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Ethical Dog Breeder Interview #2

Thank you Halina at Varkata Labradors and Leonbergers for agreeing to this interview. I love following the antics of your various puppies as they adventure around your farm.

My next book, “The Boy Who Dared” will reveal the horror of unscrupulous puppy farms, (also known as puppy mills) where dogs are treated as commodities, their welfare is neglected resulting in many of the puppies born with life-limiting defects and illnesses. People often think the only alternative is rescue dogs, but there is a case for ethical dog breeders such as yourself also. What are the positives of buying a dog from a breeder?

In October 2018 it became the law for breeders of dogs to have a breeding licence issued by their local council. In order to obtain a licence numerous high standard conditions must be adhered to. The premises are inspected by the council and the dogs by a vet. By purchasing a puppy from a licensed breeder you know that checks have been made and standards met. Many breeders will health check their dogs and only breed if the health is up to breed standard. Great care and research goes into choosing the correct mate for both health and temperament reasons.

Can you tell me, what made you decide to breed puppies and how often do you have a set of puppies to take care of?

Back in about 2003, I acquired a two year-old black Labrador from a friend I worked with. She and I had the most amazing bond and she was the most loving loyal girl I’ve ever had. I decided it would be lovely to have a puppy from her to keep and so it was decided to find her a suitable mate, and that is where it all began. Raising the puppies was an amazing experience and such a privilege.

Just as puppy mills can be a bad start for puppies, a bad owner can be a terrible life for these fur-babies. What checks did you do to make sure that your puppies were going to safe homes?

As a breeder it is important that the puppies go to the best homes. On first registration of an interest in our puppies we like to talk over the telephone and get a feel of the family and find out the work commitments, family members and previous puppy experience. Once our puppies are four weeks old we invite interested families to visit, this gives us a good opportunity to start building that bond of trust. After this visit families may visit again (sometimes this is not possible due to distance).

You have been breeding for a lot of years now. If somebody reading this interview wanted to breed their dog, what would you warn them about that people often underestimate or get wrong?

Many people think that breeding dogs is easy money and easy to do. It’s not as simple as just putting the two together. Firstly, there is the health checks that need to be done, hip and elbow X-rays and eye tests and blood samples for genetic DNA testing. All these tests are costly. There is the licence to apply for and again this is costly. There are risks all along the journey, risks in the mating process where the bitch or dog could get hurt even though it is a natural process. There is the risk of the bitch losing her puppies and the big risk and worry of the whelping. It is not uncommon in a litter for a puppy to be stillborn. Then the first ten days are very important as it is during this time when the bitch can easily lie on a puppy and squash it. You must have plenty of time to spend with the bitch to watch this doesn’t happen. Once the puppies are up and about, they need to be socialised and follow an enrichment program to prepare them for moving on to their new homes. From four weeks the new families start to visit and this also helps the puppies socialise. A written puppy information pack is prepared and given to new families to assist them with raising the new addition. All the puppies are health checked by a vet prior to leaving us.

Many people miscalculate the time, cost and commitment of adding a dog to their family. Do you have any advice to help in any of these areas?

The most important things you can give a puppy is your time and love. The value of your house and belongings is not important to them. We don’t like our puppies to go to homes where they are going to be left alone for long periods of time. Puppies do well with routine and boundaries and you should start as you mean to go on. As well as having play time and exciting times, puppies also need to have calm and quiet times. Puppy classes are a good way of learning how to teach your puppy and it’s important that every house member follows the same training rules.

If you could change something about the breeding process, what would it be?

If I could change something about the breeding process I would like the Kennel Club to only register litters from parents that have been health checked and met the breed standards. I would also like potential puppy purchasers to be more educated about the Breeders Licence requirement.

Thank you so much for your time and wisdom. I’m so pleased there are ethical breeders such as yourself. Especially as we will be looking to purchase our next puppy soon. With your advice, we can make sure that we give our new puppy the best start.

“The Boy Who Dared” will be published 1 October 2022 and can be bought here

James has just one chance to save his dad, his friends and a hundred starving dogs. Can he face his greatest fear, before the criminal gang track him down?

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In Loving Memory

Last week on 8 September, we in the United Kingdom and all the Commonwealth countries lost our queen. She was a renowned dog lover. Indeed, whenever a corgi is spotted most people immediately think of the queen. She also had Labradors which I’m sure she loved just as much. Anyone who has owned a Labrador can tell you they are quite impossible not to love!

The month before, on 8 August, my family and I lost our cherished family dog Monty (aka The Lord as named by his beloved dog walker). The devastation this caused especially at such a tender age – just three years old – feels irreparable. But I know that one day the pain will ease.

The month before that, on 8 July, I lost one of my closest friends, Judy (Judge Judy I sometimes jokingly called her). She was my confidante, book geek, dog-obsessor. She, more than anyone, would have understood my pain of losing Monty.

