Victoria Talks With Steve Dale

Victoria Stilwell:  Hey Steve! We last met up at American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards in L.A. – What have you been up to since then?
Steve Dale:  I emceed an American Humane Association animal assisted therapy dinner, celebrating the work of many dogs and their volunteer handlers in Denver.

I’ve contributed to a couple of books, with Dr. Robin Ganzert, president/CEO of the American Humane Association I wrote the Foreword to “Animals and the Kids Who Love Them,” by Allen and Linda Anderson; and contributed to “Raising My Furry Children,” by Tracy Ahrens.

Best of all was contributing to “The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management,” edited by the amazing Dr. Susan Little, and written by a long list of the most noted feline veterinarians on the planet. It was humbling to have been asked to contribute, and included among this extraordinary group. And this book is ginormous – it’s 1,400 pages. You don’t need to join a health club, just carry this around for a workout.

I am also busy assisting with a very important book – having to do specifically with dog behavior – but I am not yet allowed to say much about it. I can tell you – and I am telling you first – I haven’t even mentioned this on my radio shows or anywhere, except to my wife and my mom. So, you are right there with mom in getting the scoop.

I will apparently be honored in February at the Dog Writer’s Association of America awards banquet, inducted into the DWAA Hall of Fame. I will be the youngest inductee ever. Really, I’m not sure this happened or how do deserve this – and I have so much else to achieve.  So, I’m not sure I’m ready. Although in three interviews in the past three weeks, I’ve been called “legendary.” I swear – I AM NOT THAT OLD, or legendary.

And this is also crazy, came back to a meeting with my newspaper syndicator of 17 years, Tribune Media Services. They expressed interest in publishing ebooks. I am their great experiment to determine if this works, not only if there is interest in the pet genre, but is this financially viable? It’s like I have a Great Dane on my shoulders, lots of pressure on my back.

VS:  Tell us about “Good Dog!” and “Good Cat!” – what kind of info can our readers expect to find in them?
Yes, those are the two ebooks. We decided to take a sort of best of my newspaper Q & A columns from the past three or four years, one book features questions about dogs, and a second book is all about cats. They are commonly asked and answered behavior questions/answers, and some which are totally fun – real questions that you won’t believe. For example, a cat who paws at the TV whenever and only when Justin Beiber is on.

I answer, “This cat has a new illness: Cat scratch Beiber.”

Sometimes I answer the questions. Sometimes, I seek out experts like – well, Victoria Stilwell, for example. Lots and lots of veterinary behaviorists, some certified applied animal behaviorists, IAABC certified dog and cat behavior consultants answer questions and so do some of the top dog trainers, all are APDT. I am proud that truly I have a large contingent of world renown experts who are quoted here.

Can you imagine? For 17 years, I’ve had the same terrific editor at TMS (Stacy Deibler) and for nearly that long, each and every column I write I have a veterinarian review to be certain of medical accuracy. Dr. Sheldon Rubin’s eyes must be tired – but who better to write the introduction for both books?

VS:      How did you get Betty White to write the Prologue – I’m thinking she’s pretty busy.
SD:      I believe if you combine my schedule and yours – we don’t equal Betty White’s. She’s always been very kind to me. And I adore her….I’m thinkin’ I’m not alone there. She really does walk the walk when it comes to animal welfare. And I’ve known her for some time. Years ago, she served on the Board of Directors of the American Humane Association, where for the past several years I’ve served. She has been a Trustee with the Morris Animal Foundation for nearly 50 years. Can you believe a half a Century? She’s an amazing lady. And she knows I care about Morris, and serve on one of their advisory committees, and whenever they call on me – I say ‘yes.” So she said, ‘yes.’

But I am equally as thrilled to have my old friend Pam Johnson-Bennett write the foreword to “Good Cat!” She’s the you of the cat world. And then, to have you write the foreword of the dog book, I am still howling with joy.

You should know, the first time I saw you on TV I thought, ‘WOW!’ Not only do we need this approach, we need it now! Too many were then and may still be joining the aversive or let’s be dominant bandwagon. Thank you for your contribution to this book, and for dogs, in general.

VS:      Are these books designed for experienced pet owners, are they ideal for new pet parents, or everyone in between?
SD:      Everyone, from granny to little kids. The names of these books are no accident. I actually didn’t come up with them – but the story is very cool. After reading through the content Sarah Bright at Tribune Media Services said, “Your books are all about the positive, encouraging pets.” And she thought of the titles “Good Dog!” and “Good Cat!”

