Family Friday: A Conversation With the Creative Team Behind “Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog”

Several years ago, I wrote about an abandoned Golden Retriever, Levi Journey, who was rescued by a retired teacher and became a therapy dog. Last year, I wrote the happy news that Levi’s story was becoming a book. Now, I am thrilled to announce that Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog has been published here .

I recently spoke with Author Julie Iribarren, Illustrator Martin Peers (Toast Cartoons), and Palm Beach County Library Children’s Librarian Vanessa Rossel about how this charming and touching book came to be.

Julie lives in Florida and Martin lives in the UK, but the illustrations fit the story so well.  How did you find each other?

Julie: That is pretty remarkable. I discovered Martin on Facebook through his mother, who is on the page devoted to commemorating the development of the Golden Retriever breed in the 1860s by Lord Tweedmouth in Scotland. Browsing Facebook last March, I found a charming Golden Retriever cartoon that had been posted by Martin’s mother. I didn’t know who it was by, but I knew I had found my illustrator! 

Martin: I’ve been drawing cartoons all my life, and I especially enjoy drawing animals.  Ever since my family owned the first of several Golden Retrievers, I have been drawing cartoons of this characterful, handsome dog breed. When Julie reached out to me in March, it was perfect timing, because I had just quit working for the railroad and was devoting myself to cartoons and illustrations full-time. I loved the idea behind her book, and accepting her invitation to be the illustrator was a commission from heaven!

What were your concerns and expectations going into the project?

Julie: Well, this was my first book, and so it was a rough start. I knew the story I wanted to tell — in fact, I’d been telling the story to children across Palm Beach County when Levi and I visited for the Animal Reading Friends (ARF) program. It was one of the Royal Palm Beach  librarians, Vanessa, who pushed me to write the book.  Each time Levi and I visited Vanessa’s library, she had a new idea, a new approach, how it might begin, a website to check out. She was marvelously relentless! 

Vanessa: I watched how the children and their parents reacted to Levi’s story, and I knew Julie needed to tell the world this inspiring tale — from abandoned and alone, to rescued and loved, to  serving a greater purpose as a therapy dog. I adopted my own dog, so the story broke my heart. It was amazing how Levi calmed the children’s nerves and helped them want to read just by his presence. Telling the story seemed a fitting tribute to his journey. And when the pandemic hit, the libraries closed and ARF was suspended, I knew Julie was going to use the break to create the book. 

Martin: Last year, I set myself up as a freelance illustrator and this was my first big commission.  I was not at all concerned by this project – on the contrary, I thought it was a brilliant story and I couldn’t wait to get going!   I knew exactly how I should approach the illustration work and went through Julie’s manuscript in meticulous detail to work out how the illustrations should look, what sections of text would be best served by illustrations, and most importantly to capture a character design of Levi in cartoon form that Julie was happy with. 

Martin Peers, illustrator and cartoonist, Toast Cartoons
Martin Peers, illustrator and cartoonist, Toast Cartoons

How about the project’s challenges and joys?

Julie: I wanted to write a book but I didn’t know how. As a retired teacher, I wanted the book to be a teaching tool, but I got bogged down in the details and Levi’s sad beginning made the story so dark. Then, the West Boynton/Wellington Florida Writers Association critique group and another writers group that also meets at the library gave me some starting points, but it was when Martin and his artistry came on board that the story sprang to life.

Martin: I knew right away that the “voice” needed to be Levi’s, and when Julie made that change the book became much more fun and engaging and suited the illustrations even better. She gave me room to create while providing me with photos of all the people and places in Levi’s life, so that the illustrations could have the right look and feel.

Vanessa: I’m in the illustration of the library ARF program!

Julie: And our neighbors and their pets, rescue volunteers Joe and Diane, and Dr. Del La Torre (aka Dr. D.) from the animal clinic used by Everglades Golden Retriever Rescue have all loved seeing themselves in Martin’s cartoons. 

Martin: I am very particular in everything I do for clients, so it was really important to get these images right. I began with sketches, then full page layouts that showed where the text should go. I was heavily involved with the approval of the final draft with the publishers, as I was adamant that my illustrations should be presented in a certain way, with the correct sections of the text, and that the font sizes were consistent. There was a lot of back and forth with the publishers to sort out these technical changes. I imagine it must have been so frustrating for Julie! But it was definitely worth all the effort. 

Julie: It was intense at times. I am fussy and picky, and it was frustrating not to have direct control on the design side of the publishers, but they were overwhelmed with work — the pandemic brought out the inner author in a lot of us.

Vanessa: The book really captures the emotions of this story. 

Martin: The best part of being an illustrator is that my work brings people so much joy. The positive reactions this book has garnered on release and the enthusiastic response to my drawings feel wonderful!

Julie: It is more than I ever expected this book could be. I’m thrilled with it.

So, what’s next?

Julie: Well, the book is now available through BookBaby. Amazon is doing a promotion through May 6 (as is Target and, for the international market, BookDepository, which charges a bit more but will send it without shipping charges). I’m beginning to schedule readings at schools, libraries, and community center to promote the book. In fact, we’ll be in Kelly’s neighborhood later this week and again in May. 

Vanessa: We are thrilled to have Julie and Levi kick off the library’s virtual summer reading program, and we’ll bring them back to the ARF program when we resume in-person programs.

