Author Interview: Veterinarian Gary Weitzman Discusses Pet Care & Writing Nonfiction for Kids

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Today we welcome veterinarian Dr. Gary Weitzman, who is also the president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society. We got to chat about writing nonfiction for kids with regards to his two National Geographic books for kids Fetch! How to Speak Dog, Training Guide with Aubre Andrius (2020) and Pounce! How to Speak Cat, Training Guide with Tracey West (2020) that help kids learn how to care for their dogs and cats.

Thanks so much for talking to us today and congratulations on your new titles for children, Fetch! and Pounce! which are books for training dogs and cats. First, tell us a bit about your interest and involvement in animal welfare.

I think I was born loving animals and wanting to make them the central theme of my life. As trite as it sounds, I decided to become a veterinarian when I discovered the James Herriot novels—All Creatures Great and Small (St. Martin’s Press, 1981) and All Things Bright and Beautiful (1978)—by the time I was 6 years old.

He was my hero for so many years. His accounts of working in freezing cold barns in North England winters was like a dream for me. So much so that I was the president of the Bovine Society many years later during my first year in vet school.

While my first exposure to animals was two dimensional in books as a child, ironically, I didn’t get my first dog until I was 16 years old. By then I had completely worn my parents down about a dog by filling the house with dozens of gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, iguanas, chameleons and a parakeet.

They finally broke and I got my first dog, Cocoa, from an animal shelter in Framingham, MA. I remember my mother and brother going with me to look for a dog with my father’s last words ringing in our ears: “Do not come home with a dog!” We did. While Cocoa launched me on my life-long dedication to dogs, she actually became my dad’s best friend and companion for 17 years!

Living in a state without a veterinary school, I knew that it was going to be an uphill battle to get in. Then Massachusetts opened up the newest vet school in the country at Tufts. That was my salvation and I got in after a couple of attempts. Since then, I’ve done pretty much everything you can do as a veterinarian—companion animal practice, public health, international medicine, and now, my life’s work, shelter medicine and animal welfare as president of the Washington Animal Rescue League in DC (now known as the Humane Rescue Alliance) and now San Diego Humane Society for the past nine years.

What led you to write about animals for children?

After you’ve been practicing for a couple of decades, you have so many great stories and experiences, some heartwarming, some humorous, some embarrassing, you have to ask yourself, why not write a book. I was co-host of “The Animal House,” a national public radio show out of WAMU in DC about conservation, animal health and behavior. That show went on for six years and caught the attention of editors at National Geographic.

Now, ten years later, I’ve had the fortune to write nine books with National Geographic about pets, pet health and behavior for kids and adults caring for them, including two new ones last year called Fetch! A How to Speak Dog Training Guide and Pounce! A How to Speak Cat Training Guide (National Geographic Kids Books, ages 8-12).

While most of my books have been for kids and their parents, my tenth and latest book is due out Spring 2021 and is actually a bookazine condensation of The National Geographic Guide to Pet Health, Behavior, and Happiness which was published in 2018. But most of my books are for kids which is a way for me to give back the gift that Dr. Herriot gave me nearly 60 years ago.

Pets are a part of many children’s lives. Even better when they’re not and you can introduce them to kids and watch them light up when they see a kitten or a puppy. Like I do. Healthy pets are often a lot more about behavior than they are about anatomy and physiology so it’s important that kids know how to communicate with their pets. Fetch! and Pounce! offer easy-to-use tips to strengthen the bond between kids and their pets.

What can you tell us about your process of writing nonfiction for children? What sorts of craft techniques did you employ? What did you keep in mind?

I wish I could tell you I had a process. I really don’t. I write like I talk and have spent the last couple of decades talking to families about their pets. Writing for nonfiction for challenging because you have to find ways to explain a number of important topics so that children can absorb them. The best way to do that is to wrap the facts around a story.

In the Nat Geo books, we constantly look for a hook to hang the educational part on. It can be a story, an actual Hollywood movie animal, or a fun fact itself. We use a lot of photos, colors and fun graphics to keep the information digestible and understandable. The great thing about Nat Geo is the layout and I have to admit that’s the key here. By breaking the text up into sections – body, side bars, highlights, and spot facts, it’s very readable and attractive to kids…and adults!

For our readers who may have adopted a furry friend during this period that so many of us are at home, what are some tips for training the newest member of the family?

My pit bull mix Betty is my constant companion these days. No idea how I would have gotten through the pandemic without her. At San Diego Humane Society, we witness that special connection each and every day. Keeping animals with the people who love them is at the core of everything we do. One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a national increase in pet adoptions and fostering. Thanks to quarantine measures keeping most of us at home, many families are now able to really care for animals in ways none of us expected a year ago.

