An Interview with Author Donna Winters

by Danielle Hanna

Adventures with Vinnie by Donna Winters

Adventures with Vinnie by Donna Winters

Molly and I are excited to be hosting an interview today with author Donna Winters. She’s recently published a new book, Adventures with Vinnie, the story of her adopted Black Lab/Doberman. As if a good read about a dog weren’t good enough–Donna is also donating 100% of the profits from this book to help animals in shelters. (Snoopy dance!)

Stick around after the interview–Donna is giving away a copy of the book to one reader! Details below, but for now, let’s welcome Donna to our blog.



Donna, I’m so pleased to have you here at Embark on Adventure. Can you tell us a little about your new book, Adventures with Vinnie, and about your writing in general?

Danielle, thanks for having me here! My newest book, Adventures with Vinnie follows the escapades of our black lab mix, Vinnie, a dog we adopted from a shelter in March 2012 and cherished until his demise in March 2013. He was far different from all our other dogs and seemed to demand his own story. Since I am a writer, I couldn’t resist documenting his crazy ways. I think we’d had him for about six weeks when I told my husband, “I’m going to write a book about Vinnie.” And so I did.

Writing a nonfiction book about a shelter dog is quite a departure from the fiction writing I have been doing since 1982. Normally, I write historical romances set in the Great Lakes region, thus my trademark series, Great Lakes Romances ®.

You and your husband Fred have been adopting shelter dogs since 1973. (What a track record!) Why did you decide to try adopting?

My husband grew up with a wonderful English setter mix named Tippy, who was adopted as a puppy from the county dog pound sometime during the early 1950s. Fred had such fond memories of Tippy that when we were ready to add a dog to our family, he insisted on checking out all the available dogs in the Humane Society and dog pound shelters.

We adopted our first shelter dog from the Humane Society and from then on decided to adopt rescues. All but two were mixed breed dogs from shelters. The other two were rescued racing greyhounds, one from a veterinarian rescue shelter and the other from a greyhound rescue group who had placed the dog with a foster family.

When you adopted Vinnie, you said you specifically wanted a senior dog, one that was unlikely to be adopted because of its age. What attracts you to senior dogs? What do you think other adopters are missing out on by passing the seniors by?

Since we are seniors ourselves and not up for the energy of young dogs anymore, the older shelter dogs are a better fit for our lifestyle.

Senior rescue dogs are incredibly grateful to have a new home, possibly more so than younger rescues. Many times the senior dogs have already had a long time with a family and suddenly their lives are in upheaval due to their person’s ill health, death, or a move to a place not tolerant of pets. My heart really goes out to dogs in such circumstances.

Senior dogs are quite good house pets because they already know the ropes. They are often housebroken, eager to go on walks, and ready to chill out on the couch or their dog bed when they get home from their walk. These traits work well for us!

You talk about traveling with Vinnie and your other dog Babe. Why do you like traveling with your dogs?

We would miss our dogs too much if we didn’t take them with us. Besides, we don’t acclimate our dogs to being with pet sitters or living at a kennel. If we were to do either of those things, they would think we had abandoned them, and we just can’t put them through that. I know that if you accustom your dog to being with a dog sitter, or going to a kennel, they learn the routine and know that you are coming back to them. We just haven’t been able to separate ourselves from our dogs that way, with very minor exceptions during our first two adoptions.

When it comes to deciding when to let a pet go, many pet parents will support their pet in every way until it’s clear he or she no longer wants to stay. The decision when to let go is never easy. Can you talk about how you decided when was the appropriate time to let a pet go?

The time to let our dogs go has been specific to the circumstances and health condition of each animal. Our first dog had kidney failure. Our vet tried to clear his system of toxins with a saline IV drip. After two days, when that wasn’t working, I asked him if we should put the dog to sleep, and he said he was just about to suggest that.

Our second dog had a fatty tumor that was cancerous. I went to the vet a couple of times and asked when we should put him to sleep and the vet said, “Soon. You’ll know when it’s time.” We finally did it after the dog kept us awake all night whimpering in pain. In retrospect, we wished we had acted sooner.

