There are many books on the market written from the perspective of animals, but none that I am aware of that focus on the training of a service dog - from the dog's point of view!
Author and guide dog trainer Marcia Lee Harris has agreed to share with us exactly how her book, LESSONS FROM LEO, came about.
Marcia, please give us some background on yourself, and tell us why you wanted to write LESSONS FROM LEO?
I have been involved with guide dogs for over 18 years and have heard so many questions and requests from the public as I travel about with my puppies in training. I was also surprised that the people who receive the dogs know what they had to do get their dog - but not always what happened for that dog to be ready for them. After my first dog graduated I created a little pamphlet to hand out to people at presentations and use in schools.
When I started with Leo, I was retired and did not have an office to take him to as a practice for future going to work with his owner. I decided I would go to the county library daily and sit at the computer training the dog to sit under the table while I checked emails. As he got used to that and a little older we would stay longer. I started writing his adventures to share in the future with his owner. It was just the puppy raising at first, then several librarians were enjoying the stories and suggested I make it into a book for future puppy raisers and people interested in guide dogs. So I created the first part of the book and soon had a publisher.
The publisher wanted to include the formal training and the graduation parts as well, so I had to wait longer to complete it. I wanted it to be ready for the 75th Anniversary of Guide Dogs for the Blind and for families to enjoy together with jokes and tips that you do not get from training videos. I wanted full-color photos and large print with paw prints for the page numbers in the puppy raising section and graduation hats on the pages in the second part.
The book became more of a memoir, and I didn’t want it to be the expert on puppy raising, so I decided to make it Leo’s story. I decided he would be telling everything. I wanted the title to be Lesson’s From Leo but the publisher had so many other ideas that strayed from my vision and kept delaying the book. I had been traditionally published with other books and had to give up so many things that I decided I would try self-publishing so I could keep some of my ideas and have it not be an academic book on puppy raising, but rather a family sharing book and something libraries and schools could use. Also when people would ask me “How do Blind people pick up the poop?” or “Is it hard to give them up?” I could now say – “OH, you can read my dog’s book!”
I wanted it for future puppy raisers to see the joy and love I had raising a puppy, but also to realize it’s not easy - yet very worthwhile.
Has this book been germinating in you a long time, or did it just pop into your head one day?
The book did not pop up one day, but evolved and was put on hold for so many reasons. I also was raising two more dogs and involved in other activities. The California fires delayed my progress along with some medical setbacks, but like we teach our dogs in our dog training – not to give up and preserve. I followed that teaching. So with this year being the year of the dog in the Chinese New Year celebration it became the year for my book.
Did you know from the very start how the book would turn out, or did it evolve as you went along?
It started as a Powerpoint Presentation from the talks I did about puppy raising, and the book sort of evolved from that. I went along with it and shared it with others. And when I saw how senior citizens and children smiled and reacted to the jokes I told, I insisted they stay in the book.
Writing from another person’s perspective, be they a different race, gender, etc. might be daunting. Did writing from an animal’s point of view challenge you in any ways you couldn’t imagine?
I would look at Leo as I was writing and tried to imagine what he was thinking. When you are with an animal 24/7 for over a year and a half, you seem to read their mind.
I had trouble with the publisher telling me a dog would not think that or know something. Also classifying the book became an issue. It is all non-fiction except that the dog is telling the story makes it more a fiction book. It is really me telling what I think. I also kept saying if there were any spelling or grammar mistakes in the book that Leo went to school to be a guide dog not to learn to be a writer.
I was told several times that a dog would not use a word I chose but I would respond, “How do you know? - my son living in my home used big words after hearing them from me, when he was under 3, so Leo being an observant, fast learner would certainly hear the word contortionist and have a good vocabulary. I seemed to be defending my dog.
I mentioned at Leo’s graduation on campus that I was having a book out all about Leo’s experience and when I said it was from his perspective many of the audience members approached me and wanted to know when it would be out. Guests who attend the graduation ceremonies on campus come from all over and for different reasons. Many are curious about the entire process. The book answers questions for them as well.
Only Leo knows if I got it right!
Another difficult area was in trying to find a reader to make it for an audible book, I was not sure how Leo’s voice would sound. I am still working on that.
What has been reader’s response to LESSONS FROM LEO?
Before it was published, I took it around to schools and libraries, and it was well received.
Puppy raisers said, they wished they had this book when they first started, When I had members of the California Writer’s Club read it, I heard chuckles and interesting discussions stimulated by items in the book. One member said she rated the book as “Five paws and a tail wag to an informative and humorous story of a dog’s journey to service.”
She went on to say that I captured the magic of living with a dog in training and it was delightful, as well as, the best true story she read all year!”
People especially like the large print and are surprised that it has so many photos, as well as, a wealth of information. Some puppy raisers comment on my style and creative ideas for puppy raising. Loads of smiles from the jokes and rhymes included. The section on poisonous plants and foods have already saved a neighbor’s dog and helped diagnose a medical issue for a pet owner.
I have heard so many, “I did not know that… or I never thought about that…”
My favorite comment was from a reader who said it was, “Pawsitively delightful and informative. You could feel the love!”
People like when I mention you can read it aloud to dogs, too!
Where can people buy LESSONS FROM LEO, and do you have any future plans to share and promote the book?
The book is available on Amazon as an 8 1/2 x 11 large print book and on Kindle. One can purchase the print book and then get the Kindle version for $1.99 as a special or the kindle read and have it read aloud on their computers. I have a braille edition that can be shared but not for sale. Plans are still in the works for an animated version. If people are friends of Leo he has a special deal price that they can get from me. I can be contacted at email@example.com. Puppy raising clubs can purchase from me at a discount rate, as well, because my intent was to share.
Since Leo lives in Canada and there are puppy raising clubs world-wide I wanted the world-wide distribution on Amazon. That made the book more expensive than I originally intended.
I will be having upcoming book talks and presentations about guide dogs where the book will be available for purchase.
I am just learning how to post on Facebook but the CNI puppy raiser Facebook page posted something about my book coming out. I have a presentation at several libraries set up and I will have a book talk at the Gatsby bookstore in June. When the brand new library opens in Signal Hill I will be sharing my book.
I also plan to do some talks at the Lions clubs and other service groups.
LESSONS FROM LEO can be ordered here or by clicking on the cover image above.
Marcia Harris also has a website: magicalmarcia.com where you can learn more about her work with guide dogs.