It would be easy for all this to overwhelm me and for a while it did. I’m still crying lots. But in between the tears there are cherished memories.

The death of Her Majesty the Queen, has been devastating for the whole country. It is unsettling and like others, I feel a deep sadness. However, Her Majesty lead a privileged and long life. Of course there were troubles and difficulties but overall, I think it’s a fair judgement that the queen’s life was a life well lived.

For me it was harder to deal with the personal loss of my fabulous friend Judy. Although older than me, she hadn’t finished living her life. Not even close. She found her beloved husband late in life and her two Westies were still young and are missing her. She was a wonderful person, although the most useless driver I ever met. She was fun and whacky and we needed at least another 20 years of putting the world to rights. But the positives I take is that she did meet her beloved John. She did have lots of dogs. She did experience being an adored grandma. She did read a million or so books. She was so loved.

And then there is the loss of Monty. We loved him so very much and were determined to make sure he was the healthiest dog in the world so that he would live a long, healthy happy life. He died at three years old. It wasn’t our fault and it wasn’t his fault. A tragic accident (he apparently ate rat poison or an animal recently deceased from rat poison). Initially I struggled to draw any positives. Three years is so short. But I can draw positives. Monty never knew cruelty. He never knew loneliness or neglect. He never knew fear. All he knew was love, fun and joy. From us and from his doting dog-walker.

Fittingly, he was with me as I wrote my book “The Boy Who Dared” designed to teach the readers how cruel and dangerous puppy mills are. My research was harrowing. I learnt about dogs who lived their whole lives never seeing the light of day. Giving birth to litter after litter of puppies in dark dirty pens, only hearing aggressive shouts and the only touch, a hard fist. The puppies born in these dingy conditions were often born with genetic defects causing long-term health issues and early death bringing deep sorrow to their new owners.

Illustration by Michael J Carr

As my initial grief over losing Monty began to settle down, I compared his life to these poor unfortunate dogs. I realised that quality is more important than quantity. He only had three years, but those years were top quality. He lived like a royal. He was happy and loved every single second of his life. I have nothing to regret about the way we raised him. It has made me more determined than ever to spread the word, in Monty’s name: please, for the love of dogs, never, ever buy a puppy from a puppy mill. They are in it for profit only, so if they can’t sell the dogs they will close their business. There are plenty of ethical dog breeders (see interview here) and of course there are lots of wonderful rescues. Please in Monty’s name, learn how to recognise a puppy mill breeder. There is information here from the RSPCA. Make sure you see the lactating mum with the puppy and make sure you see the puppy in their home – not in a pub or car park. Click here for RSPCA information on how to find a good breeder.

In Monty’s memory, in my dog-doting friend Judy’s memory and in our dog-loving queen’s memory – let’s all make sure that we never support a cruel puppy farm.

You can pre-order “The Boy Who Dared” here.

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Seven Surprising Ways to Break Through Writer’s Block

Don’t panic! It happens to almost everyone. There are ways through. Deep breath…

Write Rubbish!

Honestly. NOBODY is going to see it. You set yourself a time and start writing. It only needs to be 30 minutes. No matter how bad it is, it’s more than nothing. Be as ridiculous as you like. Take the mic and write something atrocious. It’s okay, because it’s like a leaky tap, it starts dribbling and then all of a sudden it just gushes the words out. And somehow, they start to get better all by themselves. You can fix the beginning later – just go with the flow.

Clean the windows/floors/vacuum/exercise

Mundane jobs take no thought but occupy you enough to stop you hyper-fixating on your writer’s block. Moreover, if you’re trying to enjoy writing, knowing that you have visitors tomorrow and your house is a state, it puts you into what Prof. Steve Peters (of The Chimp Paradox) calls “the dark playground” – you are trying to do something pleasurable, but it is ruined by the nagging guilt at the back of your mind that you should be doing something else. This definitely contributes to writer’s block. Just think – if it doesn’t work, at least your house will be gleaming! Exercise can have exactly the same effect – did you tell yourself you would run twice a week but haven’t done it? Get out for that run, you’ve ticked a task off your list and allowed your mind to run free with you.

Guess

Have you ever sat somewhere for a period of time with nothing to do? Like a train station for example? I like to “people watch” I look at them and try to guess their story. Who are they? Where are they going? Why are they going there? What are they like at home? I get clues from the way they dress, their body language and interactions, what they have with them and so forth. I’m probably wrong 100% of the time – I’ll never know, but they give me great writing material. You can do the same by visiting your local library and looking at book covers in your genre, then try to guess the story. Or visit a local art museum. There is inspiration all around, once you tear your eyes away from the screen/paper you’re using to write your story.