A couple of our dogs suffered strokes in their elderly years and could no longer stand up and walk. Fred and I were in agreement that if our dog were so disabled he or she couldn’t go outside to toilet under his/her own power, we would put the dog to sleep. Physically, neither of us is fit for the lifting and hauling of a disabled 70-pound dog, but together, that was exactly what we had to do to get each of those dogs to the vet for the very last time.

With Vinnie, many factors impinged upon our decision to euthanize him when we did. He was already old, and his tumor was almost certainly cancerous. The tumor alone couldn’t be removed successfully because such surgery would leave Vinnie’s wrist too weak to bear his weight.

Even if his tumor had not been malignant, he would have ended up needing an amputation at the elbow. In the case of cancer, the operation would not have cured his disease.

We are well aware that dogs adjust quickly to amputations. In Vinnie’s case, it just seemed pointless for all of us to suffer through that when we had only a five percent chance of curing the problem. In addition, two of our dogs had suffered from cancer (one of them I described above) and in both cases, we felt we had allowed their suffering to continue too long before euthanizing. We had subsequently agreed to act more quickly to euthanize if a cancer diagnosis was made on any of our dogs.

As a writer, I assume your dogs are with you while you work. Do your dogs understand “work hours”? What’s it like having your dogs around while you work?

The dogs are simply not a factor during my work hours which begin between five and six in the morning and end at breakfast time between eight and nine o’clock. Babe usually starts whining for her breakfast at about five AM, so I get up, feed both dogs, and take them outside. (Fred sleeps until eight.) After the dogs come inside, they go back to sleep and I go to work in complete silence and isolation, which is the only way I get any writing done.

Can I ask? How exactly DID you end up with a limousine?

Good question! The limo Vinnie rode home in was actually the second limo we’ve had as a personal vehicle. We chose that vehicle when my mother, who was 91 years old at the time, was living with us. She couldn’t step up into an SUV or any vehicle that rode higher than a luxury sedan.

We’d had a Fleetwood Cadillac prior to the limo, and when we had to take Mom to the hospital on an emergency run, I was stuffed into the back seat with two large dogs. One of them was 70 pounds and was on top of me, pressing against my chest so hard I could barely breathe during the 35-mile trip to the hospital.

We couldn’t leave the dogs home alone because we knew we’d be gone for hours and hours and they would need to go outside and toilet before we could get back home (that’s the way it is with older dogs). After that trip, I asked Fred to look online for something roomier and he found the limo.

We recently traded that vehicle for an antique car. Now that Mom has passed away and we’ve had our motor home for four years, we’ve noticed that we just don’t need the limo anymore.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers before I let you go?

I’d like to thank your readers for their interest in learning about Vinnie and his adventures, and I’d like to thank you for inviting me to appear on your wonderful blog! Your questions have been thought-provoking and well-focused on shelter dogs and the decisions they require of their families.

Author Donna Winters

Author Donna Winters

Where can readers get a copy of Adventures with Vinnie? And where can they learn more about your books?

Find Adventures with Vinnie, on Amazon here:

Learn more about my books at

Thank you, Donna, for chatting with us!


*     *     *

And now … the giveaway! Donna will be giving one of you readers a free copy of Adventures with Vinnie. (Don’t forget to tell your friends to drop by and enter the competition.) A paperback copy is available to anyone living in the contiguous 48 states, but anyone can choose a copy in Kindle format. I’ll keep the contest open until Sunday, February 9, 2014, at 11:59 p.m. CST.

All you have to do to enter the drawing for a free copy of Adventures with Vinnie is leave a comment below. Donna wants you to complete this sentence: The best thing about a dog (or cat) is…


What I Figured Out by Becoming a Punching Bag for a Dog

by Danielle Hanna

Six o’clock was lights-out at the humane society where I used to work. All the dogs knew that.

Except Jinxie.

The other furkids were turning circles in their beds and snuggling with their favorite blankies and squeakies. Even the puppies were heaped in furry piles, already dreaming.

