrier-like. They may be the smallest of the breeds but they are certainly not wimps.
Some breeds are better with children than others. Most bites come from the family dog. All children must be supervised around cats as well as dogs. You will go a long way in helping to educate your readers if you work that sort of behavior into the story. As with cats, colors and markings are important in many breeds.
Is your character active? What would he or she do with a dog? A couch potato? Does the character have a lot of time to put into grooming? That will help determine the type of coat the dog or cat should have. Your character’s pets should be trained using positive methods, and should wear a harness to prevent pulling on the trachea. Small, but important, points.
Would your character have a therapy dog or cat, a service dog of some sort? Where would they go and what would they do together?
Remember that if you’re adding a pet for your character, you’re not adding background; you’re adding another character.
Darlene Arden is an award-winning writer and author. Arden, a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, lectures widely on wellness for pets including, behavior, training, and nutrition She is also an experienced television producer/host, and a lively guest expert on various radio and television programs and a popular and much acclaimed speaker. Her Podcasts, The Petxpert, are on YouTube and will soon be added to ROKU. Darlene’s dog books include, The Angell Memorial Animal Hospital Book of Wellness and Preventive Care for Dogs, Small Dogs, Big Hearts, and her behavior book, Rover, Get Off Her Leg!
A Certified member of The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a former director of the Cat Writers’ Association, former member and board member of Dog Writers’ Association of America, Inc. one of the few layperson members of The American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and a member of Boston Authors, among her numerous awards are the CWA Muse Medallion, and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals/American Humane Education Society’s Media Award for veterinary writing and animal welfare.
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