Walk through nature

The more you panic about your writer’s block, the more uptight you become which just adds to the mental immobility. Go for a walk. Make sure there is nature around you. If you’re lucky enough to be close to open countryside, that is perfect, but if you are in a city, head to the nearest park or graveyard. It is important to understand that you haven’t gone there to think up solutions to your block. You are purely there to allow yourself to unwind and your mind to expand. Engage all your senses: look up at the sky, look around you at the flowers, bushes and trees, listen for the insects and birdsong, smell the flowers, touch the leaves and the petals. Remove your shoes and press your bare feet into the earth to really connect. If you have an animal with you, stroke it. Lots.

Read similar books

Know your genre and age group, know your target audience. Then pop to the library and borrow lots of books in that genre. Allow yourself a break from writing to read, but keep a notebook and pen handy. Sometimes a book will inspire new ideas, sometimes you will think of how you would have written that book differently. Either way, ideas will start swimming around inside your head.

Chat to your book friend about favourite books

We all have that one geeky book friend to whom we can chat overly-enthusiastically about books for hours upon end and they don’t look at us like some kind of weirdo. Go visit them – in person preferably, but over Zoom if necessary. Ask them what they’re reading, tell them about what you recently read, let the conversation go wherever it wants. You’re not asking them for help. You’re just enjoying chatting about books – any genre. Oftentimes that’s enough to unplug the blockage.

Sentence starters / Writing prompts

You can internet search thousands of sentence starters and writing prompts, but here are just a few from me:

  • Henry had an unsettling feeling he’d been here before…
  • It was 2am, too early for sunrise, yet the room was bathed in a bright light…
  • The two old ladies, held on to each other as they laughed and laughed…
  • Just around the corner, Jack’s life would be changed forever…
  • The two girls skipped down the beach hand in hand, never to be seen again…
  • It was the same coffee shop. The same street. The same time of day. Yet there was one big difference…
  • Deep under the ocean, something was stirring…
  • “Two people can see and hear the same thing, yet interpret them very differently,” the detective thought to himself.
  • The apparent strangers exchanged a brief look. Somebody else at the airport noticed that look too…
  • Angela arrived unusually late for work, her face red and her usually immaculate hair wild. She rushed into her office, slamming the door behind her…
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Seven Reasons Why a Library is so Important in a Secondary School

L = LITERACY. “About 90% of vocabulary once children get older is actually learnt through reading” (Gill Jones HMI, Deputy Director, Schools and Early Education, Ofsted). How often have you noticed the vocabulary of a person and judged them on it? When one person comments the weather is volatile and another comments it’s p!$$!ng down, we judge the first to be more intelligent than the other. It isn’t necessarily true, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more students read, the more words they learn and become familiar with and eventually use. They also begin to spell more accurately and construct their sentences in a more sophisticated manner. This helps with more than just exam grades – it lifts their quality of life.

I = INTELLIGENCE. “Reading enjoyment has been reported as more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status” (OECD, 2002). Obviously, reading a lot of non-fiction will teach the reader a great deal about each subject they’re studying, but readers learn a surprisingly large amount from fiction too. Authors research carefully – if the book students are reading is set during Victorian times, they may learn a lot about the different types of horse-drawn carts or how the upper-classes socialised. If a book includes a badger clan, the writer will weave all sorts of badger facts into the story (I should know – you can read my book “The Boy Who Couldn’t” here. Spoiler alert: it has badgers in it.)

B = BELONGING. = Librarians are empathetic, compassionate, kind and understanding. The world can be a complicated and scary place for many teenagers. They often feel awkward, like they don’t know where they fit in. The library is a great social space for people who want to mix on their own terms. They can go in to choose a book and stay buried in it, or they can begin to make friends with like-minded students, often over a same taste in books, or playing a board game or card games such as Uno. An experienced librarian is able to recognise when to help students to begin to mix with their peers and when they just want to be left to themselves. The pastoral role of a librarian should not be underestimated.

R = READING FOR PLEASURE. “There is no such thing as a child who hates to read, there are only children who have not found the right book” (Frank Serafini). It doesn’t matter how much we dangle carrots or chastise, if a child does not enjoy reading and does not see the value in it, they will only ever read the minimum, while the teacher or parent/carer stands over them. However, an expert well-read librarian, can help children find the right book for them (in interest and level), once the student finds “that one book” it leads to another and another.  It is possible to convert previously reluctant readers into voracious readers. Thanks to public libraries, they’re also set up with a free hobby for life.

A = ACTIVE. School libraries never stand still. They are constantly changing and evolving according to latest research, best practices, new releases. A good librarian will be up to date with prize winning novels, interests and trends such as books relating to the latest NetFlix series. Libraries are vibrant places for students to spend time in.