Not Jinxie.

The black-and-white pointer in the first kennel on the left flopped down on his blanket and threw his head dejectedly across the bottom bar of his door. Then he started into it. Cried loud enough for the old, deaf Cocker Spaniel on the far side of the building to perk an ear.

“Night, Jinxie.”


Hard to walk away from that.

Eventually he did give up crying, much to the relief of my ears. Instead he took up a new hobby, much to the dismay of the rest of my anatomy.

One snowy day, armed with a shovel, I was trying to stay ahead of the drifts in the play yards. In each yard, my canine pals sometimes watched me curiously, sometimes tried to play with me, sometimes decided to give the path of the shovel a wide berth.

Not Jinxie.

He flung himself bodily across the play yard and straight into me. Dancing on two legs, he pommeled me with his paws. Pow-pow-pow, like the spokes of a windmill. Every direction I turned, Jinxie was there.

I knew his type. So absorbed with himself, he had no idea the other party wasn’t having fun. Common in young dogs–until they meet a grouchy senior canine who puts them in their place. Lacking a senior canine close at hand, I fell back on one of my favorite training techniques.

It was a simple matter of showing Jinxie the acceptable way to get my attention. As long as he was jumping on me, I ignored him. But as soon as his paws touched the ground, I suddenly lavished all my affections on him, rubbed his ears, and told him what a superior dog he was. The technique essentially never fails.

Except with Jinxie.

No matter how many times I showed him that keeping his paws on the ground got him the reward, he didn’t get it.

Okay. Time to step things up a notch.

In Doggish (the language of canines, much as Finnish is the language of fish), one dog standing tall over another dog and walking into his space means, “Back off.” So next time Jinxie jumped on me, I made myself tall (well, I can wish) and walked into his space. For emphasis, I made a growl in my throat. This technique never fails.

Except with Jinxie.

He was amazingly good at hop-scotching backwards on two legs while thrashing me with his paws.

So I stepped it up another notch. In Doggish, a toothy snap on the scruff of the neck means, “I’m serious. Quit it NOW!” Lacking the ability to plant my teeth on the back of his neck, I pinched his scruff with my fist, glared him in the eye, and growled. Never fails.

Except with Jinxie.

I had used every trick I knew ten times over, and he simply didn’t get the picture. In fact, he got worse. I couldn’t stand in the same yard with him for two seconds without needing to defend myself.

So I left before I could lose my temper and resort to slamming him with the shovel.

I wasn’t the only one having problems with him. Now and again, I’d see a huffing, panting dog walking volunteer wrestle him down the hall and into his kennel, slamming the door with an oath and a “That dog needs a treadmill!” As they walked away, Jinxie would throw himself against the chain link, crying, “What did I do? What did I do? Awrooo-roooo-roooo!”

I put him outside as often as possible so he could burn off his energy. I also took to avoiding him. If I had to go into his kennel, I’d put him outside. If I had to be outside, I’d put him in his kennel. A dog with a skull that thick would never find a home. He was drifting towards what they’d call, in kill shelters, a problem animal.

One day, all I had to do was grab his empty food dish. Not worth putting him out for that. I peeked through his door. He was stretched out on his blanket on the far end of the kennel. If I was quick …

I grit my teeth and charged in. Grabbed his dish and beat a retreat as quick as I could–but too late.

Jinxie’s head popped up and his ears stood high. “Huuuuuuumaaaaaaan!”

In two bounds, he was on me. He pinned me to the wall and started bouncing and boxing like a kangaroo. “Human! Human! Human! Ohhh, huuuuumaaaaan!”

Part of me wanted to knock him down with the food dish. But I reined myself in. Scolding hadn’t gotten me anywhere. I was missing something. Something about Jinxie I just didn’t understand. What was it? What was he trying to tell me?

I stood right where I was, pinned against the wall, and basically played like a cardboard cut-out. I let Jinxie jump on me. I let him throw his full seventy pounds at me again and again and again. I waited. And waited. I thought about leaving. But I waited.