VS:      If there is one message from the books, what might that be?
SD:      Don’t assume the problem is behavior – especially if it’s new. So if you have say a dog who you know is house trained and then begins to have accidents – see the veterinarian! The problem might well be medical – so no amount of behavior modification will help.

VS:      “Good Dog!” is dedicated to Lucy – tell us about her.
SD:      I had the pleasure, honor of knowing Lucille Ball some. Lucy, our miniature Australian Shepherd was named for her. It turned out that – except for the red hair – our Lucy lived up to her namesake. Actually more than her namesake. Lucy was dog was very funny – which I will tell you about. Lucy, the actress, in person, was a very serious and task minded person. She loved her craft. Of course, she helped to create it  There’s so much Lucy trivia.

Here’s an example, and I bet most people don’t know this….Lucille Ball once told me that watching other sitcoms was kind of bittersweet for her. It’s because she’d hear her mother’s laugh.  Her mom never missed an “I Love Lucy” taping. “I Love Lucy” was taped in front of a live audience, long before canned laughter or “sweetening” sitcoms with laughs ever existed. Beginning in 1970’s, most TV sitcoms began to depend on laugh tracks or at least “sweetening” them with taped laughs. Those taped laughs are actually lifted from “I Love Lucy.”

So for many years before she passed on, Lucy would turn on a sitcom at home and hear her mother’s unmistakable laugh.

VS:      How would you ever get to meet Lucille Ball? And what other celebrities have you met?
SD:      I started off as a radio deejay, but also writing for newspapers, USA Today and and People magazine – and I often was the guy interviewing celebrities. I’d ask celebrities about their pets of course. I was the first to write about Oprah’s dogs in People magazine. As for the other celebrities, really the list is far too long. But I will say, Oprah really cares about animals – and you and I should be on her show together, I think. I was once her show – that was a career highlight. Oh, other celebs- too many to list, and it was so long ago. I was in awe of many, Jimmy Stewart, who would be? We actually spoke about his trips to Africa, and elephant poaching. And I interviewed both of the Darren Stevens from “Bewitched.” I don’t know - too long a list. I’ve met Benji and Lassie (though not the originals).

VS:      About Lucy the dog?
SD:      Ahhh yes. She was amazing. For most dogs – her included – animal assisted therapy is work. She went to the famous Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and saw clients ranging from children with severe burns to teenage gun shot victims to older people rehabbing from strokes. She made everyone smile, no matter it was.

Each week as soon as walked into the room, Lucy would go “Whahooo!” And everyone would laugh. I was always embarrassed – but we were there to make people laugh, and I admit it was cute. But she wasn’t supposed to do that. What could I do? I suppose I could have trained an alternative behavior – but people so loved it.

Then after meeting in this large room, we were always paired with someone. There are so many stories – and anyone who does animal assisted therapy has so many stories.

There was this one man – apparently suffered brain damage in some sort of accident. He just spoke gibberish. His family mostly didn’t understand. He was paired off with Lucy because the therapist was simply hoping for him to laugh, and our dog would often find a way to make that happen with previous clients.

On this occasion, much more occurred. I don’t know why – and it really might have backfired. I asked him to ask Lucy to “sit.” He looked at me like, ‘Really, you’ve gotta be kidding.” He hesitated, but decided to give it a try. He said something – but it didn’t sound like the word sit or any word. Lucy instantly sat.

I have no idea how that happened. He didn’t offer any hand movements. Maybe Lucy heard me say the word. We did often play this game where I’d ask little kids – very young kids – to ask Lucy “sit.” I’d then offer a hand signal to insure compliance. The little kids would never see the hand signal. And they loved it, of course. So, maybe Lucy just did it this time without the hand signal. Or maybe in within his gibberish, Lucy somehow made out the word.

It doesn’t matter how she did it, This man’s family walked off – and began to hug one another, all in tears. They didn’t want the man in the wheelchair to see. But he did, and he too began to well up with tears. He then said “Thank you” to Lucy. We all understood. His first speakable words since his injury were to Lucy.

If only she could have known the difference she made in so many lives. When she passed away in 2011, we began a fund with the American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards to support animal assisted therapy.

VS:      Who else did you dedicate the cat book to?
SD:      I had a dog named Chaser, who changed my life. And Lucy and I were definitely close – but it’s Ricky who I miss the most. His impact on cats in life and death, undeniable.

