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Interviews

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Take a touching fish-out-of-water tale, a love affair with a handsome gardener, rich descriptions of handmade Italian food and wine, and set it all in the picturesque, romantic Italian countryside… how do you make this story better? Why, add a dog, of course.

Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl about Love is Justine van der Leun‘s story of her turbulent year in a tiny Italian village. Leaving her Brooklyn job and home behind, Justine moves to Italy seeking love and adventure and ends up, to her surprise, finding most of what she’s seeking in a rescued pointer she names Marcus (who, actually, is female, which might be a little confusing, but actually makes total sense). Through her humorous, sometimes heartbreaking memoir, Justine offers insights on cultural differences, “finding oneself,” and finding love in unexpected places — or creatures.

Justine was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions for phetched. Enjoy!

phetched:  Although I grew up with dogs, I was never really deeply involved in their care when I was a kid – so when I found my first (i.e., very own) dog, Zoey, in a field near my house on my way to work one day, I suddenly had to learn a whole lot about dogs really fast. What was the most challenging, shocking, humorous, or intriguing thing you learned from Marcus once you decided to make her your own?

Justine:  I always adored my dogs while I was growing up, but our relationship stayed the same for their entire lives—probably because I was not their primary caretaker. I threw. They fetched. I fed. They ate. They pooped. I…you get the point. Now, I continue to be surprised and thrilled as my relationship with Marcus deepens and evolves as time goes on. At this point, I can viscerally feel what she needs from me, and vice versa.

Your book is about you and your dog, of course, but to me it’s very much a book about relationships. To you, what’s the most important thing dogs teach us about relationships?

What don’t dogs teach us about relationships? They teach us about devotion—who stands by you more solidly than your dog? They teach us about forgiveness—they never hold grudges. They teach us the importance of quiet companionship and partnership. And by the fact of their otherness, they teach us to get out of ourselves and to look at situations for a new perspective. And of course, above all, dogs teach us how to love purely, openly, shamelessly.

A big Hollywood production company buys the rights to Marcus of Umbria and, unfortunately, decides to make it into one of those corny talking-animal vehicles. Who is cast to provide Marcus’ voice?

I think that if we could convince Keira Knightley to do a high-pitched, childlike voice, she’d be the woman for the job. Even though Marcus hails from Italy, she’s an English pointer and I’m pretty sure she’d have a British accent.

OK, so say Marcus really could talk, and she accompanies you on a book tour. What do you think she’d tell your audiences she wants people to take away from her/your story?

Marcus is bird-obsessed and I suspect she’d take the opportunity to put forth her thesis about why humans should make all public spaces friendly to dogs stalking critters and birds. Once that was out the way, and assuming no birds were present in the audience for her to point at, she’d probably make a pitch about how love really can be found in the most unexpected of places. She might add that her journey from abandoned Umbrian farm dog to hipster Brooklynite is proof that you never know how your life will turn out.

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Tamandra Michaels is the talent behind San Diego’s Heart Dog Studios. Her bond with her German shepherd Borias helped lead her into pet photography, and the love and admiration she feels for our canine companions seems to allow her a special connection with all her subjects.

Tami’s also a super nice person — kind enough to answer a few questions for us about herself and her work.

The name of your studio is Heart Dog, and I know the name has special meaning for you. Can you tell us about it?

I named my business Heart Dog Studios to honor my ‘heart dog.’ Borias. That refers to a once-in-a-lifetime dog with whom you share such a deep bond, they’re your canine soul mate. My life has been changed in so many ways by this incredible dog. He inspired me to become a dog photographer, so I could document his life and preserve it forever in images. I absolutely love taking photos of him, not only because he’s a huge character, but because I know how much I’m going to cherish these images when our time is past. That made me have a huge “ah-ha” moment, that I could give this to other people, too.

What special gifts or talents do you think it takes to be a good pet photographer?

First of all, a good eye, having the timing to catch those moments that show the dog’s personality, and capture a great expression. I also think that you need to understand, in a profound way, the human-animal bond.  You need to relate to the dog on a personal level, connect with them and their world. It’s very beneficial to have a knowledge of dog behavior and be sensitive to their communication, get their trust and get to know them.  And, of course, technical skills, knowing your camera helps a lot!

To me, being a dog photographer sounds like an absolute dream job, but I’m sure it’s not all wine and roses. What’s your least favorite part of what you do?