Martin: Levi’s story has been such a tremendous experience for me as an illustrator, and working with Julie has been great.  It has really shown me what I can be capable of after so long drawing pictures in a non-professional capacity.  I really feel I have done the right thing in transitioning to illustrator and I hope that my work on Levi’s story will be the first of many illustration projects – either working with other authors or, ideally, illustrating my own children’s book!

Author Julie Iribarren reads Levi his story
Author Julie Iribarren reads Levi Journey his story

Julie: This was a labor of love. On the good days during this past year, I could envision a whole Levi series — “Levi Goes to the Beach,” “Levi Goes to the Farmers Market.” But there were so many challenging days that my husband made me promise that this was going to be the only book, otherwise the Levi series would have included “Levi Meets His New Daddy.”

Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog is available through BookBaby, and Amazon is doing a promotion through May 6 (as is Target and, for the international market, BookDepository, which charges a bit more but will send it without shipping charges).

Family Friday: How to help your unsocialized dog say hello

A dog on a leash encountering another dog is like a person in handcuffs walking into a party.

Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training

Alison Chambers knows dogs, and she shares her expertise to help us better understand and live with our pets. In my March post, she gave us tips on helping pandemic dogs through separation anxiety. We’ve had great success using her tips to wean our rescue Lab Kumba from our constant presence. Things to chew on help!

Our rescue Lab Kumba and his chew toy
Our rescue Lab Kumba and his very well chewed toy

Today’s advice is on helping socialize our pets. We discovered that our sweet new boy had a wild streak of aggression when confronted with another dog. The pandemic has helped keep such encounters at bay. But as life opens back up again, how can we help our dogs meet each other? Here’s Alison’s advice.

Rule Number One: Don’t let dogs go nose-to-nose. Human look each other in the eye and face each other when we speak. To a dog, a direct stare is an invitation to conflict.

Rule Number Two: Keep the leash loose. Restraining a dog sends the message that what they are greeting is dangerous.

Rule Number Three: Limit the transaction to two seconds. Then recall your dog with his name, not a yank on the leash. Remember Rule Number Two?

Rule Number Four: Not all dogs want to say hello. Read your dog and the dog you have encountered.

Rule Number Five: Always ask permission before approaching another dog. Use the social distancing skills we’ve learned during pandemic to keep aware of personal space.

Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training

We’ll be working on these tips as we help Kumba navigate his environment in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned for a progress report and tips from Alison Chambers on how to understand our dogs.

Alison Chambers and Otto

Family Friday: From Stray to Therapy Dog

A 2019 article in the Washington Post by reporter Karen Brulliard posits that dogs’ success is love-based. You know that gooey feeling you get when you gaze into your honey’s eyes and them eyes gaze back at you? That’s the love hormone, oxytocin, and it spikes in people and their dogs when the contact is human-canine. 

I’d like to tell you about a friend of mine, Julie, and her golden retriever, Levi. To say that they fill each other’s hearts is an understatement. How they found each other and what they are doing together make an amazing story.

Abandoned

Levi before he left Turkey (Contributed by Julie)

Some years back, it was fashionable in Turkey to own a golden retriever puppy. The fad faded and the puppies grew up, and soon there were dozens of grown goldens abandoned and running loose in and around Istanbul. Levi was one of these abandoned dogs, fending for himself in the forest.

Rescued

Levi he was rescued by Turkish women who had taken it upon themselves to save these dogs. Partnering with Everglades Golden Retriever Rescue (EGRR) and other similar organizations, they helped Levi and 18 other “Turkey Dogs” access a new life in the United States. He was thin under his matted coat, and wary of humans.

Fostered

Julie was part of the rescue effort and became Levi’s foster mother. It didn’t take long for her to realize she couldn’t part with him, so she and her husband became Levi’s permanent family. He was their fourth golden retriever.

It wasn’t an easy decision to live with. Levi had been fending for himself for so long that he did not trust humans. He was guarded and elusive, even agressive.

He was a broken dog.

Julie Iribarren

Trained and Certified for Therapy

But Julie would not give up on Levi. Working closely with her vet, Dale Porcher at Shores Animal Clinic, and her trainer, Jamie Diaz at Dynamite Dog Training, Julie helped Levi feel safe and secure. In the process, she gave her dog his life back.

The trainer had suggested that Levi would be a good therapy dog, and another volunteer with Everglades Golden Retriever Rescue had certified her dog through the national Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Julie and Levi enrolled in the Alliance training program and diligently followed the curriculum, getting Levi used to being in busy public spaces while remaining calm and well-behaved. They passed with flying colors and became a Pet Therapy Team.

Animal Reading Friends (ARF)

The retired teacher knew where she and Levi needed to be: with children. She knew that children who struggled with reading (out loud, in class) were teased by their classmates, and that the resulty anxiety made reading an even tougher challenge. If she could find a way for children to read to her dog, one-on-one, she knew that the calming effect of stroking now laid-back Levi would give these kids the security and confidence to work through the reading challenge.

A Palm Beach County Library branch manager provided the missing link: a new program, Animal Reading Friends (ARF), through which children could have weekly private reading dates with Levi and Julie.

Julie and Levi have become the ARF ambassadors.

Julie and Levi have loads of small fans and parents who see their reluctant children develop a love of reading; library patrons who politely ask to pet Levi as he makes his way to the Children’s area; and librarians, who see Julie’s love and dedication in the support, compassion, and caring spirit she shows each child.

So, yes, love abounds. We give it, we get it, we need it. It makes the world go ’round. When a shell of a dog is given a chance to live abundantly, he flowers. As does his proud new mama.