Popular canine mystery author Laurien Berenson shares how her stories come together
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Are dogs a detective’s best friend? That appears to be the case based on the numerous cozy mystery series that feature dogs as sidekicks, partners and inspiration to gumshoes and amateur sleuths alike. (Check out a list here: uexpress.com/pets/pet-connection/2016/4/25)
Sometimes dogs narrate the story from their own unique point of view; sometimes they’re involved in taking down the bad guy thanks to their keen sense of smell or other singular canine characteristics; and sometimes they are the catalyst, unleashing the action through their role as kidnap victim, dog sport competitor or grooming client, among the many different setups and settings that focus on dogs.
Cozies -- a subgenre of mysteries -- usually have a light tone and humor, even if a murder is involved. And usually the person solving the crime isn’t a professional -- well, not a professional detective, anyway.
Dogs add the perfect touch for lots of reasons. We talk to them, and they help us think things through -- the kind of help every detective needs. And they’re as entertaining in fiction as they are in life.
“Anyone who lives with dogs knows they have so much personality,” says Laurien Berenson, bestselling author of the Melanie Travis mystery series, which she began writing in 1995. “Dogs are characters. When you’re walking around the house and your dogs are with you, you’re -- at least at my house -- having a conversation with them, and they are responding in their way. It’s like having someone to bounce things off of.”
Berenson’s main character, Melanie Travis, is a special education teacher and mom who also shows her standard poodles. Melanie’s dogs are her pets, Berenson says, so when things happen, the dogs are generally involved, even if they aren’t necessarily helping her solve mysteries. They don’t speak as if they’re human or narrate the story like Spencer Quinn’s canine character Chet; instead, they behave like dogs.
Berenson comes from a dog-showing family herself and was showing standard and miniature poodles at the time she began writing mysteries, so including the dogs was natural. “I had always gone to dog shows, and it just made sense to me that this was a really good milieu,” she says.
Poodles aren’t the only dogs in Berenson’s books. Her editor didn’t want to have poodles on the cover of every book, so she began working in other breeds. One book, set in Kentucky, had a Jack Russell terrier because that breed is often seen in stables. “Sometimes I start with a breed and go, ‘Hey, that would be fun,’ and figure out how to build a plot around it. And sometimes I know what the plot’s going to be and a breed will just step up and be a natural for it.”
Berenson has a dog-themed spinoff of the Melanie Travis series featuring Melanie’s opinionated Aunt Peg, a dog show judge, and Peg’s sweet sister-in-law Rose. In “Peg and Rose Stir Up Trouble,” which came out in July, poodles abound as the two senior sleuths set out to solve the seemingly accidental death of Peg’s new beau.
Berenson’s latest Melanie Travis book, “A Furry Little Christmas,” came out in late September and combines two previous holiday-themed stories in a single book, making it a perfect stocking stuffer for the dog-loving mystery reader in your life.
If you’re interested in finding more pet-themed mysteries, I just finished reading Hugo Award finalist “The Spare Man” by Mary Robinette Kowal, a sci-fi riff on Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man.” It’s set on a cruise ship to Mars and features a delightful West Highland white terrier service dog named Gimlet, who plays an important role in bringing down the villain. And to give cat lovers a fair shake, I’m going to be turning the pages of “The Cat Who Wasn’t a Dog” by Marian Babson.
How to find
a dog trainer
Q: I need to find a trainer for my new dog. What should I look for?
A: First things first: Seek a trainer who uses rewards-based methods to teach and reinforce behaviors you want. This type of trainer will show you how to reward your dog for doing the right thing, help you prevent your dog from getting into trouble and teach you how to redirect unwanted behavior. They can also introduce you to strategies for channeling your dog’s energy, whether that is dog sports, puzzle toys, playing fetch or learning tricks.
The trainer you choose should have experience in working with your particular breed and in addressing your specific needs: teaching basic manners to a new puppy or dog; preparing for animal-assisted therapy visits; or learning to compete in dog sports. Some trainers can do all of the above, while others specialize in a certain area.
Your veterinarian can be a good place to start to get trainer recommendations. They may have a trainer or trainers that they work with regularly to help ensure that pets are comfortable visiting their clinic.
Dog-owning friends or your dog’s breeder may also be good sources, but it’s still important to check a trainer’s certifications and references from other clients.
If you are looking for a trainer who can prepare your dog for therapy visits or dog sports, start by reaching out to groups in your area that participate in those activities.
Trainer certifying organizations include the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and Fear Free Pets. Both have easy-to-search online databases. Don’t hesitate to ask how trainers qualify for the certification program, what it covers and whether it has a continuing education requirement. For more tips, check out the guidelines offered by Fear Free Pets here (fearfreehappyhomes.com/finding-a-trainer-or-behaviorist) and here (fearfreehappyhomes.com/finding-a-trainer-or-behaviorist-2). -- Mikkel Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Pet food label
changes to come
-- For the first time in more than 40 years, pet food labels will change. After eight years of study, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which sets guidelines for ingredient definitions, animal feed labels, feeding trials and laboratory analysis standards, has revised its model regulations for pet food and specialty pet food. The new guidelines, based on multiple rounds of consumer research and feedback from industry officials, include standardized nutrition information, clear ingredient statements and storage and handling instructions. Changes to look for include a nutrition facts box resembling those on human food labeling; an intended-use statement on the lower third of the front display panel; an ingredient statement that allows common names for vitamins; and optional handling and storage instructions.
-- Looking to buy pet health insurance? Call an agent instead of applying through the company’s website. You may discover that you are eligible for a discount on your premium if you are a first responder, in the military or retired military, or have some other affiliation. You may also be able to tailor your plan to more closely meet your needs.
-- If you visit the Museum of Osteology (skeletonmuseum.com) in Oklahoma City, don’t be surprised if you run into a feline member of the “skeleton crew,” Sir Indiana Bones. Acquired from the Moore Animal Welfare Adoption Center in 2019, the little black kitten has grown into a handsome office cat who enjoys spending his days discovering new places to hide and nap, rubbing against antlers and sniffing fish skeletons. Indy has more than 30,000 followers on Instagram and more than 100,000 on TikTok, making him instrumental in attracting visitors from around the world to the museum. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker is founder of the Fear Free organization, co-founder of VetScoop.com and author of many best-selling pet care books. Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about animals since 1985. Mikkel Becker is a behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/Kim.CampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.