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A Conversation with Jon Katz
Author of
A Dog Year:
Twelve Months, Four Dogs and Me


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Four Dogs and Me

 

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A wonderful new dog book, one both humorous and heartwarming, has just been published. In it, author Jon Katz recounts his own very active education about dog behavior in general and working dogs in particular -- learning that occurred during this special year. Your editor, Barbara Petura, interviewed Jon recently to find out more about his experiences and thoughts about his Labradors and Border Collies, and about the world of working dogs from his perspective. He shared his views freely and directly. Click here for the interview.


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A Dog Year
by Jon Katz

 


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Barbara: Jon, you’ve been called such things as "a tireless advocate for geeks," you wrote a book called "Geeks" and you write about the wired world of the Internet for the techie Web site slashdot.org. How did you decide to write a book about dogs?

Jon: Sometimes you choose the book, and sometimes the book chooses you. I’ve always had dogs, and when my two Labs, Julius and Stanley, joined my life, I became a dog lover. When a breeder from Texas – Deanne Veselka of Wildblue Border Collies – told me she had a complex dog named Devon that needed a new home, I was intrigued.

I’d heard much about Border Collies, none of it suggesting it was the right dog for me, a resident of crowded Northern New Jersey. I have to smile at that now. I take my dogs shepherding two or three times a week, and am trailing. In addition, we help various towns in my area clear their parks of geese. Sadly, the year after Devon arrived turned out to be a very complex one. The two Labs died, and I got a second Border Collie.

Barbara: Please introduce us briefly to the book’s four canine characters: Julius and Stanley, Devon and Homer. And yourself.

Jon: I’m a writer and media critic. I’ve written 11 books and written for Rolling Stone, the New York Times and worked for various media, including CBS News and The Boston Globe and Washington Post.   I am married to Paula Span, a reporter, and have a daughter, Emma, who is a junior at Yale.

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At the time the dog year began, I had two Labs, Julius and Stanley. They were gorgeous, wonderful companions, the perfect writing dogs. They loved to doze near the computer. In fact, they loved to doze anywhere.

I never really worked much with them, to my regret, and didn’t even quite grasp the power of seeing a working dog work until I got the Border Collies, first Devon and then Homer.

Julius and Stanley from A Dog Year
  Julius and Stanley

My Labs were mostly housepets and companions. I must confess I didn’t give them a chance to work, and they were so mellow they didn’t seem inclined to do much more than hang around. But that was a mistake and shortcoming on my part. I can’t imagine having a non-working dog again.

Julius and Stanley were wonderful in other ways though, the most sweet-tempered loving and generous creatures. Whenever anybody in my town had a small child, they brought him or her over to meet Julius and Stanley to get to know dogs. They were snow white Yellow Labs, from a show line.

Barbara: WorkingDogWeb.com readers are interested in active dogs of all kinds, whether hunting or herding dogs such as yours or agility or sled dog racing competitors and more. Your portrait of two very different types of breeds -- your Labs and Border Collies -- highlights the remarkable working instincts of different dog breeds. Would you comment on some things you’ve learned about this area of dog behavior?

Jon: It’s been quite a revelation to see the power of the working dog, especially when the owner (me) goes to some lengths to give the dog an opportunity to work. You really see why dogs and people got together thousands of years ago, and why they have such a powerful relationship. Now, it makes me a bit sad to see all these proud gorgeous working dogs who never get to work.

I see the trust and communications that evolve in a working relationship, and it’s extraordinary. The first Border Collie I got – Devon – was in bad shape, needy, high-strung, fearful and very frightened around work situations. His stress was off the chart.

I took him to dog trainer and behaviorist and sheepherder named Carolyn Wilkie at Raspberry Ridge in Bangor, Pennsylvania.  I became deeply absorbed in training, herding sheep and geese, and even therapy work.

Jon Katz and Devon from A Dog Year
Jon and Devon
Photo Credit: James
Lattanzio / Villard

Once Devon began to work, he slowly was transformed. We shepherd, clear geese, do therapy work and do all sorts of tasks for farmers near my upstate New York cabin. We’ve herded cattle, goats, and shy and aggressive sheep. Great fun. I’ve really learned what a working dog can do, and my two Border Collies – Homer was the second one I got – taught me and are still teaching me. I had no idea what working dogs could really do, and was amazed at how little I really knew about dogs at all. The kind of training involved here takes one to another level of trust, communications and closeness.

