Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Today's Mystery Author Guest: Sheila Wester Boneham

As promised yesterday, fellow Midnight Ink mystery author Sheila Webster Boneham is visiting my blog today. To read her bio and see her photo, please page down to yesterday's post.

The photo above is the cover for her October 8th release, Drop Dead on Recall, the first book in her Animals in Focus series. When a top-ranked competitor keels over at a dog obedience trial, photographer Janet MacPhail is swept up in a maelstrom of suspicion, jealousy, cut-throat competition, death threats, pet-napping, and murder. She becomes a “person of interest” to the police, and apparently to major hunk Tom Saunders as well. As if murder and the threat of impending romance aren’t enough to drive her bonkers, Janet has to move her mother into a nursing home, and the old lady isn’t going quietly. Janet finds solace in her Australian Shepherd, Jay, her tabby cat, Leo, and her eccentric neighbor, Goldie Sunshine. Then two other “persons of interest” die, Jay’s life is threatened, Leo disappears, and Janet’s search for the truth threatens to leave her own life underdeveloped – for good.

Sounds like a great read to me! Below is Sheila's guest article about The Mysterious Sport of Dog Obedience. Please feel free to respond to Sheila's article or to ask her a question in the comments. 

The Mysterious Sport of Dog Obedience 
by Sheila Webster Boneham

“How did you teach her to do that?” I hear that a lot. My dogs and I train and compete in several canine sports, and like all sports, they require time, training, and practice for both of us. Training a dog is no more mysterious than training, well, you or me. In fact, I taught basic obedience classes for pet owners for many years, and I’m here to tell you that people are much harder to train than dogs!

I teach writing, too, and the two fields of learning and teaching aren’t all that different. The “trick” of all teaching or training is two-fold. First, we need to communicate what we want the learner to grasp. Then we have to show them what’s in it for them. Fun? Safety? Tangible rewards like food or money? A pat on the head, or on the back? Still, a well-trained animal, especially one that seems to enjoy following direction, is a bit mysterious for a lot of people.

Drop Dead on Recall is set in the world of well-trained competition dogs. Most of the dogs in the book, like their counterparts in real life, are accomplished in more than one area, but this book focuses on obedience training and competition. It’s a world I know well, having competed for the past twenty years with my Australian Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers. The sport of agility is perhaps more popular among dog people, and better known to the public because it’s a bit more “audience friendly” in that you don’t need to know much to understand that a dog ran fast and clean, or not. But obedience is still my favorite sport, maybe because it provides training challenges that I find intellectually interesting. Sometimes we have trouble getting an idea across to the dog and have to figure out how to say it more clearly. Come to think of it, that’s what we do when we write!

Take the exercise that inspired the book’s title, and that sets the opening scene. The “drop on recall” is a required exercise at the “open” (intermediate) level of competition. “Recall” is obedience speak for calling your dog. A reliable recall is required at all levels of competition (and should be required for all levels of pet-hood, but that’s another story). In the drop on recall, here’s what happens if all goes well. You have your dog sit at your side. You tell your dog to stay, and you walk about forty feet across the ring. At the judge’s signal, you call your dog. While your dog is coming toward you, the judge gives another signal and you tell or signal your dog to lie down. She should immediately stop forward motion and lie down. Then the judge signals again and you call your dog to you. It’s a challenging sequence to teach, as you might imagine.

In Drop Dead on Recall, things do not go well. In fact, it’s the human who hits the dirt at the judge’s signal, and she never gets up. When it becomes clear that this is no accident, and certainly no sport-related injury, obedience competitor and animal photographer Janet MacPhail is sucked into the investigation. Like the other witnesses, Janet is flummoxed. So was I when the image of a competitor keeling over popped into my head and turned into a book. I’ve seen people fall when running in obedience, agility, and other sport. I’ve even been knocked on my butt in obedience practice by one of my own dogs who had a very enthusiastic recall. But the drop on recall is usually one of the less hazardous, if more difficult, exercises.

That’s what I love about dog sports, and what I love about writing mysteries, and reading them. You just never know what might happen!

Thanks, Sheila! Readers, please leave some comments and/or questions for Sheila.


Mystic_Mom said...

Sheila, firstly I have to tell you I loved the book! Drop Dead on Recall really gave me a better insight into dog obedience and the people of the sport.

I have a question too - Aussies and Labs seem worlds apart in work drive and temperament. What would you say are their unique challenges and what is their most humorous obedience quirks?

We have a lab cross, a Catahoula, a Pyr and a r&w Border Collie. They all are as different as people to work with and yet universal in their desire to please and their unconditional love. Although the Pyr is more of a 150 lb cat than a canine sometimes! ha ha

Keep up the great work with all your writing. You are very talented.

Shannon Baker said...

Great subject for a book. I have a great friend who trains and shows Border Collies. I've watched her work her dogs and have gone to a couple of shows. It's amazing the bond between dog and human! Thanks.

Unknown said...

Thanks - glad you enjoyed Drop Dead on Recall! And wow - complex question!

Although of course dogs of a breed share certain traits, I really don't like to generalize about specific breeds' potential for or quirkiness in obedience because it's a TEAM sport - dog & trainer/handler (who is usually the owner). I know dogs of the breeds that dominate obedience rankings who don't perform well, and I know Obedience Trial Champions (OTCHs) who are members of breeds that supposedly are unsuitable for the sport. Even within a single litter, puppies' attitudes and abilities vary, so across a breed there can be enormous differences.

That said, I'll circle back to your Q about Labs and Aussies. :-) In general, Aussies are what fanciers call "velcro" dogs - they want to be with their person/people, and they have an overwhelming desire to please (although personally I think the girls are a tad less overwhelmed by that urge than are the boys!). But Aussies, like many herding dogs, also tend to be extremely sensitive, and sometimes they shut down with corrections. Better not to try than to disappoint. I have always found that it pays to approach obedience as play with my Aussies, and to make corrections for booboos upbeat (true for all dogs, really, but especially the very sensitive souls among them).

Labs run a very wide range of personalities, although most approach life as a contact sport! I've competed in multiple sports with 3 Labs over the years, and they were quite different from one another, ranging from my goofy boy Raja who liked to please me but could be easily distracted by scents, food, birds.... to Annie, who was very confident and VERY eager to please me, so a lovely, reliable obedience dog, to Lily, who is brilliant, loving, and too submissive to be really happy in certain competition situations.

Wow - clearly this is book-length material! :-) Ultimately, I think you can choose a breed that tends to be good in a particular sport, but the individual dog and trainer, and the training methods, make a huge difference in the end.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Shannon! Yes, I confess that when I watch a terrific performance I get all choked up. It's not the high scores that really matter, it's that bond and communication that develop in the course of training.

Unknown said...

Since it's Halloween, a fun day for most of us but a dangerous one for animals, I thought I would post this link - some tips for keeping pets safe. Feel free to share!

caryn said...

I LOVED the new book! I am familiar with your nonfiction work and was interested to see what you'd do with it as a mystery. It's a GREAT start to a hopefully long series.
Caryn in St.Louis who owns I'm sorry to say a less than obedient Border Collie/Sheltie/Aussie mix.

jenny milchman said...

What a beautiful dog, and what an interesting angle for a mystery!

Unknown said...

Oh, Caryn, get busy! You have SO much potential there! And please send me a photo - wanna see that mixture! sheilaboneham at
Glad you enjoyed Drop Dead. Which other books do you have? (Always curious!) :-). Thanks for coming.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Jenny! Thanks for dropping in.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, everyone, for stopping by, and thanks, Sheila, for being a guest today! Keep those comments coming, folks.

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