Well, hearing that an animal that I’ve photographed has passed is not easy to hear. It’s a double-edged sword, because it’s incredibly gratifying being able to give the clients these amazing last images of their pet. I get incredibly attached to them during the shoot, so learning of their passing is painful.

Is there any setting, breed, person, etc. etc. you’d absolutely LOVE to photograph if given the chance?

I would love to go to Africa, to Kenya, and photograph the animals and people there one day. It’s a huge dream of mine. I also think it would be really cool to photograph my heart dog in various places across America on a road trip. We’re both the adventurous type, that would be a blast!

You can check out more of Michaels’ photography (including some great street photography at local dog events and the like) on her blog and website.

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I must admit, being the owner of big-ish dogs, and generally disliking all things frou-frou, I’ve always had a pretty meh kind of attitude vis-à-vis dog clothing. My dogs don’t need it, as they have enough fur to clothe an average-sized village, and I’m just not the put-clothes-on-my-dog type.

Or so I thought.

Then I start this dog blog, and — slap me and call me Fanny — there’s all kinds of dog clothing out there that’s not only not frou-frou, it’s actually rather… cool. Case in point? Eco-Pup Dog Clothing. Eco-Pup’s dresses, jackets, hoodies, tees, and more aren’t only stylish and funky, they’re also super-dee-duper green: Eco-Pup sells only clothing made from organic and eco-friendly materials like cotton, bamboo, and recycled plastic bottles.

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Susanne Postill started Eco-Pup in 2008 after looking high and low for stylish, earth-friendly clothing for her senior dog, BoBo. Su was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions about earth-conscious dog ownership and running an online business.

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1. First things first — tell us about your pups!

I have two adorable senior dogs. BoBo is a pekepoo (Pekingese/toy poodle cross) who turned 18 in June, and Cody is a Spitz who just turned 16! Sadly, BoBo’s not very active anymore, but she loves cuddling in your lap and eating cheesy treats (while laying in your lap). Cody thinks he’s still a puppy and likes to chase the cats around the house, and also *loves* cheesy treats and bananas.

2. What’s the hardest part of running an online retail business?

Running an online retail business is quite time-consuming. I have to wear all the hats for the business, but I really enjoy it, mainly because I’m constantly learning and (best of all) it involves dogs!

3. Do you have any advice for fledgling entrepreneurs out there?

It’s really important to have a clear business plan in place when starting a business. Take the time to research your business’ target market and research the various (more like millions!) of marketing and advertising methods you can implement.

4. Tell us about the impact, if any, social media has had on your business.

Social media is a great – and fun – way to connect with people and businesses internationally. It gives people the opportunity to be more involved with Eco-Pup by sharing photos, comments and feedback on the products. In fact, Eco-Pup’s ‘top dog model’ Buddy the Puggy was discovered on Twitter!

5. It seems like “going green” is all the rage these days and people are finally getting more serious about ecological responsibility. Do you fear that the general public may get tired of the buzz eventually, and eco-friendliness may become little more than a passing fad?

No, if anything I think it will be the opposite. It’s so important to do what we can to preserve the environment and our planet, and I think “going green” is much more than just a fad. Living a green lifestyle gives us a chance to do our part to ensure that our children (and their children’s children..) and animals will be able to enjoy our planet like it is today.

6. Do you have a favorite eco-friendly dog care tip to share?

I like to reuse empty tissue boxes to hold all of the (clean) doggy waste bags. It sits near the front door, so it’s super handy, and looks much nicer than a messy bag of bags!

Thanks, Susanne! Now, everyone scamper on over to Eco-Pup and check it out!

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Y’all know that we love eco-friendly stuff here at phetched. After all, dogs are total tree-huggers, right? (Umm, well, Mingus really likes to pee on trees, too, which doesn’t seem very “friendly” at all, but, well, I can’t really do anything about it).

The super-nice Michele Martin is here today to talk to us all about going green with your pooch. Michele (along with her sidekick, boxer Bella McBratty) runs Lucky Dog Organics, an online retailer specializing in organic and eco-friendly pet products.

(She’s also offering a special coupon code for phetched readers for the month of September… see below for details!)

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Phetched: Tell us how you got interested in holistic and eco-friendly pet care.

Michele: I had become interested in holistic living in the early ’90s. I was a vegetarian, then macrobiotic and practiced a semi-green lifestyle. I chose cycling and walking, I lived small, etc. It wasn’t until my former dog Lucky was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 that I made the connection between my own animal’s health crisis and the modern approach to health and wellness in our pets.

What do you think is the hardest part of eco-friendly living?

