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|Ask Dog Lady Revealed
By A.J. Mistretta
They write to her from New York to Ireland and all across the world asking advice on their four-legged pals and seeking wisdom on canine conundrums. Some questions are serious, like “What do I do with the dog now that my boyfriend and I have split?” Others are more for amusement, such as “Do all of us have inner dogs? And if so, what are they telling us?”
All queries are accepted and many are answered in that same witty prose that has made Ask Dog Lady a hit among its readers. Behind the mask of this doyenne of doggie knowledge is newspaper veteran Monica Collins.
From her Boston home, Collins, who has written for papers ranging from the Boston Globe to USA Today, spins her words on the intricacies of the canine world with the help of her friend and inspiration, Shorty, a West Highland Terrier.
So what is Ask Dog Lady? What it’s not is expert advice on health or behavioral issues. Collins, as Dog Lady, leaves that to the veterinarians and trainers. Instead, hers is a humor-filled lifestyle column—a sort of Dear Abby for the dog-loving set. “It’s about the emotional connections, the relationships, that people have with their dogs,” she says. Since creating Dog Lady, Collins has written more than 200 columns responding to well over 600 questions.
And most are answered with a good dose of humor. “A wise person has said to me that ‘with humor you can deal with any problem,’” says Collins. “I think our dogs can teach us a lot about joy, about living each day as if it’s the first day of the rest of your life.”
Sometimes the questions are really more about the relationships between people than about a dog. Take Bailey’s owner Karen who wrote in that her husband had suddenly become very irritated with everything Bailey was doing. Said Karen: “Last night, he actually suggested that we get rid of her, and he was dead serious. He says I put her needs above his, and that he resents me because the dog is ‘ruining our house.’ Is he right?”
Dog Lady’s response? Hubby needs some attention. She tells Karen to sit down with him and discuss the matter calmly. “Listen to his complaints,” she writes. “Summon all your strength and tell your husband he’s Number One. Men want to imagine they’re top dogs. …An intimate conversation might lead your spouse to realize his folly in wanting to abandon the dog.”
The letter illustrates a central point in most of the questions Collins receives. “It’s always about miscommunication,” she says. “In most advice columns you read, you realize that that the dispenser of advice is really advocating for reason, logic communication and rational thought. It makes sense.”
Finding a new direction
Collins got her start in the news business while in college in New York when she took a
summer job handling classified ads for The Village Voice. She had gigs at Atlantic Monthly and The Real Paper in Boston before accepting a job as a television critic for the Boston Herald.
“I had no experience writing about television, I just wanted to write general features,” she recalls. “I told the editor, ‘I’ve never written about TV before.’ And he said, ‘You own one don’t you? That’s good enough.’”
She spent a good part of her career writing television criticism, but something was missing. She found out what that was in 1998. “I had been through a lot in my life recently,” she says of that time nearly a decade ago. “My mother and a favorite aunt had died. I was walking through Riverside Park with my father and suddenly all these dogs appeared across Riverside Drive. I was just overcome by this site.”
Collins told her father she was going to get a dog. He was skeptical of the idea.
“Up until that point I was the hard career woman. I devoted everything to my job. But at the moment that I saw this site of pure joy in Riverside Park, I knew I wanted to be a part of that.”
Still, being the analytical type, Collins did a great deal of research before narrowing her breed choices down to two: the West Highland Terrier (Westie) or Scottish Terrier (Scottie).
She called an ad in the newspaper for Westies and agreed to put a deposit down on a puppy in a recently birthed litter. But when it was time to go get the puppy weeks later, Collins had second thoughts. “I wavered all summer long and friends started asking, ‘What about that dog you were getting?’” When the breeder called one last time, Collins took the drive with a friend to meet this prospective new puppy. What she found was a dog that had no interest in her whatsoever. “He backed into a corner barking and growling and I really thought to myself, ‘I don’t want that dog.’”
Prepared to go home sans canine, Collins was startled when another puppy came bounding into the room and immediately jumped in her lap. It was love at first sight. She took him home and named him Shorty.
And with that, says Collins, her life began changing. “Just from walking Shorty around the neighborhood I walked off 40 pounds,” she says. “We were going to new places in my neighborhood I had never seen before. And we began hanging out with a group of dog people every morning at this field near my house which sort of became an ad hoc dog park.”
The newly formed group dubbed itself the Dog Owners Group, or D.O.G., and began lobbying city hall for certain privileges like off-leash time. The group even had its own newsletter published by Collins.
“I needed (copy) to fill the pages,” she says. “I had always wanted to write an advice column so I decided to include one in the newsletter. I found a piece of clip art of a woman holding a dog and that’s how I created Ask Dog Lady.”
There are no bad dogs
After just a few columns, Collins was fielding questions from readers of the newsletter about the identity of Dog Lady. They had no idea it was her. “I realized I was developing a distinct voice,” she says. “I wasn’t writing it as me, it was really this other character.”
Over time, people left the neighborhood and D.O.G. fell apart. But Collins wasn’t ready to give up Dog Lady. She emailed clips of the column to the editor of a national dog magazine and Ask Dog Lady found a new home. Over time, Collins was able to move the column into the newspaper realm where she felt more comfortable. Today, Ask Dog Lady runs in 14 community newspapers in the Boston area and another in Maine along with a Vancouver-based dog magazine and this magazine. Collins has also developed a wildly popular Web site, AskDogLady.com, that features some of her best columns and provides readers with an easy way to email in their questions. The site averages 800 readers and 8,000 Web hits a day.
Collins’ ultimate goal: to have Ask Dog Lady syndicated across the country. “There are so many dog people out there and I think readers really respond to this voice. Many of them get into the spirit of the whole thing and will even incorporate humor into their questions.”
While many questions are light-hearted, some are troublesome. Collins says she averages one letter a month from owners asking whether or not they should put their dog to sleep. “They will describe the dog’s behavior, how old he is, etcetera, and then ask ‘what do you think I should do?’ And I realize they’re writing to me because they need to write to someone.”
Collins answers every one of those letters immediately and always the same way: I cannot tell you what to do. She tells the owners to consult with their veterinarian and anyone they would ask advice from. But she says those are the letters that weigh on her the most.
On AskDogLady.com, Collins writes “Dog Lady believes there are no bad dogs, just misguided owners.” What people often don’t realize, she says, is that they can get their dogs to do just about anything—if they put their mind to it. “If I have a purpose or a deeper reason for writing Ask Dog Lady, it’s to promote responsibility in the care of one’s animals,” she says. “That’s the basic, underlying message. But the higher, giddy purpose of the column is to have fun with that relationship. Some problems are serious, most of them are not.”
And perhaps Ask Dog Lady appeals to readers for some of the same reasons people have thumbed through newspapers for decades looking for the advice columns. Says Collins: “A lot of people read advice columns because they want to see that their problems really aren’t so big after all.”