Spotlight: Ashley Howland
It is my pleasure to introduce you to Ashley Howland, author of Obi the Super Puppy and the Mystery of the Red Mist. The inspiration for this first in a series of children’s books came from Labs ‘n Life, a nonprofit organization in Australia, where Labrador retrievers work with children diagnosed with autism.
Q) Tell us about your children’s book, Obi the Super Puppy and the Mystery of the Red Mist. Where did you find the story’s inspiration, and how much of it is based on your own experiences?
A) Obi is my beautiful Labrador; he will be ten this year. He is a remarkable dog and through coming to school with me and now working with Labs ‘n Life he has really changed the lives of so many people. Everyone remembers Obi. I wrote this story as a tribute to all the crazy things he does to show off. As a puppy he was incredibly clever, but also very obedient. He would be the clown of the class, but turn it on when he needed to work. Obi completed dog school by the age of nine months, despite everyone telling me that “Labradors are stupid until they are two”! He was anything, but stupid.
He is still very much the class clown. The ideas for this story really came from watching him at dog school, retrieval trials and just generally in the backyard. I had great fun going over old puppy photos and remembering everything he did. It was so much fun to watch him play and to play with him. I spent a lot of time training him, not only in obedience tasks, but tricks as well. He can wave, roll, dance, open doors, crawl and speak on command. Obi is so smart that the kids at one school even taught him to count.
Most of the locations and actions are from my experiences with Obi. We took him everywhere. He was in a few shows as a younger dog. Competed in the occasional obedience trial and we also tried retrieving. He wasn’t too keen on picking up the dead bird. Through Obi we have met a lot of people and have had some fantastic experiences. Some of our closest friends have come through Obi and the other Labradors in our lives.
Watching Obi as a puppy, and now as an adult, I have always imagined that he had reasons for doing the crazy things he does. I’m pretty sure he thinks he is a super hero. I’m also completely sure lots of the kids he has worked with think he’s a super hero too. Maybe there is some truth to this story.
I am so glad that I have been able to share Obi with students and teachers in various schools. He always made sure everyone was included and has cured many people of a fear of dogs. He also always manages to find the kid that really needs to laugh or a cuddle. No one misses out when Obi is around.
Q) How has your work with Labs ‘n Life influenced your narrator’s voice, what’s a typical day like and why did you want to integrate your work into children’s books?
A) Labs ‘n Life is the most amazing organization and I am very privileged to have been a part since the beginning. It certainly has had an effect on my writing and in fact is one of the reasons I write. These amazing characters are there, in front of me, weaving their magic every day.
I don’t really think there is a typical day working for Labs ‘n Life. Generally you start by collecting various Labradors. Sometimes they get dropped off, sometimes you get them from people’s backyards and sometimes you meet them at the school. Once the very excited dogs are organized it’s time to get the students ready. Most of the time they beat you to the program as they are so keen to work, which is truly amazing as lots of these kids would never be anywhere on time. We work with young people to train the dogs as companions for children on the autism spectrum. So we will complete tasks of basic obedience and specific companion skills. Labs ‘n Life prides itself on the sneaky learning that occurs during our sessions. Students not only learn how to train a dog, but they learn a lot about themselves. It’s a lot of fun, kids, dogs, staff and volunteers all work together to produce dogs that change the lives of families in need.
Everyday our dogs make these young people smile, give them a sense of achievement and help to increase their self-esteem. The passion these young people develop for their dogs certainly helps aid my passion for writing. It’s great to see a really good side of these students and bring out their best qualities on a daily basis.
Obi has always enjoyed coming out to Labs ‘n Life sessions. He no longer works, but he is still very much a part of the program. Obi is there if students are upset, or need a companion for a walk, or to demonstrate how things are done to all of our younger dogs. He loves to show off and get fussed over all day. He certainly deserves his celebrity status amoungst my students. They all love the opportunity to spend time with Obi and he loves being with the students. He is still learning new tricks and will take any opportunity to make someone’s day.
I started writing Obi the Super Puppy and the Mystery of the Red Mist before I had my own children. I always wanted to find a way to share Obi with more children. The first book is all about Obi’s first adventure and how he became a super puppy. Obi relives this adventure by talking to my two daughters, Maddy and Aijay. My girls will always love their very own super puppy.
Working with children has encouraged me to integrate my two passions, my dogs and writing. It just seemed natural to write about life from Obi’s point of view and was fun to include my own kids. They certainly enjoy being part of Obi’s adventures.
Q) What’s next for Obi, and will we see other Labs ‘n Life dogs as stars in your stories?
A) I am currently working on a sequel to Obi the Super Puppy and the Mystery of the Red Mist. His second adventure will feature a few of his friends from Labs ‘n Life, who are all amazing characters. Once again he will be reliving the experience with Maddy and Aijay, but this time he also has to educate the new puppy – Stitch about what it means to be a super hero.
Stitch is another yellow Labrador; he is almost two years old now. He absolutely idolizes Obi and they make quite a pair. They have very different personalities. Obi is extremely confident and will always want to be the first to do a task. Stitch is much more cautious, but hates to be outdone. They work really well as a team and it’s fun to incorporate this dynamic relationship into my writing.
The sequel to Obi the Super Puppy and the Mystery of the Red Mist will also involve the development of Labs ‘n Life according to Obi. There will also be a few extra characters. One of the favourite Labs ‘n Life dogs (if there is just one) is big Rigger. He is one of the biggest Labradors I have ever met. Rigger was such a goofy puppy, but he and Obi were instant mates. They remain best friends today. Rigger is really just a big teddy bear; he too was one of our original Labs ‘n Life dogs. I’m pretty sure Obi thinks he trained Rigger. I know he thinks he trained Stitch and is pretty proud of his efforts too.
There will certainly be more than one sequel to Obi the Super Puppy and the Mystery of the Red Mist. Obi and his friends have had so many adventures, I have a lot of work to do, but I can’t wait to get them all down and in print.
It’s great work that you are doing working with the dogs with children on the Autism spectrum. Thanks Ashley, for taking time to introduce us to Labs ‘n Life, Obi and your work. We’ll watch for the upcoming sequel! In the meantime, check out the book trailer: