Gracing the stark hush of Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital is a skilled psychologist with a specialty in paediatrics, physiotherapy, and treating patients with anxiety. His name is Erbin Gorjous Jorg, and he is a Giant Schnauzer. His friends call him Ralf. We caught up with author Anne Crawford, who told us about her life as a feature writer for The Age, and what it was like to write the biography of a dog.
You were a feature writer for The Age for a decade – what did your time there teach you about writing?
As with a news story, a feature story had to have a backbone of fact but allowed more embellishing. I learnt the value of detail and observation in bringing alive a story. I learnt how to construct a narrative, to use ‘signposts’ to what is coming and that a compelling beginning and end to a story is vital. I also refined my skills of interviewing to work with people to draw out the best information from them.
Which articles of yours do you recall as highlights?
I loved writing a story about Lee Kernaghan doing his ‘Pass the Hat’ Concert in outback Australia. I heard Lee saying on radio that he was going around the country raising funds for local causes by holding concerts in various towns. I thought it was such a wonderful thing to do and asked the paper if they would send me to one town, Yaraka, in central Queensland to write about the concert. Yaraka is tiny, off bitumen and the electricity grid. I spent a week in the community getting to know the locals and writing about the build-up to the concert. Yaraka is in billabong country and a river upstream was swollen and this cut the roads to the town just before the event. Would people come? It was a stirring sight seeing the dust in the distance from cars that had travelled an extra hundred kilometres to go round the river. The oval in front of the stage filled with people. The crowd went wild.
Can you tell us about Erbin Gorjous Jorg?
First of all Ralf is BIG. He weighs 56 kilograms and is built like a tank. He’s also adorable, with this shaggy forelock and big bushy eyebrows. Ralf’s a therapy dog at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, doing rounds to cheer up sick and injured children – including in Intensive Care. He’s a normal dog outside hospital but completely calm and focussed on the children in it. He seems to read them and absolutely loves them.
How did you stumble upon the story of Ralf?
My publisher actually stumbled on Ralf on Dawn French’s Facebook page! Ralf went a bit global 2012 after a newspaper story about him with the same photo that’s on the cover of the book appeared on websites around the world.
How did he end up working at the Royal Children’s Hospital?
Ralf became a therapy dog with children after an incident at the Royal Melbourne Show in which a small girl with Asperger’s syndrome jumped out of her pram and threw herself on him, hugging him and hitting him on the top of the head. Ralf melted, as if he knew this was the only way the little girl could show him attention. Someone said he’d make a good therapy dog for children.
In what ways has he affected people’s lives?
Ralf’s encounters with people are brief but the effect profound. He comforts sick and injured children and anxious parents in what is often a stressful environment for them. He helps with physiotherapy and is a distraction to children having unpleasant procedures. He brings joy and hope.
What was it about this story that made you commit an entire book to it?
My brief was to write a biography of a dog! A whole new challenge for me. I took tangents from the main narrative, dipping into the world of dog shows, for example, and into a few life-and-death stories chapters about children. Having said that, Ralf is a remarkable dog and had a good back story about being rescued.
You’ve also written Great Australian Horse Stories and the memoir of Doctor Hugh, president of the RSPCA. Have you always been interested in stories involving animals?
I developed more of an interest in animals, animal welfare and the amazing bond between humans and animals writing Doctor Hugh. I’m a born again horsewoman so Great Australian Horse Stories was a natural fit. I’ve also co-written two other memoirs about people as well as being a dog biographer, including Forged with Flames and wrote Women of Spirit about gutsy Australian country women so it’s not all animals!
We think we know the answer to this – but are you a dog person, or a cat person? (Or a horse person!).
Actually a horse person! Horses are beautiful and I love their spirit.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
Sorry, a writer can never divulge their top-secret projects until they come out so it’s watch this space!
Anne Crawford is the author of RALF, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, on sale now.