Above: EGHS English teacher Karen Izzo in her office at the high school.
Karen Izzo comes from big-dog people. The East Greenwich High School English teacher grew up in Michigan, where she developed an early appreciation of the outdoors and always had big dogs bounding along beside her. To Izzo, big dogs were the only dogs worth having, they were a point of pride. Small dogs were accessories or “old lady” dogs not to be taken seriously. So, as she and her husband married and raised their children, they always had a big dog, golden retrievers specifically. Wonderful golden retrievers.
As the years passed, however, Izzo watched her beloved goldens succumb at relatively early ages to cancer, which has become endemic to the breed.
“They didn’t live beyond 10 years,” she said. “No matter what I did, there’s so much cancer in goldens right now … when we lost our last one, he was 8 almost 9. I realized I couldn’t do this again, raise a dog and have them as part of the family,” only to lose them so soon.
She found a lot of golden retriever breeders had switched to breeding Havanese and “I feel in love,” she said.
But falling in love with a smaller dog was not the same as walking tall and proud with a little dog at her side. That was more of an evolution. She tells a couple of stories, one that made her defensive and one that made her think.
In the first story, a guy in Home Depot calls Izzo’s Havanese, Scout, “a 5 lb Swiffer.” Izzo lied on the spot, telling the man she had a Doberman at home.
“I felt like I had to explain, ‘Well, I’m also a big dog person,’” she said.
The encounter inspiring the book title is about a guy in biker boots and skull tattoos who was leaning against the sea wall in Narragansett. “He had a little Yorkie in the crook of his arm, protecting her from the sand tornadoes whipping on the sidewalk,” Izzo recalled. She thought, “If a guy in biker boots and skull tattoos could embrace his inner small dog, then so could I.”
Izzo’s small dog embrace deepened with time. She began to realize how much easier life was with a smaller dog. They literally don’t take up as much space and, generally, subject homes and yards to less wear and tear. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but they produce less waste. While most dog owners are good about picking up after their pet, not everyone is and that waste can lead to water closures.
“Small dogs are simply easier on our natural resources,” Izzo said.
One essential is proper training.
“The reason little dogs have such a bad reputation because people don’t train their dogs,” she said.
As her thinking evolved, she started to write.
“I develop my ideas and philosophy about things by writing,” she said. Izzo found herself writing a book – something she’d never done before. But it wasn’t right and she put it down in 2015. When she picked it up again three years later, she realized she’d written it in her “snarky lawyer voice” (Izzo worked as a lawyer before going into teaching).
“I realized I needed to find a balance between celebrating finding small dogs and knocking big dogs off,” she said.
She dove into the research. As it happened, Izzo had originally wanted to be a vet but college chemistry “almost killed” her. She instead studied liberal arts but retained her love of science and natural history.
“It was fun and challenging to make the research accessible,” she said. “It was so much fun to talk to the researchers.”
The resulting book, Downward Sizing Dog – A Reformed Big Dog Snob Defends the Small Dog Life – came out in late January.
It’s given her a better appreciation of the struggles some of her students face.
“I was writing something that was so unwieldy. It’s given me more tips and tricks to help kids through writing blocks. It put me in the shoes of the kid who says, ‘I don’t know where to take this,’ or ‘I don’t know how to write about this.’”
She found dictating really works for her – she even dictate while she walks – and she’s passed that trick onto her students. “The easiest way to get writing is to pretend you’re talking to a friend.”
Izzo has gotten such positive feedback about the book from writers, editors and total strangers who’ve found her book on Amazon, she is working on book two, The Small Dog Rules.
You can find out more about her book at her website, smalldogrules.com. It is available on Amazon as well as in some Rhode Island bookstores. If the book is not in stock at your favorite local bookstore, they can order it. At this point, Izzo does not have any book signings planned – ”I joke that I’ll do author signings when I publish book three. Before that, it feels a little presumptuous of me” – but she will have a vendor booth at the AKC New England Small Breed Dog Show May 27-28 at the Wide World of Indoor Sports at Quonset. She is also happy to chat with book clubs who enjoy nonfiction and dogs.