I think there are many difficult things. Convenience, greenwashing, cost, status quo… all of these things make living green difficult. None of us can be perfect. I think the most important thing is to try and make small changes and to think about the origins and destinations of our products and the impact on our earth, our animals, and ourselves. Sometimes conventional is the right answer…if the “eco” answer is shipped from China while the conventional is locally made. Does the amount of carbon produced locally equal or come under the amount of the imported good? Consider that items were sent back and forth several times in order for decisions to be made, that several parts of the product may have been made here but shipped there for final production. The most important thing is not to be brainwashed by the “all natural,” “organic,” “eco-friendly” marketing on the label. Look deeper. We need to all become active participants and decision-makers.

It seems like “going green” is all the rage these days. Do you fear that people may get tired of the buzz eventually, and eco-friendliness may become little more than a passing fad?

I think that the buzz words will go away, but I believe the cause will remain. The generations that are growing up now are, for the most part, very eco-minded. Our generation is raising kids to respect the earth. This won’t go away.

Tell us about 2-3 of your favorite organic or eco-friendly dog products.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint only products. This is easier for me to talk about companies. Three companies that I love are:

a) West Paw Design – They are Montana-based and make everything in the US. Their eco products are an amazing reuse of plastic water bottles. Each toy is the equivalent of one plastic bottle. In some of the beds, 20 bottles were saved from landfills and chipped up and turned into fiber to create the beds! I also love their Zogoflex line of virtually indestructible toys like the Huck, Hurley, Tux, and Zisc. I like them so much better than the Kongs! AND they have a new awesome raincoat and reclaimed cotton sweaters for those chilly fall walks!

b) Zukes – These treats are made in Durango, Colorado. Free of a lot of the natural allergens such as wheat, corn and soy, this line comes in everything from a small training treat (Mini Naturals), a supplement line (Hip Action- available both as cat or dog), a baked treat, and a dental treat! The ingredient list is simple, and they are low in calories but high in taste. I have yet to meet a dog or cat who doesn’t love them!

c) NuHemp – These Canadians really GET the whole eco/natural thing! Hemp is such a healthful ingredient, whether it be in food (high in Omegas! rich in easily digestible proteins!), bedding (hemp is naturally anti-microbial, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal), and grooming products. (Can I admit that I have used the pet shampoo? After running out of my own salon shampoo I said what the heck. Funny thing…less frizzies, better rinsability, less buildup, and people always compliment me on how good my hair smells!)

OK, I said just three, BUT:

d) Artisan Tags – This wonderful artist in Colorado makes these custom tags for me, and not only are they gorgeous… but they are made in the USA, there is no plastic, they are virtually indestructible, and your dog or cat will love them. The only catch is that they can take up to six weeks to get, so people need to order by mid-October to guarantee Christmas or Chanukah delivery. The best way to keep your pet safe is to keep them properly identified. A microchip doesn’t always get your pet found, but a good secure collar with an easy-to-read tag listing name and a couple numbers is a definite must!

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Do you have any favorite eco-friendly pet care tips to share?

a) Scoop the poop with newspaper or degradable bags. It is estimated that in a year the approx 74 million dogs in the US would eliminate enough solid waste to fill 1100 football fields from end zone to end zone… five feet deep. (That’s approximately 10 million tons.) (Editor’s note: Umm, gross??) So, don’t hermetically seal those plastic bags that don’t degrade. Imagine how much of our landfills are quite literally filled with poop!

b) Find the most natural food you can afford for your pet, US-made, US-grown and sourced… preferably organic. The healthier the food for your pet and your planet, the longer your pet’s life and the less your vet bills. Spend more now on food to spend less later on vet bills!

c) Be leery of toys that are not NATURALLY made in the US. Most soft plastic toys contain PVC. This makes it pliable and gives off that distinctive smell (you know: new car, pool toys, inflatable balls, air mattresses). Well, the thing that gives it the pliability and the smell… phthalates. Phthalates are KNOWN endochrine distruptors, amongst other things. Your pet plays with its mouth. Saliva can help to create a leaching process. Don’t risk it. Try safe toys like those from West Paw Designs or Ruff Dawg!

d) Do NOT buy disposable items for your pets. Disposable travel bowls? One-use tooth brushes? Disposable litter boxes? Really?! Leave a stainless steel bowl in your car or in your backpack. Buy your dog a toothbrush… you may only need to replace it every couple of years. And litter boxes… oh, my. All you need is a good sturdy litter box, and skip the liners… the cat is going to rip it anyway! Do NOT flush. Cats carry Toxoplasma gondii, which isn’t properly treated in all water treatment plants. Seal this one up in non-degrading plastic! We don’t want runoff issues into our lakes and streams! AND please… stop using clay. It’s bad. Switch to a responsibly sourced pine product, or Swheat Scoop or Yesterday’s News.

