Beth Miller is the founder of Wagtown, a charitable organization that helps communities become more dog-friendly. Her new book, Tucker Finds His Forever Home, was written to speak to children about dogs and their effect on our lives. The story is told through the eyes of a young pit bull named Tucker. It brings readers along on a journey filled with many life lessons about self-worth, breed discrimination, safety, emotions, and bullying. 100% of the book’s proceeds benefit animal welfare projects and programs that make the world a better place for dogs. In our interview, we discuss the book and the amazing work Wagtown is doing to enhance dog friendliness in our communities.
This interview transcription has been edited for length and clarity
Joe: Alright. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here. I really am really excited that you’re here. And as a as a dog lover, I’m anxious to talk about your book and your organization. So thank you!
Beth: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m always willing to talk about the book, obviously, definitely ready to talk about dogs. So I appreciate the fact that you want to do both.
Joe: I want to start by talking about the introduction to your book. You mention that “dogs make the world a better place. Now it’s time to make the world a better place for dogs.” First of all, yes. I love this. And I want to use this quote to allow you to introduce Wagtown and its mission to create dog-friendly communities.
Beth: Well, it’s been quite the journey trying to put something together like that. It started when Tom and I (my partner in crime) were looking at maybe moving. We typed “dog friendly cities” into the computer. You know things that we wanted to have – great local music, food, and dog friendliness was important to both of us, and so I looked for dog friendly cities in America, and it had 29 million hits.
So, our first reaction was. It’s everywhere. We can move anywhere, and it’ll be just like whatever, you know, and we’re from Ohio. So you know, really anywhere we would have moved, probably would have been a little bit better, because Ohio is just not that dog friendly compared to other parts of the country. But when I looked through those results, I realized that these communities were not truly dog-friendly despite the label.
But people say, oh, dollars follow dogs. So this is a very smart marketing technique – to let people know that they’re welcome. But then, if you show up, and if your dog is over thirty-five pounds, or if it looks a certain way, or you know you have more than three of them, then it’s like you literally can’t live there, so it really makes you realize that “dog friendly” is incredibly hard to define.
When we thought about what it really meant to have dog-friendly communities, we realized that the potential is there for our lives to be improved, for our communities to be improved, and it goes everywhere from economic development to animal welfare support. So few communities are dog-friendly, and we could make a huge difference if we worked to create some, starting at home. And with dogs, we’re starting to see them as our furry children now. They deserve so much attention and enrichment as we raise them. The obligation grows as you have a dog longer and longer. You feel a need to make sure they are happy and living in the best possible environment.
Joe: This is something I really resonate with. It bothers me how some people view dogs. Even when people refer to dogs as pets like, I don’t agree. They’re a part of my family. I view them as part of my family, not a pet. I feel like sometimes, referring to them as “pets” belittles what they are. Like, they’re part of our families. I don’t like when people say they “own dogs” because it is an unfair representation. We don’t own them; we have them as a part of our family.
Beth: I actually wrote a post on a LinkedIn a couple of weeks ago about this, and I discussed how people used to say they “own a dog” and now we are transitioning away from that and saying they “have a dog”, just like we “have children”. It’s a difficult topic to discuss because everyone has a different opinion. But if less people said they “own” dogs, we’d have a lot less puppy mills. The challenge is, at what point do you say, we’re going to change our minds about whether a dog is owned or part of the family. But if you’re going to say that about dogs, then are you saying that’s not true of birds? Are you saying it about cats?, So it may be that we’re resisting it, because we don’t want to accept the fact that as a species we really don’t take care of anybody else but ourselves.
But this is our opportunity to say that things are awesome because of dogs. So how can I give back to that? How can I do something that makes an impact on not just my dog’s life, but the lives of dogs everywhere? And that is where the book was born. This was my inspiration for Tucker Finds His Forever Home. We want to raise more humane people. And children are like a sponge. A children’s book seemed like the perfect tool to create something that makes the world a better place for dogs.
