Sylvia McNicoll: What the Author, Now, Knows

May 13, 2022

What the Dog Knows by Sylvia McNicollWelcome to Cantastic Authorpalooza, featuring posts by and about great Canadian children’s book creators! Today’s guest: Sylvia McNicoll. Take it away, Sylvia!

For all the dogs I’ve known in my life, I wrote What the Dog Knows. Such a slow and pleasureful project; it took nearly ten years of revising the story and evolving the characters. No one rushed me, I fulfilled other deadlines in between. But I always returned to revisit 14-year-old Naomi and her canine savant, Diesel. Now as I hold my 40th novel, I look at the aqua cover with the perky dog peeking sideways from the edge, and I am happy.  For the first time in my career, I did not rush the writing and perhaps as a result I can start reading the story and still love and be lost in it.

Why do I enjoy writing about dogs so much? When I was a little girl, I remember wandering the sidewalk with a pack of dogs. Those were the days when children and animals were given free reign. Post World War by about 10 years, older kids bullied me over my German parents, Nazi backstabbers they called them. But the dogs never made fun of me, they just liked being with me, accepting treats and pats with friendly licks and wagging tails.

For my seventh Christmas, my father finally bought me my own dog from the animal shelter. We named the small shivering terrier Dino after the Flintstones’ television pet. Like the father in What the Dog Knows, my dad needed to be a job chaser and probably chose my pet because of opportunity: the shelter was located across from where he worked at the time, and affordability: Dino cost five bucks. Also like Naomi’s father, he couldn’t afford vet bills. That skinny sick dog just had to grow better on her own.  Dad couldn’t afford swimming lessons for me either and I nearly drowned when he attempted to teach me himself. You just throw a child in, right? They’re forced to swim. Only I sat stubbornly at the bottom, watching bubbles rising to the top. You can read that scene almost exactly the way it happened in What the Dog Knows.

My father was a taciturn man who couldn’t talk to me. In my teen years, he would communicate to me through our dog. “What do you think, Dino? Do you think Sylvia would like a piece of chocolate? Do you, girl?”

Wagging tail, panting tongue meant Yes, of course, Sylvia wants a piece of chocolate. Dogs aren’t complicated. Maybe they can’t talk to us inside our heads the way Diesel does with Naomi but they really try to tell us things with their bodies. We just have to pay attention. Then if we pay attention to their body language, maybe we can take that skill and look at each other and try to understand what our human friends really want as well.

Many dogs later, walks with our canines provided me time to bond and communicate with my own children. I felt it was easier for them to grow empathy with a predictable furry friend than a human one. It was also easier to weep unabashedly when our dogs died. It was as though all our other losses could be fully experienced in their passing.


I took some of the grief, disappointment, and unhappiness that teens experience and over the years of writing, gave them to Naomi, a lonely girl who is finally taught by her dog to believe and see the best in a human friend. I took all the dogs I knew and combined their energy and fun into Diesel, a dog who communicates some universal truths. A dog who feels you have to keep your family together because “a bigger pack can bring down a moose.”

What I learned from the project:  to live in the story moment and not to rush it. Writing is a pleasure you can savour.  I’m hoping my readers will find joy in savouring the reading of What the Dog Knows too.

Enjoy the trailer for What the Dog Knows here:

Sylvia McNicoll is the author of Silver Birch-Winning Bringing Up Beauty and more recently The Great Mistake Mysteries and Body Swap. She lives in Burlington, Ontario with her husband and continues to be inspired by her own dog Mortie and her nine grandchildren who all live close by.




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