Wow, thanks, Michele, for bringin’ all that knowledge! I guess there’s a lot of little things we can do to be more eco-friendly dog owners.

And to help get us started, Lucky Dog Organics is offering 20% off all orders for phetched readers for the month of September! How awesome is that?! Just use coupon code Phetched09 at checkout. (Code expires 9/30/09.)

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Los Angeles pet photographer Grace Chon describes herself on her web site as a “crazy dog lady.” Chon clearly has a way with dogs — her special touch and keen eye create photos brimming with personality, soulfulness, and love.

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Chon formerly worked in advertising as a designer and art director but since 2008 has devoted her full-time efforts to her photography business, Shine Pet Photos. Already twice voted LA’s best pet photographer, Chon’s work has been nationally recognized, and chances are you’ve seen her photos before — in magazines such as The Bark (including the July/August 2009 cover shot) and as the official photographer for the 2009 World’s Ugliest Dog Contest in Petaluma, CA (you know, the “big one”).

Thus, I’m unbelievably excited that Chon kindly agreed to share some of her thoughts and experience with us here at phetched. Check out the interview, beneath the images.

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On your web site, you call yourself a “crazy dog lady.” Can you tell us about your dogs?

I have 2 dogs – Maeby, who is a former street dog from Mexico, and Zoey, who is a stray puppy from Taiwan. I joke that I’m like the dog version of Angelina Jolie. I found Maeby in San Diego at a pet adoption fair. (Here’s a link to Maeby’s story on my blog.) When I was ready for a second dog, I turned to petfinder.com and found the sweetest little puppy who looked identical to Maeby and I knew she was the one- except it turned out she was in Taiwan. A rescue group there finds homes for their dogs in Seattle and San Francisco, and I was lucky enough to adopt Zoey even though I’m located in Los Angeles. I even went to Los Angeles International Airport to pick her up! (Photos here.) They are both my life and joy and the inspiration behind my dog photography.

On a typical shoot, what’s in your gear bag?

I always have the same gear in my bag every shoot:
• Canon 5D Body
• Canon 50mm f/1.4
• Canon 16-35mm f/2.8
• Canon 24-70mm f/2.8
• Lots and lots of lens wipes, healthy treats, and fun variety of toys – yes, I consider snacks and toys gear!

You shoot with a candid, documentary style. How far do you go to plan out a shoot, versus just letting the shots happen as they may? Do you have preconceived ideas, at any point before or during a shoot, of a particular shot you want to achieve?

One of the things I love most about this job is that every shoot is COMPLETELY different – even if I’ve shot at the same location millions of times before, the clients are new. So I really don’t go into a shoot with preconceived ideas or shots in mind. I let the clients, dogs, and the light and location dictate what kind of photos I take. The style of photography I take also completely depends on the dog’s personality and I choose my lenses based on the kind of story I want to tell. That said, there are definitely some “signature shots” of mine that clients repeatedly request – like the shots of dogs by their owners feet, or shots of owners standing blurry in the background while their dog is in the extreme foreground. And I am always happy to oblige!

My Dottie is a natural-born model, while brooding Mingus seems to do everything in his power to avoid being photographed well. What do you do if a dog is particularly camera shy or uncooperative during a shoot?

With shy or uncooperative dogs, it just takes a lot more time, patience, and treats. Owners tend to get a little bit frustrated, but I always try to soothe them and the dogs by letting them know it’s completely normal and okay. Animals are INCREDIBLE energy readers and can sense any anxiety or frustration immediately – so any frustration or anxiety from the owner only makes the problem worse. In the last year and a half of working with dogs, I’ve become really astute at reading my doggie clients – so I just try to relax, ease them into being comfortable with me and my camera, and just try to make the whole experience fun.

You obviously enjoy photographing dogs in a natural state, doing doggy things, versus in a studio or other contrived environment. I’m curious… how do you feel, generally, about dogs wearing clothes or costumes?

The reason I love shooting dogs in their natural state is because it allows me to capture photos that tell a story about the dog and their owner. While studio shots can be incredibly beautiful and allows you to hone in on the dog’s expression, it seems a bit sterile to me and strips away so much from this story-telling opportunity. So I really have no problems with owners dressing up their dogs in clothes for our shoot, especially if this is something they love to do and enjoy. If it’s meaningful, personal, and will help owners remember their dogs in the future, exactly as they are now, I’m all for it!

