Since it’s Canada Day (happy birthday Canada!) and I just came back from spending several days at the lake with stacks of books and people I love, today seems like the perfect day to talk about Free Days With George: Learning Life’s Little Lessons From One Very Big Dog by Colin Campbell. (Colin Campbell is Canadian – that’s the Canada connection in case you were wondering.)
Colin Campbell was going through a divorce and really struggling with it when a co-worker suggested that he get a dog to help combat some of the loneliness Colin felt at home. He found a picture of George, a 140b Newfoundland Landseer who had been neglected and really needed some love and affection. After meeting him, Colin took him home and that moment changed both of their lives. Together they chased the idea of free days, those days when you “spend the whole day doing things you love to do […] and when you do those things with people you love, who love you, you don’t grow old that day.”
This book was a lot more than I expected. I was looking forward to an uplifting tale of this rehabilitated dog and his triumphs (which this is) but I wasn’t prepared to also read about Campbell’s own struggles, written so honestly. I got the chance to ask Campbell some questions about the book, which he graciously responded to.
Paperback Princess: I love the idea of Free Days. Your grandfather obviously had an incredible impact on your life. Did you plan for him to be such an integral part of the story when you started writing?
Colin Campbell: Yes – in early days of planning the book with my editor, Nita Pronovost, we both felt his voice needed to be a strong presence throughout the book. There was a feeling that my Grandfather had a similar character to Morrie, of TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, which was accurate – he totally did! So to be candid, I tried to write his influence on my life in a similar way. I could have written a whole book about him alone, he was a very loving, charismatic and wise individual who left a big impact on everyone he met.
PBP: I’m a big believer in the idea that the right dog finds you when you need him. Did you realize how much you needed George when you met him?
CC: No – at the time I was a lot more emotionally broken than I realized. At first I thought I was doing George a favor in providing him with some support and structure to live a safe, happy life. I had no idea at the time idea that he would eventually return the same favor to me a thousand times over.
PBP: What do you think is the biggest challenge about taking home a rescue dog? What would you say to someone looking to share their lives with a rescue?
CC: I would encourage anyone who is willing, and has the resources of time, logistics and love to adopt a homeless dog – you are literally saving a life! The biggest challenge is being committed to everything that it entails. There are some people who think they would like to help a dog without considering the full impact. They need to be walked, at minimum, twice a day and sometimes more. There are expenses for food, toys and Vet care – some dogs, like George, also shed tremendously, and drool – it will make you compromise a lot of things. You will also need to integrate the dog into your current family – its a big step that should not be taken lightly for your sake, and the dog’s sake. That said, if you make the commitment and give your time and affection to a homeless dog you will get all that love back – and then some!! It was one of the best things I have ever done!!
PBP: George seems like a real gentle soul. I teared up reading about all the instances of George kind of accepting people as they are and handing out hugs and kisses when people maybe seemed like they needed them. What do you think it is about George that’s made him so empathetic?
CC: That’s a good question, and I am not sure if I have a tangible answer…. He was always just sweet and gentle. Always. Even in early days when he was frightened and scared, he was always gentle with everyone, especially children. He just intuitively treated people that way. It has been amazing to watch him – he will still insist in sitting with homeless people we encounter when we walk through downtown Toronto – I still learn a lot watching him everyday.
PBP: Obviously this story starts really painfully with the end of your marriage and your struggles with your mental wellness as a result. People are finally starting to talk more openly about their struggles with mental health. Initially this story seems like it’s just about a journey with an incredible dog but it ends up being about a lot more than that. Was it your intention to be so open about your struggles? What do you wish more people knew about mental health?
CC: No, it certainly wasn’t my intention to write the book so candidly regarding the issues of depression that I went through. I barely spoke about it for a long time. That said, as I was trying to paint the picture of George in the book, it became apparent that I needed to include detail of my personal issues to give the proper context of George’s positive impact in my life. The details weren’t as difficult to write about when I approached it from that perspective. In fact, it was a bit liberating and empowering to be able to have done that. I think the biggest thing I wish people knew about mental health issues is that they are more prevalent than you think. Most people just don’t talk about it, or bring it up socially or at parties – I certainly didn’t. I have subsequently learned that there is no shame in speaking about it, and certainly no shame in seeking out professional help when dealing with emotional issues and depression. It’s the smart thing to do!
PBP: Thank you for being so open about your journey. I think this book could help people see that they aren’t the only ones struggling. And of course, thank you for sharing George with us. I can see how a hug from George would make anyone feel better.
CC: Thanks very much for these thoughtful Questions – and yes, a hug with George has the magic power of making most problems seem a little more manageable…!!
I think we should all probably find a way to arrange for a big group hug with George but if that’s not on the horizon, I’d recommend that you read this book because I think it will work the same. If you want to learn more about Colin and George, please visit their website. And thank you to Penguin Random House of Canada for the opportunity!