Joe: So, going back to your book; you meet Tucker and he’s scared and alone after being abandoned. I just want to say, your writing and the illustrations by Erica Schindler are both beautiful and heartbreaking. Tucker, obviously being a Pit bull mix, faces discrimination, judgement, and is abandoned because of how he looks. Can you talk about what is happening to dogs like Tucker because of breed discrimination?
Beth: It is rooted in a horrible history of violence with dogs, and so it’s taking time to shift the pendulum in the other direction, and it’s taking people a long time to learn to not judge a book by its cover, no pun intended.
But in Boulder, Colorado, for example, they had recently mentioned that they dropped breed discrimination. So, I called them to find out what the deal was. Because it used to be like, if you took your pit, bull mix, or anything that looked like a pit to your vet, they were required to seize the dog and put it down.
And if you went to the vet and then it’s like they’ve been caring for your dog all this time, or you know you get a new puppy. Can you imagine going to the vet? And they’re like we have to take it and put it down? But it was really happening that they were coming to homes and things like that, and I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories around that.
Anyway, I called the city and said that I’m going to be moving out there but I’m worried I can’t live in this community because I have three dogs.
And I found out what I would have had to do in Boulder if I had a pit bull. I learned that even though you finally can legally have a pit bull, you are required to register your dog with the city, and you have to make an appointment to determine by its looks whether or not it is a pit bull. You end up paying financial obligations for having one. And they judge them based on how they look – nothing to do with their behavior. There is so much fine print in cities that discriminates solely based on how breeds look. None of it has evidence and it is all discriminatory. The law specifically says that the judgement is for appearance. It’s a major problem.
So breed discrimination is an issue that is near and dear to my heart. Breed bans are thankfully disappearing, but we still have a long way to go. But, you have to take a close look at the fine print in your city.
Joe: I think in the story you do such a good job portraying what these dogs go through. The ones who are abandoned because of how they look. It’s tragic. And it is all so beautifully captured through writing and illustration. And that makes me want to just learn more about what the process was like creating this book and finding an illustrator to work on it?
Beth: Thank you for asking that question because I’m always happy to talk about that. Well, it was very interesting because the curriculum preceded the book. So, I have a curriculum that is k-4 through PBS learning media. And as I was working on that, I couldn’t stop thinking about how great it would be to include a book in that curriculum to engage the kids. Then I struggled with creating the content – I wondered if I should go into discrimination themes? Do I want to show the horribly sad images of a dog being tied up in a park? How far did I want to go to share this message? And of course with Tucker, he faces so many hardships. No one wants him, he keeps getting passed up by other dogs. So long story short, I had a lot to think about how to portray this message and this story.
I needed to find an artist who understood how to portray emotion. I was actually on Facebook one day and a friend of mine had posted that an artist named Erica Schindler had some original artwork hanging on walls of a diner. And Erica’s genre is dark art, so her stuff is kind of creepy. Tim Burton-like, you know. But what stood out to me was how she portrayed the eyes in her pieces. I saw that she was truly able to capture emotion. So, I reached out and asked if she ever did a children’s book before. She mentioned that she did not but always wanted to. But her art is a bit dark, and she was concerned how it would translate to a children’s book.
Anyway, we met and started discussing the story and the vision for the book. As we worked together, we faced challenges like making the artwork consistent since she is used to doing original pieces. It ended up being an amazing experience for both of us. I’m so lucky that Erica said yes because we went on an amazing journey together bringing Tucker to life and telling his story. As you can see, we went through so many revisions and iterations of the story. But it ended up being told exactly as it should. We really wanted to make sure we got Tucker right. We wanted to make sure we captured his sadness and pain, but also his joy and hope when he gets saved and brought to such a wonderful place to live. Beyond creating Tucker, it was so fun to work with Erica to portray what dog-friendliness really looks like! The entire project just took so much attention to detail and creativity.
Joe: So, in the story, Tucker finally gets adopted by Lyla and is taken to a place he’ll be happy and loved. Lyla calls it a “Wagtown Community, where dog owners are responsible, and dogs are treated like part of the family”. I think what stands out about this community is that everyone puts so much work into caring for their dogs – the dogs receive appropriate training, are socialized, they have their shots. But in the real world, I see so many people get dogs on an impulse, and they have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t understand that having a dog is a massive responsibility that takes a lot of work. As a society, how can we do a better job relaying this message of responsible dog ownership? Because I think a lot of people just don’t understand what dogs need.