Suddenly, Jinxie quit. He braced his paws against the wall by my shoulder, pushed his head into my chest, and exhaled the longest, saddest dog sigh I’d ever heard. Then he stood there, quivering like a harp string.

Daylight glimmered. So that was it.

A few seconds earlier, I’d seen my life flash before my eyes. (Okay, I didn’t, but it sets up nicely for my next line:) Now I saw Jinxie’s life flash before my eyes.

I saw Jinxie as a puppy, full of hunting dog energy and ready to run. At first, his humans thought he was cute and fun, and loved his antics.

Then I saw Jinxie as a gangly “teenager.” His energy level had increased to match his longer legs and sleeker muscles. Now his humans found he was getting to be a handful. When he rushed them for his expected puppy love, they pushed him away. He was too big for that. Too strong. They really didn’t enjoy playing with him anymore.

Then I saw Jinxie as a young athlete. Desperate by now, he screamed, “Please, love me!” In Doggish, he tackled his humans. Now they bought him a dog house and put up an outdoor run.

Then I saw Jinxie as I saw him now. Unclaimed stray. Revolving between a kennel and a play yard. Losing hope of finding a home. Leaning hard against me. Shaking uncontrollably. Whimpering.

I massaged my fingers deep into his tight muscles. “I get it now,” I said. “And just so you know … you can jump on me whenever you need.”

And he did. Until he realized I had quit pushing him away. Then he would bury his face in my lap and sigh and shiver, and I would rub the tension out of his muscles. Then one day … he wagged his tail.

I’ve never yet met a bad dog. Just ones that wanted really badly to be understood.

Pawnote from Molly

My girl says sometimes you’ve gotta let a dog misbehave until you understand why they’re doin’ it. I like that about her. Do you have any idea how many years I’ve been getting away with ignoring the “heel” command? She’s still trying to understand my deeper issues. (It’s called, “I wanna walk in front.” Don’t tell her.)

I never met Jinxie myself, but my girl says he went on to find a really good home. She says she made a point of telling his new parents they must snuggle him as much as possible, and they couldn’t wait to start!

Best of 2013

By Danielle Hanna

Molly & Seaman

One of Molly’s most popular pictures, posing with Seaman, the dog from the Lewis & Clark Expedition

It’s the end of the year, and Embark On Adventure has been live for just shy of six months. The vision Molly and I had for this blog has morphed over time in response to what you, our readers, seemed to really enjoy–and you said you enjoyed a good story about a girl and her dog.

So with that in mind, here are five popular posts to ring out the old year and bring in the new.

Wish I could say these favorites were based on your actual votes, but I only just put up the cool thingy that counts how many times each post is read. So I’m going based by a combination of things, such as response on our Facebook page, the uber-cool Google Analytics tool, and (shameless selfishness) my own personal favorites (and Molly’s).

The first-place winner, however, was clearly our most popular post, based on YOUR response, so that one’s for you!

In reverse order, then … (drum roll, please) …

5. Dog Traveling Theory – A Post by Molly

This is the first time I let Molly have the stage, and she was so well received that “Pawnotes from Molly” became a standard feature on our travel posts. Now she wants the blog’s byline to read “Adventures of a Dog and Her Girl” …

4. Campfire Cooking: The art, the nostalgia, the pain in the neck …

It looks so simple, right? This was one of my favorite posts. BTW, I did get the hatchet sharpened and actually learned how to use it.

3. It Took Me 138 Years to Get to the Christmas Party 

When my car wouldn’t start, I thought I’d never make it to my favorite Christmas event. But I beat all the odds and sub-zero weather to get there.

2. Epic Fail: Three-Mile Ski 

Admit it. You guys enjoy laughing at me. It’s okay–I do, too. But I still don’t get what was up with the giant, car-sized holes on my ski trail.

1. The Day I Drove a Patrol Car

What a memorable way to end the year. Apparently, you guys thought so, too, because this one got a good number of shares on Facebook and drove my new view count feature higher than I anticipated. Dog rescue, small town adjustment shock, and (the kicker) driving a sheriff’s car. I’m going to have a hard time topping this one.

