As we celebrate the official 20th anniversary launch of Goodnewsforpets.com , we bring you a special interview with Steve Dale, our very first columnist. He is prolific and extraordinary in so many ways. He’s celebrated by others for many firsts.
In fact, he breaks news so often that his latest award – the inaugural AVMA Excellence in Media Award is his second from the esteemed organization. To me and to so many writers and journalists, his most admirable trait is his dogged persistence and pursuit of what is best for pets. We applaud him on his latest award and are so happy he has been an important part of the Goodnewforpets.com family. – Lea-Ann Germinder, Editor and Publisher
Congratulations on receiving the inaugural 2020 AVMA Excellence in Media Award. Since I’ve known you, you’ve been a champion of veterinary medicine but how did you get your start writing about pets?
I’ve always loved animals and animal stories. I loved to watch animal shows on TV with my dad. He instilled that love in me. I wish he could be here today to see me honored by the AVMA.
Before I started writing about pets I worked for a local newspaper in high school as a general assignment reporter, covering everything from village hall board meetings to sports.
I started working on pet stories when I was interning at WLS radio and pulled wire copy for a very very famous Chicago radio segment called “Animal Stories” with Larry Lujack and Tommy Edwards. Later when I was working as a producer at WCFL radio, I developed this character, Professor Penguin. I did a bit for a short time that I would come in and go on the air and play this fictional animal professor. For example, “And did you know that the albatross can fly halfway around the world before flapping its wings a second time?” I’d give this unusual animal fact in the Professor Penguin voice. For Bob and Betty Sanders, famous air personalities and wonderful people, I created a segment in their show called “All About Animals.” We won an award for it.
After the format at WCFL folded, I got a call from Crain’s Chicago Business to review restaurants. I ate really well! At the same time, I got a call from the Chicago Tribune and was asked to write an entertainment column, and then I asked to write feature stories about pets. As an entertainment reporter I followed Oprah around and I also interviewed movie stars when their movies came out, other famous people who were plugging products and books.
I interviewed everyone that came to Chicago from Jimmy Stewart to Lucille Ball to Gladys Knight. Meanwhile all pet stories on the feature side in the Tribune I authored and eventually I got to write a regular nationally syndicated pet column for what was then Tribune Media Services.
Have you ever totaled up how many interviews you’ve done, articles you’ve written and issues you’ve covered?
I’m honestly more focused on what I’m writing about today. Right now, my blog is like a daily column. If there is an issue about pets, I can write about it, push a button and have it out in minutes. I’ve been writing my blog for at least six years and I blog about eight to 10 times a week.
To answer your question, I wrote a syndicated column for 24 years at two columns a week. I’ve written for a variety of pet magazines and other publications, including sometimes the Chicago Tribune for many years. I’ve written a few books and contributed to many, including veterinary books, which for me are an incredible honor, being a non-veterinarian. Currently, I write for CATSTER, Veterinary Practice News, PetVet and Journal National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America.
It’s been said have been the most prolific pet writer in the past 30 years. I’m very lucky I’m still working and still ‘in it.’ You were there with me at the beginning.
When Goodnewsforpets was launched twenty years ago and I told you about it, you said, “I’m in.” What did you hope to achieve by our collaboration?
You asked me to do it and I was happy to but it was more than that. Many of us forget we stand on the shoulders of those that came before us. For me, it was Roger Caras and Mordecai Siegal. Mordecai, who ended up writing a column for you as well, told me a very important story.
He said he was out in the country and he ended up at Roger Caras’ house. Caras sat him down in the kitchen with his wife and they talked. Caras kept in touch, and soon said to Mordecai, “I’m going to take you under my wing.”
I joined the Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA) only because Mordecai called me out of the blue one day. I had heard of dog writers but I didn’t know anything about it. I had just started the syndicated column. Mordecai said, “I’m watching you and I want you to come to this (DWAA) dinner. I want you to put in for these awards and come in early enough where I could take you to lunch.”
We went to lunch and it was the start of a wonderful friendship. He told me, “Roger Caras had told him, I’m going to be next one. I didn’t do everything Roger did; I didn’t follow the same path, but I’m here, and you’re going to do the same. You’re going to create your own path, but you’re going to be the next big person.”
Mordecai wrote the expression, “Acquiring a dog maybe the only opportunity a human ever has to choose a relative.” They put that on a greeting card, and Morty sent me that greeting card. I brought it to the next DWAA dinner and had him sign it. I still have it right above my desk. I will never forget the influence he had on me because
Getting back to Goodnewsforpets.com, I somehow knew, I mean I loved social media from the start, and I don’t know that I could have told you there’s going to be this thing called Instagram and there’s going to be this thing called Twitter. Of course, I couldn’t have done that. But I jumped in.
In some way participating in Goodnewsforpets.com and helping promote my colleagues through the book reviews and helping you launch the site was a way for me to pay it forward.
What were some other reasons you participated in Goodnewsforpets.com?
With Goodnewsforpets.com, I’ve said in the past you were ahead of your time and I’m proud to have played a small part in it. For myself, I have always loved the immediacy of writing on the Internet. I loved writing for Goodnewsforpets and I certainly loved social media from the start. I love writing my blog and I have more readers for my blog than ever before. Out of all the things I’ve done, I like writing for the blog (www.stevedale.tv) the best. And I also create a regular blog newsletter, which is free.
You’ve covered just about everything from your first column for Goodnewsforpets.com about pet dumps to do you writing that pets’ paws smell like Fritos. Have the topics you’ve covered in 30 years pretty much remained the same or have they changed?
I sometimes cover the things that people are afraid to talk about. I’ve covered issues like breed bans which now people better understand. I thought declaw was barbaric and I said so long before its was fashionable to say so.