I personally love unique dog names. Can you remember dogs you’ve photographed with particularly funny or unique names?

Well, my dog’s name certainly gets a lot of snickers and puzzled looks – her name is Maeby Fünke, named after a character from one of my favorite shows, Arrested Development.  One funny client dog name is Pabst, who was recently crowned the World’s Ugliest Dog. His owner named him after Pabst Blue Ribbon because of his “bitter-beer face”! Another client named her chihuahua Poncherello, named after Erik Estrada’s character on the TV show CHiPS.

It seems, in reading the biographical information on your blog, that it was dogs that helped really get you serious about photography in the first place (photographing your roommate’s dogs when you first moved to LA). Why do you think dogs were such an inspiration for you, and why are dogs the primary subject you’ve stuck with, several years now down the road?

I’ve always, always loved animals. Growing up I was convinced I was going to be a vet – I’ve interned at the Philadelphia Zoo, shadowed a vet at his practice, and even received my undergraduate degree in Biology. Through a series of different turns in my life, I ended up as an art director in advertising instead. But my love for animals and especially dogs has always been there. It’s incredible that I’ve been able to combine my passion for animals with my love for art and design. And I always tell people you have to photograph what you know and love because photography is a passionate, emotional art form. And what the photographer feels is what’s captured in the camera. When I had to hire photographers in my days as an art director at an ad agency, I looked for photographers that really knew their subject and could shoot it well. I would never hire a a food photographer to shoot cars. The same thing applies to me and my own career – I’m fiercely passionate about dogs, about capturing their bond with their owners, and have no plans to shoot anything else!

Isn’t she great?

If you want to see more photos Grace took of Pabst, the World’s Ugliest Dog, check out her blog post here, and be sure to check out more of Chon’s portfolio on her web site.

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Des Moines, Iowa, painter Stephanie Fitzsimmons is good people. She passionately supports dog rescue and adoption and has even participated in convoluted, multi-state rescue efforts and has taken in a passel of homeless dogs herself. She’s super nice and friendly and into wholesome stuff like photography and travel and the outdoors. Even if she weren’t such a good person, though, I’d still think her paintings were wicked cool.

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The first painting above is of husky mix Takoda, one of Fitzsimmons’ dogs. Steph creates many of her paintings from photographs, and she explains her process step by step here.

Fitzsimmons is so kind that she even agreed to submit to a short interview for phetched:

1. Is there a breed (or a particular dog) you haven’t had the opportunity to paint yet that you’d really like to? Why?

I’m dying to paint an English Bulldog! I went to a “beautiful bulldog” competition recently and snapped photos of several. I am totally captivated by their wrinkly, colorful and expressive faces!

2. I love the bright colors in the backgrounds of your paintings. At what point in your process do you usually decide what color the background will be?

When I look at the dog’s photo, I usually have an immediate image in my head of how the painting might look including the background. I like to choose a color that creates a vibrant contrast against the dog’s coat color. If I’m painting it for someone, I first ask if they have a preference on background color – a color they like or something that fits their home decor. If it works, I will use it.

3. You like taking photographs of dogs, also. What’s the craziest breed mix you’ve ever seen?

Basset Hound mixes are always the craziest! A few weeks ago I saw a dog that looked like a Basset Hound wearing a brightly spotted English Setter coat, with a large and wrinkled mastiff-style head. The most unique dog I’ve ever seen! There is a photo on my blog.

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4. We’ve all seen those poor people who get portrait tattoos that look frighteningly nothing like the photograph of their loved one. When you do commissioned paintings from photographs, do you ever worry that a dog’s owners will feel you haven’t “captured” their dog well enough in your painting?

I am my own worst critic! I am always nervous showing the owner the finished painting. Fortunately everyone has been totally satisfied so far, and occasionally I am told that I captured a detail or an aspect of the dog’s personality that wasn’t even visible in the provided photos.

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5. You and your husband live with a pack of five fairly large dogs. If your life were made into a reality show, what would it be called?

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Thanks, Steph, for answering our questions! And as for the question that you’re probably asking, Dear Reader, “Can Steph paint my dog?” — the answer is yes! You can find out more about WOOF Factory and inquire about commissions on Fitzsimmons’ web site, here. She also has a few paintings for sale on Etsy.

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