Sassafras Lowrey knows a thing or two about dogs. She is an All-Star Trainer Of The Year, a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, an AKC CGC & Tricks Evaluator, has trained in and competed in canine sports from dog agility and rally obedience to canine parkour and tricks, and has appeared on AKC TV and BBC radio. She is also the author of multiple award-winning books about dogs, including two dog training books (Chew This Journal and Tricks In The City), a picture book (Bedtime Stories For Rescue Dogs), and an experimental lyric essay collection Healing/Heeling about her personal journey of healing through dogs. The follow-up to Healing / Heeling (With Me.) is releasing later this summer. Beyond all that, Sassafras is an LGBTQIA+ advocate and has done a lot of advocacy around youth homelessness in America. We caught up with Sassafras and her Newfoundland, Sirius, to learn more about her past lives, her current life, and her eternal love for dogs.
H: When did your love for dogs first begin? Did you grow up with dogs?
S: I’ve always been a huge dog lover. I sometimes joke that my first word was probably dog. I have always been obsessed with dogs. As soon as I learned to read, the only books I was interested in were about dogs. Lassie was my hero and I watched reruns every day. My first dog growing up was a Lhasa Apso named Peepers that my family rescued when I was in second grade after begging for a dog every day for years.
Peepers might not have been the best-trained dog but he was my very best friend and he only furthered my passion for learning about dogs. Then, when I was in high school, I started training and competing in sports so I was also able to add a Miniature Schnauzer and a Shetland Sheepdog to my family.
H: How did you get into dog shows? What sparked that passion?
S: I’ve always been passionate about spending time with dogs, understanding how they think/learn, and finding ways to communicate with them. I had been interested in canine sports since I first learned about them when I was in elementary school and would watch dog shows on TV and read dog magazines designed for adults. When I learned it was something I could do and not just watch/read about, I was obsessed. I started training in agility and competing with my own dogs in agility when I was in high school.
I know there was a period of your life when you were homeless. Do you mind sharing about that experience? How did dogs help you heal through those hard times?
I grew up in a fairly dysfunctional home with an alcoholic mother and a lot of abuse. For me, dog shows were not only my biggest passion, but, as a teenager, also my opportunity to get away from the house and develop my own life and identity outside of my abusive family. My senior year in high school, after abuse from my mom escalated, I moved in with my Dog Agility coach and my two dogs. One night, after we got home from a dog show, she read my journals and discovered that I was queer. The next day she kicked me out of her home. I was seventeen years old and didn’t have anywhere to go so I started couch surfing with friends from school and my agility coach gave me 48 hours to figure out what was going to happen to my dogs. In the end, my former coach kept my youngest dog and an estranged relative adopted my older dog.
The most important thing for me was for my dogs to have a good and stable home even if I wasn’t going to have that myself. A year later I was in college, living in my own apartment. I brought home a puppy who after a lot of training became my working PTSD service dog and played an instrumental role in my healing.
How did your experience shape who you are as an LGBTQIA+ advocate today?
The first decade of my career was heavily focused on national advocacy around the epidemic of LGBTQIA+ youth homelessness. Working to create a safer, more inclusive world has been really important to me. As my career has shifted to being primarily dog-focused, I have carried those social-justice-infused values into the writing and work that I do about dogs and dog training.
You ultimately returned back to dog sports and dog training later in your life. What made you go back?
After I finished college I moved to NYC to start my career. I still had dogs though I wasn't training in sports. Then my partner and I adopted our dog Charlotte who was a very high-needs former street dog. As we began working through her trauma history and anxiety I was looking for things that she could do, ways to engage her mind, and I discovered the world of competitive trick training.
Over the next few years, I began getting more and more involved in different dog sports again. Charlotte thrived and excelled with tricks becoming a Champion Trick Dog. Charlotte helped me discover there was a way for me to be an out LGBTQ+ person in the dog world.
Eventually, I became a Certified Trick Dog Instructor and an AKC CGC/Trick Evaluator as a way to support other people, especially those with reactive and challenging dogs to strengthen the relationship they have with their dogs. This was also around the time I began professionally writing about dogs. Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of supporting hundreds of people and their dogs all over the world get involved with tricks as a sport, and start earning titles (via video) with their dogs!
How does your love of dogs influence your writing?
Dogs have had a huge influence in my writing life, even when I didn’t intend it! My writing career first started with LGBTQIA+ fiction and I think there has been a dog in every LGBTQIA+ novel that I have published! Now dogs are the main thing that I write about. I have been lucky enough to turn my love of dogs and working with dogs into a full-time writing career.
I have released two dog training books (Chew This Journal and Tricks In The City), a picture book (Bedtime Stories For Rescue Dogs) and an experimental lyric essay collection Healing/Heeling - the follow-up to which (With Me) is releasing later this summer. My primary work is writing about dogs and dog training for leading national dog magazines and publications. I also regularly write about life with dogs for mainstream publications like The New York Times, Wired, and Apartment Therapy.
Tell us about your dog Sirius! How did she come into your life and what is her personality like?
Sirius is a 4.5-year-old Newfoundland. Sharing my life with a Newfie has always been a dream of mine so she was a very planned puppy and it was so exciting to bring her home!
In terms of personality, Sirius is very spicy, high drive, and a ton of fun. Sirius’ favorite things to do are play tug, learn new tricks and go swimming! Sirius is the First Newfoundland to earn the DMWYD Grand Champion Trick Dog Title and was ranked #1 Newfoundland in the 2020 American Kennel Club Trick Dog National Competition. Sirius and I also qualified for the 2021 Rally Obedience National competition. She and I spend a lot of time playing games/sports/training together. Sirius is big, sassy, and has a huge personality!
What’s one piece of advice you would give to LGBTQIA+ youth today?
The biggest piece of advice that I would give to LGBTQ youth today would be that, even though it might not feel like it right now, you are not alone. Sometimes it can take a little while to find a LGBTQIA+ community and chosen family that fully accepts you but don’t give up. Your people are out there!
What’s one piece of advice you would give to your young self?
That’s a hard question! I’m where I am today because of everything I have experienced, so I think the biggest piece of advice that I would give to my younger self is probably this quote from Walt Disney - “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”
Believing in my dreams of the family and home I wanted to have as well as my creative practice and vision was instrumental in building the life I have now – which truly is everything I ever dreamed of and more.
If you had 30 seconds to talk to Sirius, and she would understand every word, what would you say?
First I would like to make sure that Sirius truly knows how much I love her. Then, I assume that if Sirius could understand every word I say, I’m guessing that the same would be true in reverse, so if I had that opportunity I would use the rest of the time to listen to anything she wanted to make sure that I know and understand about the way she sees the world!