Beth: That’s definitely true. I think there is a certain factor of this – everyone thinks their dog is awesome. We’re very quick to argue over issues with dog ownership but when you criticize someone for how they are raising their dog(s), it almost is viewed like you’re picking on their kid(s). So, with dogs, people obviously want to have them in their lives, so we need to educate everyone about taking responsibility for your dog. You might love your dog, but everyone needs to ask themselves if they are truly taking responsibility for them. I mean, it even starts with pet waste management. There’s no real solution for this. It’s as simple as doing it. It’s an easy way to think about responsibility.
As soon as you welcome a dog into your family, you need to think about what that dog deserves – training, resources, etc. If we want to see dog-friendliness in the community, we need to teach people how to responsibly raise them from the very beginning. If you want dog-friendliness, you need to live it. Wagtown and this book do a lot of the necessary work to educate about how to responsibility raise dogs.
What I call “the dogification of America” is slowly rolling in. People are seeing dogs differently. We now see them as family members that we “have”, not pets we “own”. This shift in mindset has been great to change the culture. We see dogs differently now than we have in the past, and I think we’re taking steps in the right direction to improve as a collective society – making the world a better place for dogs to live. We also are seeing so many books that help us understand dogs better! The better we can understand dogs, the better will be at responsibly raising them. And with that, communities will be more inclined to become dog-friendly.
Joe: How do you think we shift culturally into a dog-friendly environment? Does legislation have anything to do with it?
Beth: That’s a difficult question because there’s a lot that goes into it. A lot of my research has been studying whether change in the community happened organically or if it’s something that has been strategically planned. I found that it was this hybrid where most of the communities – dog friendliness just happens on its own. There’s this nudge from those who have dogs and then entrepreneurs see the financial opportunities in a dog-friendly community. Responsible dog ownership brings so much value to communities – its economy, health, and even safety. That’s a culture change. Now, I think the fact that we have some discriminatory laws about dogs in this country makes it a challenge. But we’re slowly seeing an end to that type of legislation. I think that certain cities are changing legislation because they see the financial opportunities in being dog-friendly. Dog-friendliness is part of their plan to revive economies and make cities a better place to live. So what does this infrastructure entail? What does it mean in terms of how we program our community? What does that mean in terms of how we train our first responders? And so it really needs to be a systemic change. That’s why Wagtown is all about diving into those segments of society. How can I take all of the information about dogs and use it in a way to make some shifts in our legislation? How can we change our attitudes?
We have to be willing to admit that we don’t know everything. We have to listen to others and learn from them so we can understand how we can improve dog-friendliness and dog-responsibility. It’s a constant and collaborative process.
Joe: Also, the economics of dog-friendliness are fascinating. I always had an idea in my head that dog-friendly communities would be more economically vibrant. And then I learned so much more about it through your website. Can you talk about the positive economic impact of authentic dog-friendly policies in communities? What does this look like?
Beth: Before I go into economics, I want to share the public health benefits. If you have a community that is active – walking dogs, exercising them, it’s a healthier community. Also, dogs have a profound influence on our mental health. But anyway, when we look at our workforce attraction and retention, people are willing to sacrifice a week’s vacation to take their dog to work. I looked through a study that showed if people had a choice, they’re taking the dog over a week’s vacation. So the economics are this – where do I want to work? Where do I want to live? People leave jobs if they can’t bring their dogs. So, there’s a huge workforce attraction. People also want to travel with their dogs – so you get tourism dollars. People take their dogs everywhere – and dog-friendly communities that cater to dogs are where many will want to live and support. Businesses that are dog-friendly get more traffic and business. Dog-friendliness is changing the entire brand value proposition of a community. Major corporations are putting “dog-friendliness” as a check box to where they expand to. I think it’s really important for people to plan for this to be a part of economic strategy. The benefits are limitless for our communities.
