STEM Tuesday — Animal Perceptions– Interview with Author Stephanie Gibeault

 

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview, a repeating feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Stephanie Gibeault, author of Making Sense of Dog Senses: How Our Furry Friends Experience the World It’s a fascinating look at how dogs use their senses, often better than the people around them. The School and Library Journal said, “A fun, quirky book about dogs and their many abilities; great for animal lovers, young and old.

 

Christine Taylor-Butler: Welcome to STEM Tuesday, Stephanie. I’m always excited to talk to a woman with a STEM background. Were you a science person as a child?

Stephanie Gibeault: Yes, I was particularly interested in biology. I had all kinds of pets and loved observing animals in the wild. Catching them too. I would trap snakes and keep them in my tent or show my amphibian-fearing mother every frog and toad I could collect. I also loved fishing with my uncle. I remember after he had cleaned the pickerel, I would take the carcass and dissect what was left to learn how the fish’s body worked. But I did a lot of physics too, thanks to my dad. He helped me create some mind-blowing science fair projects like the time we built a set of elliptical gears.

Christine: You received an undergraduate degree in Ecology and Evolution and a Master of Science in animal behavior. Afterwards, you became a certified dog trainer. Did you have dogs as pets when you were a child? Do you have any now?

Chi stumpStephanie: My parents had a border collie named Sox when I was born, and he used to push me around in my baby carriage. Then came Snoopy who was supposed to be a beagle but must have been a mix of breeds because he was huge. He used to sleep in my bed at night and had a tendency to follow his nose and wander off. Now I have a six-pound chihuahua cross named Chi Chi Rodriguez (after a particularly funny episode of the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati). Believe it or not, when I had his DNA tested, I found out he’s part mastiff! We used to do agility and trick training together, but now that he’s over 17, his favorite activity is cuddling on the couch.

Christine: You’ve written more than 300 articles about dogs for the American Kennel Club. How do you decide what topics to include?

Stephanie: You would think I would have run out of topics by now, but dogs are endlessly fascinating to me. I also write about them for other sites, like Cottage Life and Reader’s Digest. Sometimes I’m assigned topics by editors, but often I pitch ideas I find interesting. I love reporting on the latest canine cognition research or explaining dog behavior to help people better train and understand their pets. Freelance writing is a bit like pitching agents or editors. You pick the topics you’re passionate about then try to convince them your ideas are worth publishing.

Christine: Making Sense of Dog Senses: How Our Furry Friends Experience The World is one of two books you are doing for OwlKids Books that talk about the ability of dogs to navigate the world. The other is Dogs Versus Humans: A Showdown of the Senses. Your book is packed with information and colorful illustrations. Where did you get the idea?

Stephanie: I’ve always been interested in how different animals sense their environment. Just as no two people perceive the world in exactly the same way, different species have evolved their own particular sensory experience or umwelt. Then, through my work as a dog trainer, I realized how many dog owners didn’t understand their dog’s point of view. They would interpret everything through a human lens rather than appreciating canine culture and their dog’s evolutionary heritage. That’s where the idea for the book came from. I wanted to help middle grade readers understand this animal we share our homes with and have evolved beside for thousands of years. After all, dogs may be humanity’s best friend, but we sure don’t have a lot in common.

Christine: You make great comparisons. For instance, that a dog’s sense of smell is thousands of times more sensitive to humans and why they sniff everything. Dogs have far fewer taste buds than humans, so it’s no wonder they eat things we would never dream of, like garbage and dirty socks. There’s an enormous amount of research in this book.

Stephanie: This was a research-intense book because I didn’t just need to understand dog senses but human senses as well. I read a lot of books, both those for kids and those for adults, but most of my facts came from scientific studies in academic journals. Thanks to my background in biology, I felt comfortable digging into the latest canine science. I did my utmost to find the most up-to-date research, but dogs have only recently become a hot subject, so many of these topics, such as their color vision or olfactory capabilities, are still being studied. Scientists are discovering new things about dogs all the time.

Christine: And yet there are a few things that humans can do better than dogs. For instance, you discuss visual acuity which is how sharp and clear things look from a distance. Do you expand on those types of comparisons in your second book?

Stephanie: The second book, Dogs Versus Humans: A Showdown of the Senses, is a picture book that pits the sensory abilities of pooches against people to see who comes out on top. There are comparisons between the species for each of the five main senses as well as a lesser-known sense known as magnetoreception. The book looks at dogs’ sensory abilities in general as not all dogs are the same. For example, those with upright ears may be able to hear better than those with droopy ears, and some dogs lose their sight or hearing as they age. Of course, the same is true for people – we aren’t all the same. But the point of the book is to appreciate the differences and see the world through a dog’s eyes (or nose would be more accurate).

Note: Dogs versus Humans is coming in 2025!

Christine: Skill and perseverance are key in publishing. Most people don’t know what authors go through. Can you tell our readers a bit about your journey?