Barbara: A great debate is raging in the dog world about the two opposing dog training approaches -- the negative discipline and correction approach and the positive reinforcment and praise approach. Given your dramatic experiences with Devon, who came to you after puppyhood, do you think the praise and positive reinforcement method would ever have been enough to civilize Devon?

Jon: I’ve taken a bunch of training courses, and tried various approaches with Devon, from shouting, chasing and sharp corrections to positive reinforcement. The dog world, like the other one, is filled with politics, and I resist the temptation to totally embrace any philosophy 100 per cent. Now that I actually have taken training courses, and after the intense experience of herding and working with these two Border Collies, I do embrace the positive approach. But I can’t say I embrace it under all circumstances without reservation. Dogs, people, environments and circumstances vary.

I am, for example, not all positive when it comes to streets or behavior around children. I believe in clarity, and certainly, in clear, repeated reinforcement of appropriate and desired behavior. But we humans are complex. We live pressured, harried lives and it seems unreasonable not to recognize that. Sometimes we will lose it, and there are some dogs – I have one – with powerful drive, instincts and interests, and there are times (as when he tries to herd school busses) when I have to make it clear to him that this behavior is unacceptable to me. He seems to notice and respect that.

I don’t do it in a violent way, of course. Otherwise, I find that positive reinforcement works well in most situation. And I am viscerally uncomfortable with the arsenal of weapons – chains, electronic collars, etc. -- that people employ against dogs in lieu of training. Working with dogs is itself a wonderful training tool, in that it forces you to learn about what you are doing. And the positive reinforcement style trainers have taught me to shut up, stop shouting, make myself clear, and to build my training on a foundation of love, trust and positive reinforcement.

But I think we all have to make individual judgements... what we, our voices and personalities and dispositions, are like, what the dog is like, what the environment and dangers and pressures are like. I don’t really like all encompassing approaches. I think positive reinforcement is a great direction – it’s my direction – but when Devon nosed into a baby stroller last week to try and steal a Zwieback cracker from an infant’s hand, I was decidedly non-positive in my command. And he hasn’t done it again. I think correction and positive reinforcement trainers each have something to bring to the table, and I think the wise dog owner takes a bit from each.

Barbara: When you turned 50, you bought your cabin in New York and spent some time thinking about life and change. Eventually you wrote your book, Running to the Mountain: A Journey of Faith and Change. Did you agree to take Devon, the young Border Collie without a home, into your life in part as a result of your experiences on the mountain? Were you seeking change in your life?

Jon: I’m not sure why I took Devon. I’m just glad I did. I had plenty to do, and two dogs I loved. I’ve always been fascinated by the Border Collie, and with my daughter off in college, I had the time and opportunity (I work at home in New Jersey, have a house in upstate New York) to do right by the breed. I had no idea what I was getting into. He jumped through windows, dug holes in the yard, opened the refrigerator and hid food in the house, and was generally bonkers. But he has a great heart.

He wasn’t treated properly, and was needy and psychically battered. The Lost Boy in him touched the Lost Boy in me, and I think I also wanted to go to the next level in dog comprehension and knowledge. Boy, did I. I had no idea that the year would be filled with so much happiness and tragedy, dog wise. Or that I had so much to learn and that it would be such hard work – hundreds of hours, really. We even ended up changing his name to Orson because the trainers noticed he was so command-averse to his given name.

But I surely don’t regret it. I believe in change, and I think the relationship between a person and a dog – most especially a working dog – can be very spiritual. My wife still can’t figure out why I took Devon, but it was one of the best things I ever did. We had faith in one another, loved one another and got each other to work. What could be more powerful than that?

He even turned me into a dog writer! My next book, "The New Work of Dogs," is about dogs also, especially the emotional relationship increasingly developing between disconnected people and the dogs they turn to for emotional support, for better and worse.