Joe: I fully agree. Dog-friendly communities are more economically vibrant. They are healthier, happier, and safer. I’ve been working from home since the pandemic began and I have my dogs with me all day and I can honestly say that it helps me so much. Just mentally, it’s so great for me to get up and take them for a walk or have a little play session. You can see that in communities where there is dog-friendliness, life is just better.
I actually want to touch on some of the work you’re doing in your “dogification” efforts. Can you talk a bit about the Smart Dog Park?
Beth: Smart Dog Park was created in response to one of the trends I saw – which is that dog parks have a lot of problems. A lot of the complaints about them are legitimate, and a lot of the praise for them is also legitimate. And of course building one is incredibly difficult. Land is a challenge. Finances are a challenge. Subject matter expertise is a challenge. For example, I had experience with a village council who had tried eleven times in ten years to build a dog park. Every time it got shut down it was because they didn’t have any idea how to properly establish one. So, how do we create safe places for dogs and people to enjoy?
So, I developed a system where it was SMART (Safety, Manners, Awareness, Responsibility, and Training). SMART can be a true game-changer in a much-needed area: empowerment for better experiences in dog-welcoming spaces.
Recognition like this is further validation of the power of “the dogification of America”. The demand for inclusive and equitable dog play is deafening. It’s time for a smarter way to navigate the complexities of dog park creation and management. And SMART Dog Park strategies provide the blueprint.
If everybody is saying, “where’s my dog park?”, I want them to say, “where’s my SMART dog park?”.
I want everyone to know that your safety, manners, awareness, responsibility, and training is smart. I want to know that everything about the land, the soil, the water, the turf. We need to have a SMART approach to successfully build parks that are safe and responsible.
It’s not just dog park expert creation. We’re training people. I’m basically taking what I know and putting it into a course where you can get certified, and have access to all these resources.
Joe: I just have one more question. I’m just curious. Since you started this in 2016, what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced, and what are some of the biggest wins for you and Wagtown?
Beth: Hmm… biggest challenges. Well, I came from a very fast paced career where you turn things around on a dime, and you have to think conceptually. I’m not good at slowing down to explain myself sometimes so people could understand the vision. Especially when it’s something like Wagtown and the SMART Dog Park. So, the challenge is explaining what it truly means to be dog-friendly – because that is the whole premise of our work. So, if I can’t explain to you what dog friendliness means, how do I talk to you about the logistics like curriculum? I’ve also had people make assumptions about me – that I just do this because I like dogs or don’t want to “work”. You know how people are, they will want to bring you down for the work you do. But the work for a non-profit is constant. It’s nonstop effort and it takes everything. But I love it and the work means so much to me. That’s what matters. And you have to start with your vision and work through all of the logistics – which can be really complicated. Legislation, culture, everything, presents challenges to our work. But we will get there. There are so many people who champion for the work we’re doing.
As for wins… We’ve been popping the champagne recently for a few wins. We’ve seen amazing success with the SMART Dog Park, our trails, the book, and we’re seeing conversations about conceptual changes, attitude changes, and behavior changes. When I see all of this happening, I see people leaning into our work and it’s just so motivating. We’re slowly seeing systemic change and implementation of dog-friendly policies across the country, and it is certainly reason for champagne.
Joe: Do you have any projects in the works right now that you’d like to share with readers and listeners?
Beth: Well, definitely check out the jingle! I think it’s really good. I’m just so excited to put it out there for the kids. We have an event for the book on December 6th in Ohio at the Washington Centerville Library System if anyone is in the area and interested. We will be teaching the kids a song, doing a sing along, and then reading Tucker Finds His Forever Home. We’ll also be working on this mural where kids can write letters thanking humane organizations that help rescue pit bulls and pit-mix dogs to find them forever homes.
Joe: Well, thank you so much for your time today! I really appreciate your book and the work you’re doing. Please remember that you can support Beth and Wagtown by purchasing Tucker Finds His Forever Home on BookBaby Bookshop. Every purchase supports animal welfare and helps make the world a better place for both dogs and people to live.
Beth: Thank you!