Irvine mom and artist writes children’s book to help spread compassion and understanding of dogs.
When Desiree Udell-Nguyen was 10, she didn’t like school much.
“I was bullied and felt terrible when I was at school,” says Udell-Nguyen, of Irvine. “What got me through the day was knowing my dog, Ben, was waiting for me.”
Ben would sometimes even escape from home and come to her school.
“The front office got to know him and would even say: ‘Could Desiree or Greg — my brother — come to take Ben home’ over the loudspeaker,” she recalls. “When school was out, I would run home and throw the door open, knowing my best little furry friend was going to make me feel a lot better.”
It’s because of this love and comfort that Ben and other animals have given to her that Udell-Nguyen wants to give something back to them: understanding. So she wrote (and illustrated) a children’s book: “We Need to Talk: How to make a good impression when meeting a dog!”
“My goal is to teach people about dogs in a way that would make them laugh, make them think and make them appreciate how amazing dogs are,” she says. “My second goal is to help bridge the communication gap between dogs and people, so people treat dogs better, so dogs aren’t given up or euthanized. My third goal is to be able to give back a portion of the proceeds to organizations that are doing the real work of saving/helping animals.”
Udell-Nguyen and her whole family — including 13-year-old Reese and 10-year-old Shea, and their dogs Grizzly, Mila and Everly — all worked on the book together.
“Both my girls took photos for me, gave me advice and also helped edit the book. They had a lot of opinions,” she says. “Reese actually got the cover shot of Grizzly. Shea took some of the inside shots. I also included some photos of the girls. … I showed the book to my husband, my parents, family and friends and they helped me make important clarifications and changes.”
Her dogs feature prominently in the book.
“Grizzly is a character who wants to change the world and help dogs,” says Udell-Nguyen. “Mila plays his sidekick, and also his nervous little sister. Everly is a ‘Furry Dog Fairy.’”
They adopted their cocker spaniel Grizzly, who is now 5, when he was a puppy.
“He came from a very poor family,” she says. “They told us their dog accidentally had a litter.”
They then adopted Mila — who they guess is a spaniel, Chihuahua or Pomeranian mix — from the City of Irvine Animal Care Center’s Third Chance for Pets program.
“Mila was only 3 months and she was on death row in LA,” she says. “She is our most well-behaved dog. Nervous, but so, so loving.”
They adopted their third dog, Everly, last summer from I.C.A.R.E. Dog Rescue in Rancho Santa Margarita. She’s a 2 ½-year-old terrier mix.
“We think she was used for breeding and then dumped on the street,” says Udell-Nguyen. “She was so incredibly scared when we brought her home. It took us a few months, but she no longer rolls on her back in fear. She is the happiest little girl.”
Though all her dogs have served as a great inspiration, there was one specific incident that motivated Udell-Nguyen to write this book.
“I was inspired to write this book after watching a man shove his petrified dog towards a small child because she wanted to pet the dog,” she says. “She was staring the dog down and putting her hand above the dog’s head aggressively. All I could think was: ‘Why is he doing this!?’”
But then she realized something.
“This man clearly loves his dog,” she says. “She was well taken care of. He doesn’t know that the dog is close to fear biting. Know better, do better.”
She self-published her book on Amazon and released it on May 12. She says she wanted to appeal to all ages — from pre-readers to adults who love dogs.
“I also wanted any child who picked up the book to see someone who looked like them,” she says. “I included children who are unrepresented in mainstream books — meaning books that aren’t specifically about race.”
She hopes to continue helping children — and adults — learn about and understand dogs.
“Having a dog is knowing what it feels like to have unconditional, unflinching love that never weakens,” she says. “I truly believe the more people learn about dogs, the more they will love them, so they don’t give up on them.”
— By Jessica Peralta