Here’s the story. Seeking to find some new and different routines for Lucy to do in animal assisted therapy, my wife, Robin, asked me to train her to do something out of the ordinary. Don’t ask my why – but I thought I’d train Lucy to play a little kids piano. After all, that is out of the ordinary.  I closed of the door to the room I was training her in – or thought I did – so other pets wouldn’t walk into our training session.

However, just a few minutes into the piano class, Ricky, our Devon Rex cat pushed the door open.  Ricky looked at me, and then looked at the piano. He instantly lifted his front left paw, and gently tapped the keyboard. And he did it again, and again. By gosh – he was playing a tune. Clearly I had a musical prodigy. Already well socialized, Ricky was happy going places with us, often hanging out on my shoulder on a leash and harness. We’d visit the pet store, a neighborhood video store - in those days, they still existed, the bank or the dry cleaner.

I had always wanted to demonstrate that cats can learn. And Ricky was such an apt pupil, I knew I had my opportunity. I also taught Ricky lots of other behaviors – including jumping over our dogs - when they were on a ‘down/stay’ - , jumping over little kids (also on a ‘down/stay’ -, and jumping through a Hoola hoop.

At one point in her life, she was trained to jump on to my shoulder to “ask” for his heart medication. It’s too bad that this was all before the days of YouTube. Ricky most certainly would have gone viral many times. Still he was a TV and radio attraction, appearing on several national TV shows including programs on Animal Planet as well as “National Geographic Explorer,” and lots of Chicago TV and radio show. He even performed recitals at local pet stores.

Ricky and I worked together to reach millions to dispel myths about cats.

Training cats has lots of benefits, aside from impressing friends with YouTube videos. When you work closely with an animal, your bond might be intensified. Today more cats are given up to shelters than dogs. It seems when dogs have behavior problems people are more willing to go the extra mile. Maybe with people interacting more often with their cats, this will change.

Also, the more you know an individual animal, the more you pay attention to what’s “normal.” Cats are such great actors; they’re incredibly adept at masking illness. So, perhaps people who have that more intense relationship with more quickly notice their cat isn’t quite right. And then, actually do something about it with a veterinary visit.

We know that people and dogs who learn throughout life might be less at risk for suffering cognitive problems in their Golden years – and it’s presumed the same is true for cats.

And a lifetime of learning new things might allow cats – who by nature are typically entrenched in routines - to become a bit more pliable and open to inevitable changes.

VS:      How did Ricky pass away?
SD:      Yes, at about 3 years of age or so, Ricky, who seemed perfectly healthy – was diagnosed with feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). This heart disease is probably the most common cause of death of indoor cats from post kitten until about 9 or 10 years when diseases of older cats become more prominent. Sometimes cats with HCM live out normal lives, and never have an idea they are supposed to be sick.

However, mostly these cats either throw several clots before finally dying or being euthanized, or like Ricky – one day – just drop. There is currently no effective treatment.

I am proud that shortly after Ricky’s death in 2002, I began the Ricky Fund – so more might me learned about HCM in cats, even hopefully to find a treatment. And in fact, as a direct result of the money we raised – at this point over $100,000 - for two breeds – the Maine Coon and Ragdoll – there is now a genetic test to determine if the gene defect for HCM is carried by individual cats. The hope is that breeders won’t breed those individuals. While the test is making a difference for those breeds, we need to do more to help all cats. Learn more at

VS:      Is that what you’re most proud of?
SD:      Well, I don’t know – everything from defeating public officials seeking breed bans to being a part of the story of creating dog friendly areas or dog parks in Chicago – and there’s so much more….but I guess right now the answer is Mary and Honey.

VS:      Who are Mary and Honey?
SD:      Many wrote me about her cat Honey missing the litter box. I was able to help via my newspaper column, though sometimes it’s listeners to the radio show or when I do TV. And knowing I helped a cat and a family. It’s the emails and letters and phone calls on the radio indicating my advice saved a life that really matters.

VS:      Is that the greatest compliment?
SD:      Could be – or that I’m responsible for sending more pets to the veterinary clinic than anyone America. Because I know in at least some of those visits, the veterinarian saved a life. I know Victoria Stilwell, now that’s a nice compliment too!

VS:      Where can people buy the ebooks?
SD:      Wherever ebooks are sold. The ebooks are $2.99, except for the enhanced version of “Good Dog!” available for the IPad through Itunes, that’s $4.99. The enhanced version contains imbedded videos, so not only do I write about how to solve some behavior problems, I show people how to do it. It’s kind of like what you do – but I don’t wear the high boots and my accent is form Chicago.

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