That, in turn, has led to a real adoption boom in 2020. Not only are there fewer animals in shelters throughout the United States, more families are fostering and even more are seeking veterinary care for their pets in ways we’ve never seen before. Part of this certainly is due to the fact that we’re with our pets 24/7 now but I think it’s more than that. COVID has given us few things to celebrate these past 10 months and we’re holding on to happiness with a tight grip. For many, that happiness is embodied in our pets. It’s been the one silver linings of this global tragedy—animal welfare is doing well. Even evolving to better meet the needs of communities to keep their pets. Animals are wonderful companions and important reminders about the beauty and unconditional love that exists in both good times and bad.

Adopting a pet from a shelter can be a wonderful experience for your family, and one that helps to save the life of an animal in need. Social distancing creates more time to bond with a new cat, train a new dog and spend time with some of our amazing animals. It’s a win-win situation.

However, it is important to plan for the day when you may need to be home less often. Behavioral challenges are one of the leading reasons why pets are relinquished to animal shelters. We can reduce those numbers through proper training and ensuring that everyone in the family is ready to help in creating a successful transition.

A well-trained pet is a well-behaved pet. When our pets follow the rules — dogs knowing when to stop barking or jumping up, cats going into their carriers, they fit in better with us. That means life can run more smoothly for everyone.

A well-behaved dog is also a safe dog. Teaching your pup how to walk properly on a leash is important. When a dog understands “Heel” or “Sit,” he is safer from oncoming traffic. “Drop it” works wonders if she picks up something unsafe in her mouth at the park. It’s easy to see how these “tricks” can become so important to our dog’s health and wellness. As importantly, training means you’re spending time with your pet. For a dog, that enrichment is the world and can lead to a better, more adjusted life for everyone.

It’s the same for cats. If you teach your cat to get into a carrier, you’ll be able to take her to the vet easily or keep her from escaping outside if workers or guests are coming over. Training a cat to walk on a leash instead of letting her go outside on her own, can protect her from dangers such as accidents, trauma and disease. If you teach your cat to sit on cue, you’ll have an easier time brushing her teeth, which will keep her healthy. Again, the big side benefit is that training means you’re spending time with your cat. That will pay off in spades.

In Both Fetch! and Pounce! you pose the question: “Can you teach an old dog (or cat) new tricks?” How should our readers who have older pets approach training? And how might this wisdom apply to learning to write books?

The first rule of all dog and cat training is the easiest to learn: bribery. To be accurate, it’s really reinforcement, which is the key to animal behavior. In the training world, we talk about reinforcement and punishment. I’m not a fan of punishment, especially when reward works so well. Dogs are incredibly motivated by reward, and food is at the top of the list of motivators! But for some dogs, playing with a special toy that comes out only during training can also be very rewarding. This is all positive reinforcement.

Using positive reinforcement and patience, you can teach any dog or cat new tricks, no matter what their age. So much for the old adage. When your pet doesn’t perform these trainings perfectly, it’s important not to get upset.  We all have bad days. And we all have days we’re not really in the mood for training (how’s that sixth Zoom of the day going for you?). You might even want to walk away, give your dog or cat a short break, or stop training for the day.

I’d argue the same thing goes for writing. If you’re having a day when the words don’t make sense on the page, walk away and give yourself a break. Don’t be hard on yourself because it does no good in the end. You’ve got to be in the zone. That goes for our animals too. A final word that may be obvious – in both training and writing, practice is key. When it happens, it’s a reward unto itself.

What are some of your favorite children’s books featuring animals? What makes them so special?

I think Nat Geo Kids deserves some solid props on their library on kids’ books about animals. They do a great job with them. And, as I mentioned, I still love the James Herriot series because they highlight the human-animal bond. And the current PBS series is just as good as the books themselves.

I’m not a big fan of cute so I really appreciate when a book covers animals in a realistic way. In many cases, that’s animals being part of our human existence, not just entities unto themselves.

I love adult books like Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain (Harper, 2008). That one was poetry. A much better book than movie!

Cynsational Notes

Gary Weitzman joined San Diego Humane Society as its President and CEO in 2012. A Certified Animal Welfare Administrator, he has served as Chair of the Board of the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement and is currently a board member of Shelter Animals Count, and Mama’s Kitchen, a San Diego nonprofit committed to providing food for people with chronic illnesses. An Air Force veteran, he earned a double BA in Biology and English from Colby College, a Master’s in International Public Health from Boston University and his DVM from Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Weitzman was the former co-host of the nationally distributed public radio program The Animal House which ran for 7 years, and is the author of eight books published by National Geographic: Everything Dogs with Becky Baines, How to Speak Dog with Aline Alexander Newman (2013), How to Speak Cat with Aline Alexander Newman (2013), The Complete Guide to Pet Health, Behavior, and Happiness and from National Geographic Kids are Dog Breed Guide, and Cat Breed Guide.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.