R = RESEARCH. Whether discovering the capital cities of countries, the life cycle of a humming bird or understanding their own sexuality, the library should be seen as a safe place to ask questions. However, the librarian cannot be expected to be the expert in all areas, or sometimes, the student may be embarrassed to ask their question to an adult, therefore, the library should be well stocked with a wide selection of non-fiction books covering all areas of the Dewey Decimal System. Children who know how to research properly and not rely on social media, will develop into well-informed adults.

Y = YOUTH. Young people need to feel seen and heard. They need to be able to relate to the characters in the books they are reading. Therefore a well-managed school library will ensure there is a diverse range of characters within the books, such as main characters being black, or from a working class background or LGBTQ+ or different religions or having a disability and so forth. They should also ensure that the authors who write the books and visit the school are also diverse.

In summary, all schools should have a well-stocked school library with a dedicated school librarian. This gives every child an equal chance to develop a love of reading, discover a source of reliable information and all the benefits that accompany such resources.

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Questions for students to ask an author

Every author is different; they come from different backgrounds, have different experiences and different interests. Therefore it is wise to research as much as you can about the author first so that you can ask some really interesting questions relevant to them and their writing. These questions are designed to help you, but there will always be additional questions that come to mind when you are researching your author, so jot them down as you do your research.

Questions about writing

  • When did you first realise you wanted to be an author? What inspired you?
  • What is your favourite genre to write? Why do you like writing it?
  • What hobbies do you like? Do they appear in your writing?
  • There are a lot more books now that include LGBTQAI+ characters and characters with black or brown skin or characters from diverse cultural backgrounds. Is this something you actively seek to do? Do you think it is possible to write authentically about a characteristic if you don’t have it yourself?
  • How many books have you written? How long does it take to write each one?
  • Where do you find your inspiration to write?
  • Do you read your reviews – do negative reviews upset you? How do you deal with them?
  • Have you ever ghost-written for somebody famous?
  • How different is writing books for publishing compared to writing stories for school?
  • Do your write a little each day or do you write lots in one go followed by none for days?
  • What is your most common mistake that you or your editor has to fix?
  • How long do you spend researching compared to writing?
  • How much do you rewrite?
  • How much do you write per day – do you have time set aside?
  • Which is your favourite book that you have written and what is it that you like so much about it?
  • Which age group do you prefer to write for and why?
  • What made you want to be an author?
  • What’s the title of your next book?
  • What made you decide that you wanted to write for children?

Questions About Reading

  • Who is your favourite author? What is it that you like about them?
  • What is your favourite genre to read? What do you like about it?
  • Which author do you most admire and why?
  • What is it about your favourite childhood book that makes it so memorable?
  • Were you a reader when you were young? How did you get into reading?
  • Do you enjoy reading your own stories – have you ever cried or laughed out loud at one of your own stories?
  • What makes a story exciting in your opinion?
  • At what age did you start reading?
  • When a new book comes out in a series you like, do you re-read the whole series up to that book?
  • If you find an author you like, do you read everything they’ve written?

Other questions

  • How would you like history to remember you?
  • What were you like at school?
  • If you weren’t a writer, what would you want your job to be?
  • Do you have lots of author friends? Do you all know each other?
  • Do you like living where you are?
  • Have you kept in touch with friends from school?
  • Would you rather stop writing or stop reading?
  • What was your favourite subject at school?
  • What is your favourite food?
  • What genre of music do you enjoy?
  • Have you ever had any other jobs?
  • What did you think you wanted to be when you were still at school or have you always wanted to be an author?
  • Do you like being famous?
  • What would your job be if you weren’t an author?

How to avoid asking questions that may be rude!

There are some questions that we are taught never to ask – how old are you? How much do you earn? Do you have a disability? Are you gay? It’s personal information that somebody may not be comfortable sharing. However, it may be that the question is really relevant to you. Perhaps you want to know if the earnings are going to be enough for you personally if you make it a career. Maybe you have a disability and want to know if it will affect your chance of obtaining a literary agent or publishing deal. So here are some ways of asking those questions without causing offence. These questions do not ask what you want to know directly, but they open the path if the author wants to share more.

  • How old were you when you first started writing?
  • How old were you when you published your first book?
  • Do you think you will continue to write all your life?
  • Do you get paid per book or per publishing deal?
  • Is it possible to make a living from writing or do you need another job alongside?
  • How many books did it take before you could leave your day job to focus solely on writing?
  • Do you think a writer with a disability should write a character with that same disability?
  • Is it possible to write a character with a disability if you have not experienced that disability yourself?
  • Do you think writers should include more LGBTQAI+ characters in books?
  • Can an author write authentically about LGBTQAI+ if they themselves have not experienced living that life?

I hope these questions will help you when an author visits your school. The authors are usually just as excited to meet you as you are to meet them! Enjoy the visit 😊