Toby tootles coverStephanie: Although I wrote academic papers as a biologist, my journey into kidlit started in 2011 when my niece and nephew were picture book age. I wrote silly stories for them about animals and ninjas and whatever else I thought might make them laugh. I even made the embarrassing mistake of submitting one of those stories to publishers. Then, in 2015, I began writing freelance and realized how much I didn’t know. In 2016, I attended my first writing conference, joined my first critique group, and threw myself into learning the craft of writing. I started querying agents (too soon) in 2019, then signed with my incredible agent Jacqui Lipton in January of 2021. We sold my first manuscript, a picture book called Toby Tootles, a few months later. And not long after that I co-wrote my first nonfiction middle grade called Can’t Get Enough Dog Stuff for National Geographic Kids.

Christine: In your article for NF Ninjas, you point out that three of your books were sold on proposals. They weren’t written until after the contract was signed. You provide a list for others to follow when preparing their own. Was writing on proposal more difficult or was it freeing?

Stephanie: I wouldn’t say writing by proposal is more freeing because you need to plan the entire book and sell your idea to an editor even if you’ve only written a few chapters. You need to include a solid and enticing overview and outline in your proposal which means knowing exactly what you intend to do. But I also don’t find book proposals more difficult because I’m not a pantser. I’m an organization fanatic, so figuring out content, structure, and subject matter down to the last sidebar suits my brain. However, once you’re working with an editor the project can change, so you need to stay flexible and open to new ideas.

Calculating chimpanzeesChristine: You have also have a book coming out with MIT Kids Press/Candlewick Books. Calculating Chimpanzees, Brainy Bees, and Other Animals with Mind-Blowing Mathematical Abilities. In it, you talk about how hyenas can count, and chimpanzees can do calculations, and many other animal examples. The chapters include interviews with researchers and activities the readers can try. Tell our readers a bit about how this book came about.

Stephanie: If you had told me when I was a teenager that I would write a book about math one day, I would never have believed you. But I love learning about how animals think, and I remember discussing animal number sense with my supervisor in graduate school. For example, I wondered if a bird knows how many babies are in her nest. This project was my chance to dive deep into this topic I had always been curious about. I was also able to use my biology background to look at why animals have evolved various number abilities and help bust the idea that math is a uniquely human domain.

Christine: Was there a particular animal or researcher that you enjoyed investigating for this book?

Irene and parrotStephanie: It was thrilling to speak to animal cognition scientists I had admired for years as well as to meet people doing cutting edge studies. I was particularly excited to learn more about Irene Pepperberg and her African grey parrot Alex. Through her studies with Alex, Dr. Pepperberg proved the term “bird brain” is the opposite of an insult. She taught Alex over 100 English labels for objects, including their color and shape, and discovered he could do simple math and use Arabic numerals. It was amazing to hear her stories about Alex’s personality including how he would have a temper tantrum when he got bored with repeating the same experiments too many times.

Christine: Before we go, I noted that you’ve been a movie extra! That’s a dream on my wishlist. How did that happen? Which movies?

Christine: We’re excited about your books and your passion for explaining science to children. Do you have anything else coming up we should be watching out for?

Stephanie: I have another nonfiction picture book scheduled for release in fall 2025. The Dog That Saved the Bees is about Cybil Preston, the Chief Apiary Inspector for the State of Maryland, and her rescue dog Mack. Thanks to Cybil, Mack went from a lonely life in a garage to becoming the only certified beehive disease detection dog in America. He is responsible for inspecting Maryland’s commercial beehives before they travel around the United States to pollinate crops like almonds and blueberries. Without Mack’s incredible nose, many foods would never make it to your table.

Editors note: Stephanie is a prolific children’s and freelance author. In addition to the American Kennel Association, she’s written for Readers Digest, Cottage Life, Pet Sitters International and the Old Farmers Almanac.

 

Stephanie headshotStephanie Gibeault is a children’s author and award-winning freelance writer. As a former biologist and certified professional dog trainer, she loves writing about dogs and other animals. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in ecology and evolution and a Master of Science in animal behavior. Her time in academia involved grunting with gorillas and stinking like marmoset monkeys. Years later, dog training meant being covered in fur and drool. Now she spends her days just outside of Toronto, Canada, convincing her clumsy cat Heton not to take over her keyboard. For more information, visit stephaniegibeault.com.

 

Author Christine Taylor-ButlerYour host is Christine Taylor-Butler, a graduate of MIT and author of The Oasis, Save the… Tigers, Save the . . . Blue Whales, and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the STEM based middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram. She lives in Missouri with a tank of fish and cats that think they are dogs.

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2 Comments
  1. What a wonderful article! While I’m a fan and try to keep up on all of the amazing books you have out or have in the works, I loved learning more about your earlier life, Stephanie, and learning the backstory behind why you’ve written about some of these topics. Congratulations on your many successes!!

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