There are changes for the better. Pet owners are absolutely more informed. Information is at our fingertips. Topics like declaw resonate more. Millennials are driving these positive changes. Their pets are their fur babies.
For example, I wrote about breed bans and testified in cities all over about breed bans, opposing them. Happily, I haven’t had to do that for the past almost five years or more; it’s not as much of a thing. I think people now understand that the breed isn’t a problem; it’s the individual dog.
There are countless examples where I spoken about whatever topic it may be, such not selling dogs and cats at pet stores (because so many are sourced from puppy mills); let’s just say the American Kennel Club doesn’t have much positive to say about me. As the reality is that the AKC spends a lot of money and resources fighting these bans, which I support.
Let’s look at it from the other perspective. What about the questions you get from the public. Are they again, the same or have you seen a change over the last 30 years. What has been the most significant change?
The bond was there 20 or 30 years ago with companion animals; it’s more intense now, particularly among millennials. In any case, the human animal bond has since I’ve been doing this, grown with almost every passing year. In the past six to eight years, it’s really accelerated, and it’s the millennials that have driven that acceleration.
Now that the public also has all of these information sources, what should the public look for when seeking information about the care of their pets?
I love that question. While there is more information out there than ever before on companion animals and, for that matter, any topic, we’re inundated. Having said that, the Internet is not always right. People, unfortunately, sometimes take the word of Dr. Google over their veterinarian or don’t even consider what the veterinarian says, and instead listen to a pet store sales clerk or some dude at the dog park.
The most misinformation that’s out there regards, pet food and second, about behavior. People are religious about their feelings on pet food. Unfortunately, it’s not always based on fact or it’s based on a little bit of fact, when it’s convenient, to tie into what their belief system is. That’s unfortunate, because our pets don’t benefit by it.
As passionate and well-meaning as they are, as much as they want to do the best for their pets, and will pay a zillion dollars for brand-X of pet food. The thing is the more you pay for it, the better it is. The marketers know how to market to millennials and everybody else, and they’re succeeding combined with all of these websites that tell us things that just aren’t true.
The same plethora of misinformation is true regarding behavior, which gives me an opportunity to talk about Decoding Your Dog and Decoding Your Cat.
I convinced the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists to write Decoding Your Dog. It is still out there and is a huge seller. I helped to edit that book. I also wrote the introduction, but I did not write a word otherwise. The authors are veterinary behaviorists, and that’s the way it should be. The vet behaviorists for the first time ever had a platform to reach the masses.
I think the best thing I did with that book was to create awareness for the college. The second best thing is to debunk myths regarding dog training and dominance, and supporting positive reinforcement.
Now the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists is coming out with a book called Decoding Your Cat. You can pre-order it right now, on Amazon. It’ll be officially out in June. I wrote the introduction to that book as well, which was an honor to do. I think we need it even more in the cat world, in part because of the misconceptions that we’ve always had about cats,
Sometimes people have these strongly held beliefs about their feline friends, And since cats mask illness so well, one huge message in the book is that when there’s a change in behavior, we assume it’s a behavior problem, but I am telling you, that it may well be because something medical is going on. You can have a cat urinate outside the litter box and then add 70 kinds of new litter, 170 new litter boxes and that cat will still urinate outside the litter box if the cat has untreated diabetes, as one example.
You won the AVMA Humane Award in 2002 which Goodnewsforpets nominated you for and now 20 years later you’ve won the AVMA Media Excellence Award. You’ve said these AVMA awards are special to you. Why is that?
The AVMA Humane award meant a lot to me at the time and now the AVMA Media Excellence award is number one. That’s because while the other organizations do so much, the AVMA is still the mother organization. And as the mother organization, we sometimes give them a hard time. Sometimes they move a bit slower than we’d like, but at the end of the day they are following the science. I have so much respect for the AVMA. And absolutely this honor is, for me, number one.
Are there other awards that are particularly special to you?
The other awards that were very special to receive were the Chicago Friends of Animal Control Award because my mom was there and the HSUS Humane Award because both my mom and dad were there when I received it. Sharing those special moments with my parents is still with me.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’m not done! There is still so much more to do and so much more I want to communicate to help pets. We are still nowhere near where we need to be. There are so many misconceptions out there.
I want declaw to stop. I want animal welfare laws to be enforced. I want dogs and cats to not be sold in pet stores. I want puppy mills to go away. I am proud I initiated the first fire safety law for pets in kennels or day care in the nation in Illinois; I hope other states replicate.
The Fear Free initiative is something I am so happy and proud to be a part of, nothing has ever been so transformative in veterinary medicine. But for pet parents as well, finally a consistent website meant for you that you can totally trust, just like a journal all the stories are written by experts but then even reviewed by experts, www.fearfreehappyhomes.com. And often there’s free stuff or discounted pet items available too!
Finally, while I am privileged to see veterinarians at conferences, so I am always learning. Still, the best teachers I’ve had have been cats. And the best teacher of all was Ricky. I am a longtime board member of the Winn Feline Foundation. Ricky died of feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and I then began the Ricky Fund.
We’ve raised lots of money but not enough. As a result there is now a simple inexpensive test to determine if a Maine Coon Cat or Ragdoll carries a gene defect. That’s great but we need a treatment. And I’m really proud of the FIP Symposium, which I just helped Winn to organize.
Can you believe, forever considered fatal, feline infectious peritonitis is now considered treatable, and perhaps curable? And there’s so, so much more, but you’ve likely run out space.
I am happy for your success and the anniversary.
Thank you Steve, and congratulations again on your latest award from the AVMA.