Thanks for sharing all these memorable events with me, Molly, and our new friend Juliean. I can’t wait to see what happens to us next year! In the meantime, check out our Best Photos of 2013.

BTW, if you know anyone who would enjoy these true-life stories and a bit of a laugh, then share! Your friends are welcome here.

The Day I Drove a Patrol Car

Hands-Down Coolest Dog Rescue Ever

by Danielle Hanna

The story you are about to read is true. The name of the dog was changed to protect the innocent.

Sheriff's patrol car

This is not the patrol car in the article–but it’s a fair representation of its cool awesomeness.

Saturday morning was scheduled to be pretty boring. Clean up around the house and pick up groceries–provided I could maneuver the winter roads. But first I took Molly out to do her business–and that’s when my schedule went to the dogs.

As soon as I opened the front door, Molly bolted. Half a second too late, I saw two black labs on the street. Molly rushed to meet them, friend or foe. I ran after her–but it was okay. In a moment, all three were playing together as if they were old buddies.

I looked around. “Where’s your human?” I asked one of the labs.

Dunno, she said, and slammed Molly to the ground.

The lab was wearing a collar. I managed to get ahold of her–and managed to get dragged through the snow–and managed to confirm that she was wearing a city license tag. No phone number I could call, no address I could walk up to–but thanks to the ID number on the tag, her owner’s info would be on file with the city.

I tried to catch the other lab, too, but he was a smart old hound. He saw something fishy about me hanging on to his pal and trotted off down the street. I couldn’t hold on to both Molly and the lab I had in hand and expect to catch a third dog … so I counted my gains and called the county sheriff. The sheriff’s office promised to send a deputy my way.

I’ve been both a volunteer and an employee at the humane society back in my home town, so I’m pretty familiar with how to find a stray’s owner, when possible. If the dog has no tags, you call the police. They take the dog to the city pound, they check for any missing dog reports that match, and failing that they wait for the owner to come claim their dog. Failing that, the dog goes up for adoption. Failing that, either the dog goes on to a rescue like the humane society or … well.

But this lab had a tag. Simple matter of looking up her info. She’d be home in a matter of minutes.

Or so I thought. Found out I was in for a small-town adjustment shock.

Enter … the Patrol Car

The officer that responded was tall, heavy-set, middle-aged–but wearing the kind of scar you’d expect to find in a thriller. You know, the kind that starts at one cheek, cuts across the mouth, and ends at the chin. Unexpected element of Alfred Hitchcock.

I explained what was up.

“Well, here’s the problem,” said the deputy. “I can’t get at the records because the city offices are closed until Monday.”

Okay, that was not what I expected to hear. So the poor kid was going to have to spend the weekend at the pound?

“And I can’t take her to the kennel, because I’ve already got a dog in my car.”

I noticed the decal that said “K9 UNIT.” This was also not what I expected to hear.

“But if you want to follow in your car, I can show you where the kennel is.”

Still not what I expected to hear.

But I could deal with it. After working with hundreds of stray animals, I feel a certain responsibility toward any stray I run across. So frankly I have a hard time handing one over to the authorities and never seeing it again. I’d feel much better seeing where this young pup had gone and that she was well-cared for.

Heck, it sounded like more fun than house cleaning and picking up groceries.

“I hate leaving her at the kennel,” the deputy said, shaking his head.

I was pretty sure she’d feel awfully confused in a noisy shelter, but I was okay with it. The shelter where I worked wasn’t fancy by anybody’s standards, but the animals were loved and cared for and, in fact, spoiled rotten. There were worse places than a kennel to spend a weekend. And even if the shelter in this town was a little sub par, as I figured it might be in a small town, I could drop by to visit her until she went home on Monday.

It Wasn’t the Ritz …

I put the lab in the back seat of my car, but somehow she ended up in the front seat, and then on my lap. Not the easiest way to drive, but the deputy never pulled me over, so it was all good.

He led me to the edge of town and parked in front of a machine shed with a small storage unit off to the side.

