By Alex Kava
In honor of National Dog Month, I want to share how one of my characters—a favorite of readers as well as my own—came to life.
Grace is a scrappy, sixteen-pound Jack Russell terrier. In my Ryder Creed series, Creed is a former Marine K9 handler who now owns a training facility in the Panhandle of Florida. He and his partner Hannah rescue abandoned dogs and turn them into scent detecting heroes.
That means none of his dogs are the typical shepherds or retrievers. It gives me a chance to emphasize that all dogs have extraordinary scent capabilities. They have 300 million scent receptors compared to our measly five million. To put that in perspective: We can smell a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee. Dogs can smell a teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic-size swimming pool.
But what actually makes a good detection dog is often more about drive and stamina, not necessarily size or breed.
Early on when I was creating this series, I knew I wanted to use abandoned dogs. The reoccurring themes include rescue and redemption. And that extends to the humans as well as the dogs. In fact, Ryder Creed is a reluctant hero, often getting tangled up in other’s troubles.
Back in 2011-2012 this idea of taking shelter dogs and training them for scent detection was at best a novel and inventive idea on my part. I’m glad to say, there are now actual organizations doing this. Yay, for shelter dogs!
Getting back to Grace. I decided I wanted Creed’s favorite detection dog to be a Jack Russell terrier. But here’s the thing, I’ve never known a real life Jack Russell. So I started doing research.
One of the traits I discovered about this breed is that they are fearless. I came across a YouTube video of a Jack Russell terrier in Zambia protecting its property line. In the video, it chases away two elephants. Seriously! The elephants actually back away and they do it quickly.
I realized here was an opportunity to create a whole different level of conflict within my novels. I started to constantly look at risks and situations Creed’s dogs might encounter. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to use elephants, but in the Panhandle of Florida there are plenty of threats: alligators, black bears, spiders and snakes.
As it turns out, Jack Russells are excellent snake detectors and better equipped than any other breed to deal with them because of their agility, their instinct to back away while sounding fierce and their incredible leaping ability.
Also, did I mention, they are fearless!
In 2012, Andersen Air Force Base in Guam was overrun with thousands of brown tree snakes. The invasive species was accidentally introduced to Guam and began severely damaging the native ecosystem. The USDA brought in seventeen—yes, you read that correctly, only seventeen—specially trained Jack Russell terriers. The dogs helped them locate and capture over 8,000 snakes.
My pack is made up of West Highland terriers. Both breeds were known as companion hunters, searching out foxes and vermin with their human counterparts. Both have high energy levels and lots of drive. Mine have been known to “capture” a snake or two. (Thank goodness, none of those were poisonous.) So to create Grace, I also tapped into my experiences and relationships with my terriers.
I even gave Grace a backstory. Creed found her abandoned at the end of his long driveway. He took her in. Nursed her back to health, and the two have been inseparable ever since. Keep in mind, he has a kennel full of other dogs he’s rescued and trained for various levels of scent detection, but Grace…she’s extra special.
The story of Grace came full circle, so to speak, this past March. A local rescue organization in Omaha had just rescued dozens of Jack Russell terriers from a puppy mill in the region. One of those puppies pulled, strummed and almost broke the heartstrings of my partner and me. Admirably, the organization has a long application process that includes personal references, a conversation with your veterinarian and several home visits.
We knew when this wiggly seven-month-old showed up at our front door for that first visit that she was meant to be with us. This tiny, bright-eyed, energetic Jack Russell was the personification of Ryder Creed’s Grace.
She had spent the first six months of her life without even a name. She was only eight-pounds which is undersized for a seven-month old Jack Russell, but otherwise she was healthy and loving and so energetic. The Westies couldn’t quite keep up with her. They still can’t. She can leap straight up about a mile and runs zoomies whether anyone chases or not. She and Finn have become best buddies.
Our Grace will be a year old next week. And in just five short months she has taught me so much about Jack Russell terriers, along with what it means to be rescued and given a second chance.
Oh, and did I mention? She is fearless! To quote Shakespeare, “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”
So writers, have you ever created a character from someone you know? Or have you met a person who reminded you of one of your characters?
Alex Kava is the New York Times, USA Today and Amazon bestselling author of twenty-one novels that include the critically acclaimed series featuring K9 handler Ryder Creed and the international bestselling series with FBI profiler Maggie O’Dell. She’s been awarded two Nebraska Book Awards, a Florida Book Award and the Mari Sandoz Award. Published in thirty-two countries, her novels have sold over six million copies and have appeared on bestseller lists in the UK, Australia, Germany, Poland, Italy, and Japan. When she’s not writing, Alex enjoys spending time with her pack of Westies who are definitely not as well trained as Ryder Creed’s dogs.
Want to read further on this topic? See what our other Rogues suggest in the articles below!