Homer and Devon from A Dog Year
Homer and Devon
the Border Collies
Photo Credit: James
Lattanzio / Villard

 

Barbara: In preparing this interview, I read quite a bit about your book called Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho which is the story of Jesse Dailey and his friend Eric Twilegar. In a sense, I saw some parallels between Jesse and your first Border Collie, Devon, as both were misfits or outcasts of a sort. Do you like writing about misfits and outcasts?

Jon: You are very perceptive. Devon is to dogs what Jesse is to teenagers..They are both Lost Boys, as I was as a kid, and I am drawn to the human and canine form. Although Devon – my wife calls him "Satan’s Spawn" -- was vastly more rebellious, stubborn and difficult than Jesse. And that’s saying something.

Barbara: Based on your experiences, what would you say to families about bringing a dog into their home?

Jon: I think it’s crucial that people learn more about dogs before they acquire them. Critical that they get dogs from the right places, vital that they train them and – this is new – very important that the idea of working with a dog be kept alive and nourished. I am truly appalled at how thoughtlessly people get dogs. My town is filled with gorgeous, huge hunting dogs and working breeds who never get to work. I’ve had owners of Border Collies come up to me and express surprise that they are herding dogs.

I am constantly running into powerful Labs and Retrievers who are overweight, frantic and neurotic because people got them without much research or willingness to work. Much as I love dogs, it’s almost too easy to get them. I think training is critical, and people really need to understand when they get a puppy for their kid for Xmas, that that kid is likely to lose interest two months later, and somebody needs to bond with the dog, train it, exercise it and where appropriate, find some work to do with it, from therapy work to agility to whatever.

We are almost on a collision course in America. Millions of dogs, and no place for them to run freely, and a plethora of new and restrictive laws keeping them from going to places, working or getting to know people. It’s disturbing how many aggressive, neurotic and unhealthy dogs I meet. That often leads to abuse, as people get dogs, are surprised by their needs and instincts and turn ugly in trying to control them in improper ways (I’m not referring to corrections). Dogs are mass-marketed on TV all the time as part of the American dream, like a big car or a green lawn. I fear many people have no idea what dogs are like. They are not like people, don’t have human emotions, etc. But the readers of this site know that.

Barbara: Dogs have been part of your life since fourth grade, as you explain in the introduction to your new book, A Dog Year: Twelve Months, Four Dogs and Me. Considering all the dogs you’ve had over the years, can you describe what dogs have meant to your life... the most important meanings?

Jon: Dogs make me a better human. They make me more loving, less lonely, more patient, less angry. They get me out and moving around, which is healthy. I love their loyalty and integrity. I now especially love the proud, instinctive great heart of the working dog. Seeing my dogs break into an outrun a half-mile away from me and go round up some sheep in the distance, bring them to me, tongues hanging on the ground (the dogs that is), radiant with joy, being able to flick my wrist and have a dog lie down a quarter mile away. It’s amazing, really, and how wonderful a gift to me.

I feel the immense satisfaction, trust and pride that a good working dog brings to a receptive owner. I can’t imagine life without a dog. I don’t think dogs are substitutes for people, but I must confess I often find them more reliable. I am so proud that I did the work to have two fine – and now, titled! – working dogs, and that we are doing so many different kinds of work. We have cleared geese out of little league parks, comforted stroke victims and people in nursing homes, and of course, the most fun of all, regularly care for a flock of sheep nearby. I’m a lucky dog owner.

Barbara: Is there anything else you would like to share with visitors to the WorkingDogWeb.com site who read this review?

Jon: I think dogs are metaphors, for life of course, Our dog stories and experiences – mine, for sure – are about much more than dogs. They are about loss and gain, growth and change, love and trust. One thing about my book, and the thing I see again and again in the relationships between true dog people and their dogs: they hang in there together. They don’t quit on one another. That’s the true story of my relationship with Devon. We didn’t give up on one another, and we are both much enriched by it.

I feel as if lifetime of dog experiences was compressed into a single year, and I wanted to share it.  Please feel free to e-mail me at jonkatz3@comcast.net about dogs in general or about the book, and thanks for this opportunity.


Jon Katz was interviewed via e-mail by
Barbara Petura, Webmaster, WorkingDogWeb.com
in early April 2002.  Thank you, Jon!


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Read our review of A Dog Year by Jon Katz
with a brief biography and listing of some of his other books.

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