Pet Tales: Novel ways to love dogs

A lovely older dog lounges on the cover of "The Book of Why," although this novel is not a dog story, per se. It's a story about love and loss and grief and sorrow, about one man's struggle to move on in a life that seems to lack meaning, direction or joy.

This beautifully written and pleasantly quirky novel by Nicholas Montemarano is about much more, but I don't want to give away too much of the story.

Why is "The Book of Why" in Pet Tales? Because I loved it, and although it isn't a "dog book," the dog in the book is an important character from beginning to end.

The female dog is named Ralph. She doesn't talk, solve murders or rescue children (I've passed on the chance to write about books where dogs do all of those things). Ralph lives in the novel the way dogs live in the lives of dog lovers everywhere -- sleeping a lot, playing fetch and loving the people who love her.

In the early pages of the book we learn that Ralph is 12 years old, and we see that her human companion, a widower named Eric Newborn, is headed toward another loss:

"I have the dog, too -- a long-haired German shepherd. She used to be hers, then ours, now mine, but I think of the dog, still, as ours," he says in the first-person narrative.

At the end of the book, the author thanks many people, including his wife, Nicole Michels, and their son, Dangiso, 4. The acknowledgments end with: "Finally, of course, Ralph -- best dog in the universe."

"Twelve years ago, I became a dog owner, and dogs started popping up in my work," Mr. Montemarano said in a phone interview. "I draw upon my own life and experience as a starting point in the fiction I write."

"His" Ralph, a German shepherd, was Ms. Michels' dog when first they met. "Her" dog became "their" dog.

Mr. Montemarano, 43, is an associate professor of English and department chair at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "The Book of Why," published in hardback in 2013 by Little, Brown and Co., is now out in paperback for $15.

There are other quality writers who work dogs and other animals into their fiction, most notably Amy Hempel. A chimp plays a heartbreaking role in her famous and widely anthologized short story "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried."

Animals are important characters in many of Ms. Hempel's short stories, including "In the Animal Shelter" and "At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom."

A wife who is losing her husband to another woman in "The Dog of the Marriage" works as a dog trainer at a school for the blind. The character says, "I work with these dogs every day, and their capability, their decency, shames me."

In real life, Ms. Hempel volunteers as a puppy raiser and trainer for Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Mr. Montemarano did some of my homework, recommending other writers and books that include dogs: "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski; "Dog Years," a memoir by poet Mark Doty; "My Dog Tulip" by the late British writer J. R. Ackerley; and anything by Jack London.

Ms. Hempel and Jim Shephard co-edited "Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs." And here's a fun fact: Mr. Montemarano met Ms. Hempel when they were both teaching in the Master's of Fine Arts program at Bennington College. He says she's "a lovely person."

Rocco dog vests

The "Occasions" campaign for Groupon Grassroots raised more than $335,000 to buy protective vests for police K-9 dogs all over the country. Each will be embroidered with this: "In Memory of K9 Rocco, Pittsburgh Police Department."

More than 350 law enforcement dogs will receive vests from Vested Interest in K-9s Inc., selected by Groupon as a charity partner in the online campaign that ran Feb. 15-March 5. The vests are bullet-protective and stab-protective.

Rocco, 8, was stabbed in late January while helping Pittsburgh police officers make an arrest. The German shepherd dog died two days later.

Since 2009, Vested Interest in K-9s has been raising money for K-9 vests, which cost $950 each. Prior to the Rocco campaign, the Massachusetts nonprofit had provided vests for 585 dogs in 39 states. The vests are made in the United States and are available to new K-9 graduates as well as dogs whose vests have expired. Donations can be made at or mailed to PO Box 9, East Taunton, MA 02718.

Golden cancer study

"Sundance is saving other Goldens," says the flier advertising a public meeting about the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study by the Morris Animal Foundation. The study needs more dogs.

Sundance, 2, is healthy and happy in Conway, Beaver County. In fact, after more than two years of training, he's ready to start working as a search and rescue dog. But his breed is especially prone to cancer, and some goldens get cancer at very young ages.

John Osheka, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Golden Retriever Club, enrolled Sundance in the study when he was a puppy. Once a year, his veterinarian collects blood, urine, hair and nail clippings for the study.

Mr. Osheka is retired after teaching science in Pittsburgh public schools for many years and working as superintendent in the New Brighton School District in Beaver County. The study could help all breeds of dogs as well as people, he said.

Researchers need golden retrievers younger than 2 years old for their research. The study has 1,069 dogs and it needs 3,000.

The meeting about the study will be held Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Sisters of Holy Family of Nazareth, 301 Bellevue Road, Ross (15229). Information: Facebook page Golden Retriever Lifetime Study or

Photo fundraiser

Help the Animal Rescue League & Wildlife Center raise money while getting a professional photograph of your pet. Lifestyle photographer Nicole Begley is giving discounts to people who book sessions before March 31. Any classic, studio or equine session will be $95 (regularly $125-$150) and the entire fee will be donated to the Larimer shelter. The photo shoot can be held anytime through August. Go to or call 724-766-6103.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Contact Linda Wilson on her Facebook page, or 412-263-3064.