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SunLit interview: Cary Unkelbach’s beloved dog Max spurred her curiosity about his breeder’s bizarre life

The author's previous experience as a reporter and both a prosecutor and civil litigator gave her the tools to follow the trail of the breeder who managed to keep her animal abuse from friends and family

Cary Unkelbach grew up in a family that bred, raised, trained, and showed their Walden Labrador retrievers for more than 40 years. She has trained and shown Labradors at AKC competitions since age 8. Cary was a reporter for the Hartford Times and the Hartford Courant newspapers and has also written for Dog World, Labrador Quarterly and Police Chief magazines. She also has worked as a prosecutor and a civil litigator. She lives with her husband and two spoiled Labradors in the   Colorado mountains. Read her monthly blog and contact her at www.caryunkelbach.com.

Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

 Max, our goofy, adopted Labrador Retriever inspired me to research and write the book.  When I heard a news report that nearly 100 Labradors had been abandoned in northern Colorado, I first thought about why and how could this have happened? I was horrified when I learned the identity of the abandoner—- Dodie Cariaso—the breeder of Max. My husband and I had adopted Max almost a decade before from a gentleman who’d bought him as a puppy from Dodie. I needed to understand how this woman could have bred such a wonderful dog as Max.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

Excerpt 1 is the opening of the book chosen to introduce Dodie and her simple explanation of why she abandoned nearly 100 dogs in a northern Colorado field on a hot summer day.

Excerpt 2 introduces my wanting answers about Dodie, who bred Max, our beloved, adopted Labrador, and my reasons for writing the book.

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?

I grew up in a family that bred, trained, and showed Labradors in American Kennel Club dog shows. At an early age, I learned the importance of reputable dog breeders and canine ownership. My years as a newspaper reporter and later as a prosecutor and then civil defense trial attorney gave me the tools and confidence that I needed to research and write Dodie’s tangled and bizarre life story that explains why she abandoned her Labradors.

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own? 

During my interviews with Dodie’s friends and family, puppy buyers, and government officials, I was surprised that most either really liked Dodie or strongly disliked her. The more I interviewed the more I realized that many of Dodie’s acquaintances and friends only knew one side of her. She was a very complex, college-educated individual who could charm, infuriate, frustrate, and fool many people.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

My biggest challenge in writing the book was culling the massive amount of information that I’d obtained after interviewing more than 80 individuals and reading through hundreds if not thousands of pages of documents, including court transcripts. I forced myself to cut many pages of my drafts so that the story advances at a good pace.

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

Many are outraged at what happened. Others say they should have asked their breeder many more questions than they did before they bought their puppy. I point out to my readers that the book teaches many lessons about how to identify both irresponsible and responsible breeders and the importance of responsible dog owners. I’m hopeful that the lessons embedded in “Heartbreak Kennel” and its stranger-than-fiction true story will keep more dogs out of shelters and increase the number of responsible canine owners. 

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?

I usually write on my computer in the mornings in my home office, with one or two Labradors at my feet. In the afternoon, my four-footed editors remind me that they need their daily walk.  During these walks, I often resolve writing issues! 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Were Dodie’s brothers cooperative when they learned you were writing a book about their sister?

I had no idea how Dodie’s twin brother James would react when I asked to interview him for a book that I was researching and writing about his sister. Both he and his wife Vikki were very cordial and helpful. They invited me to their home for the interview(s) and provided boxes of Dodie’s photographs and records, including several diaries, for me to review.  I also interviewed Dodie’s younger brother and his wife over the telephone because they live on the West Coast. They also were very pleasant and cooperative. Dodie’s brothers and their wives offered insights about Dodie that only relatives could.

Why would someone who loves dogs want to read “Heartbreak Kennel”? It sounds so sad.

If you think that animal abuse is a problem and wonder if there is anything that can be done to curb it, then this book is for you. As you read Dodie’s life story, you’ll learn to identify non-obvious signs of neglect and what you— as a neighbor, family member, friend, or potential puppy buyer, can do about it, including proactive steps you can take to make a difference in the lives of helpless critters. ”Heartbreak Kennel” isn’t just about the abandoned dogs. It’s mostly about Dodie and Max. The Max stories provide a balance to any sadness in part of Dodie’s story. You’ll be challenged not to smile and laugh about the antics of our goofy but beloved boy.

How could a dog lover like yourself be impartial when you researched and wrote Dodie’s story?

The goal of my research was to learn as much as possible about Dodie from supporters, detractors, and others whose lives she had touched. I wanted to know who she was as a person and why she acted the way she did. As I researched, one interview led to another, and I only concentrated on the trail of information that I was on to try to learn more facts about Dodie and her actions. I’d used the same approach throughout my professional career: first as a newspaper reporter, then as a prosecutor, and finally as a civil defense attorney. I have always sought the facts before writing a story or trying a case. Retractions and surprises, especially at trial, are very unpleasant! And, I purposefully didn’t label or judge Dodie in my book. Dodie was, well, Dodie. 

Tell us about your next project. 

I’m toying with either writing a mystery or a book about how our Labrador, Ranger, has trained me! 


Read two excerpts from the book.

To find this book:
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