Something was missing. I didn’t hear any dogs barking. I glanced through the open door of the machine shed. Couple of trucks parked inside. I glanced at the little storage unit.


Someone walked out of the machine shed and waved at the deputy. “Hey, Sam. Got yourself a new lab?”

“Nah, Turk, she’s a stray.”

“Well, you know who has black labs? Don does. He’s got four of them. You know who I’m talking about, right?”

“Drives a blue SUV?”

“That’s him.”

“I didn’t know he had labs.”

Okay, also not what I expected to hear. Between Sam and Turk, it sounded like they knew everybody in town–and what they drove, and what kind of pets they had.

Sam explained about the city license tag.

“Well, I can run over and look up her number,” said Turk. “It’d be no problem at all.”

That was a stroke of luck. Whoever this Turk person was, he had a key to the city office. But for the moment, the black lab–“Fred,” Turk christened her–was going to have to stay in the kennel–or rather, the storage shed.

Only, the door was locked.

“I don’t remember when’s the last time we used this,” Sam said.

“Been years,” Turk agreed.

They broke in the door.

Chain link fencing divided the storage unit into two kennels. The cement floor was layered with dust, as was the bed–a wooden pallet covered in carpet. Two plastic dishes sat in the corner, one with frozen water, the other with soaked-then-frozen dog food and a dead beetle.

Turk found a space heater and fired it up. At least Fred would have that.

I walked her into the kennel and sat down with her. “It’ll be okay. You won’t be here long. I’ll come visit you. I’ll clean this place up a bit, and take you for a walk. And I’ll bring you some of Molly’s dinner. She’s having roast chicken tonight.”

Fred didn’t look too keen on me leaving. But I had grand visions of how much more comfortable I could make this place for her. I had learned how to make much of little while working at the humane society.

Okay, This Is Where I Drive the Patrol Car

Turk left immediately for the city office, and Sam got in his car to follow him. I was letting my cab warm up a bit when I heard the roar of spinning wheels. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the patrol car’s tires spitting snow–and not moving an inch.

I debated for a moment. Would it look totally lame if I was to throw my 110 pounds against the back of the fancy lights-and-gadgets patrol car?

After a minute of the fancy lights-and-gadgets patrol car getting nowhere, I decided image didn’t matter. I got out and put my shoulder to the bumper.

We tried forwards and back for about five minutes with no results. (Other than me getting pelted with snow.) Sam finally put it in park, swung the door open, and got out. He circled his car, shook his head over the state of his snow tires, then stood thinking a minute. Finally he motioned toward the driver’s seat.

“Why don’t you get in?”

I stared in awe at the open door. Had Sam really just told me to drive his patrol car? I pumped both my fists. “Score!”

I jumped in behind the wheel. Gizmos. Gadgets. I didn’t even know what they all did. I couldn’t even find the gear shift, I was so pumped over what I was doing. Lots of writers try to get a ride-along at some point in their careers–but I was driving the thing!

Suddenly a furry, reddish-gold face appeared out of the back seat. Oh yeah. Police dog. Should I be concerned? But Sam’s dog merely sniffed me and smiled before disappearing into the back seat again. Sam told me later he was a sniffing dog. Red Labrador–which I’d never heard of before. (Sam confessed he hadn’t, either.)

Okay, this was it. I put the cop car in gear and gunned it. The speedometer hit 40.

The car moved about six inches.

Sam told me later I looked really small inside his patrol car. Thanks.

But our new strategy worked better–me driving, Sam pushing. When we had the patrol car in a good position, Sam took the wheel again, and with a final blitz of powder, he skidded out of the parking lot.

“That,” I thought as I watched him drive away, “is going to make a killer blog post.”

The Fate of Fred

Sam called me later. Turk had gotten Fred’s information and contacted the owner, who came and picked her up.

“She’s just ten months old,” Sam said. “The owner said the older dog knew how to get home, but he was worried about the younger one.”

I was so glad to hear they were both home safe.

“Oh,” said Sam. “And thanks for helping me get my car out of the snow.”

Hey, any time.