An Interview with Jon Katz

FIELDWORK: Jon, can you tell us about the background for your latest book, The New Work of Dogs?


JON:  Well, I looked around at the explosion in the dog population, which went from 15 million in 1990 to 29 million, which is the population now.  And also in the extraordinary emotional attachments I was seeing develop between people and their pets. People telling me they had more emotional support from pets than humans. People spending way over 30 billion dollars for their care. So I, in conjunction with the University of Kentucky which was doing a study on Attachment Theory and the Human/Animal Bond, I spent a year following 12 people and their dogs around Montclair NJ, which is the town I live in and which perfectly mirrors the dog owning population demographically. These were people in various stages of life who were using pets in a relatively new way. For emotional support in periods like divorce and aging and depression.


FIELDWORK: What was the connection to the University of Kentucky?


JON:   Well, I was actually contacted by a psychiatrist from the University of Kentucky when I wrote A Dog Year, and she pointed out to me that my story was the classic example of attachment theory. They were involved with a study on attachment theory.


FIELDWORK: Before we go onÖ describe A Dog Year.  


JON: A Dog Year was about a year that began with me owning two very calm easy going yellow Labs, and ended up with me owning two border collies, the centerpiece of the book. It follows my relationship with a troubled frenetic and complex creature named Devon who my wife calls ďSatanís Spawn,Ē which was sent to me by a breeder and who was in a lot of trouble. In the course of dealing with him I realized I did not know much about dogs and not as much as I needed to know to deal with him. So I ended up learning how to become a trainer and also hanging around with a trainer, Caroline Wilkie, who taught me a tremendous amount of what dogs are really like, as opposed to what I thought they were like. Which was the foundation for the book The New Work of Dogs. Because in my own case I became profoundly attached to this difficult creature [Devon] and he to me, and we actually unconsciously hooked into attachment theory.


Attachment theory holds that the way with which we do or do not attach properly to our parents early in life sets the tone for our relationships across the life span. It has to do with trust and openness and neediness and a whole range of issues that show up all the time in relationships between people and their pets. So looking at peopleís attachments became an underpinning to the book. Gave it some context.


FIELDWORK: And you were saying that the University of Kentucky contacted you after reading the book.


JON: Yes, they told me Ďyour story is a classic story of attachment theory and how it works. And also of attachment therapy. Because the ways in which I was getting the dog to trust me and understanding the dog is the classic way therapists use attachment therapy to help people get over difficult attachment issues. I spent a year following people around. I would talk to the University about the cases and get a better understanding of the cases I was seeing. So, as I was saying, it gave me a context to place the book that was interesting for me.


FIELDWORK: So what is happening with Americans and attachment to dogs?


JON: I think the rise in the dog population coincides almost precisely with a number of other things happening in America. The decline in the extended family. The rise in the divorce rate. More work troubles. More layoffs. More unemployment. The difficulty people have with meeting other people. The decline in public spaces. The rise in number of hours that people spend watching television or being on the net. All these things are things Robert Putnam explored in his book, Bowling Alone, where there arenít a lot of ways that Americans get together anymore. And theyíre disconnected from each other. There are not these large extended families that we spend time with anymore. So people are not getting enough support and they have holes in their lives. I think women more than men. And they turn to dogs more and more for this support. And more and more people say they are getting it. Eighty-five percent of dog or cat owners refer to themselves as ďmommyĒ or ďdaddy.Ē They confide in their pets, and increasingly they see them as members of their family.


Now dogs and people have always been close. But drawing dogs into the emotional center of our lives, and seeing them as equivalent membersÖ I see now there are therapists who do grief therapy for people who lose their pets, because people become so attached. They mourn them almost as they mourn humans. Sometimes more. So I think there are two issues that are interesting. One, Americans seems to be so disconnected and lonely that theyíre turning to animals for the help theyíre not getting from humans. And two, it puts tremendous amount of pressure on dogs to act like emotional human surrogates. Which I think is also problematic and not always good for dogs. But I think it speaks quite prominently about our society.


FIELDWORK: People are turning to their animals for help. Itís a funny image in a way.


JON: Itís a very disquieting image. I mean, in many cases, itís a wonderful thing. Dogs keep people company. They trigger exercise. People have a lot of fun with dogs. Dogs can be enthusiastic. They provide affection for people not getting enough. They provide some sort of support for people who are getting depressed or laid off or whatever. You go home and your dog is at the door jumping up and down looking at you, you feel better. If youíre old and alone, dogs are great. Dogs are being used to help people who are sick and depressed. Blind or deaf or handicapped in any way. Thereís a huge explosion in the dogs for therapy dog movement. But the whole experience with dogs is laced more and more with what I call the ďemotionalizationĒ of dogs.


For example, we donít ďadoptĒ dogs anymore. We ďrescueĒ dogs. And you meet more and more people who tell you they found dogs who were abused. And this also seems to me to come about because of Americans difficulty in connecting to each other. They find it easier to rescue animals than people. Thereís no rescue network for humans. So I think on one level itís great. On another level itís troubling because do we really want to be a society where animals are more supported than people? And to many people thatís already the case.


FIELDWORK: Iím just wondering whether people donít rescue dogs because itís a more attractive mythology, or you have more integrity as a rescuer than if you just buy a dog.


JON: I think you have more social status. I think you present yourself and feel like you made the more righteous decision. Because you rescued an animal in need rather than just buying a bred dog.


FIELDWORK:  Iím wondering if connected to that is, maybe the loneliness that youíre talking about talks to people wanting to be rescued to some extent. Someone once said to me ďlook at someoneís judgments because their judgments say a lot about the person making them.Ē And that how we describe ourselves describes a lot about our own needs. Iím just wondering whether itís almost like people who are rescuing dogs may feel a need to be rescued themselves. I mean rescued in some sort of existential sense.


JON: I think in some ways that may be true. Thatís where attachment theory often leads. People are often re-enacting with their animals things they wished they experienced or wanted in their own lives. Itís not always the case but it would be quite common for someone who over-identifies with a dog in distress to be someone who wishes they were rescued. They may be someone who knows what itís like to need rescuing. And identifies with the plight of the dog. Thereís something very powerful about the dog or the cat stuck in a crate in a shelter waiting to be killed. And that touches people very deeply. Because they can save the dog or save the cat and feel good about themselves. And often itís very hard to feel good about yourself in helping people. Or to even be involved in a civic sense. So thereís a great identification with animals in trouble. And it will very often trigger attachment issues in people.


FIELDWORK: You say that the whole experience is laced with the emotionalization of dogs. Playing devilís advocate, you could say, Ďthis is a fact of life. The suburbanization of this country or the world even.í We have less solid connections between communities. So evolution leads us to the dogs. Gives them the task of rescuing us. What is wrong with the emotionalization of dogs?


JON: Sometimes nothing. Sometimes itís lovely and fun and very endearing. My own theory about it, one potential problem is people who see themselves as being supported by dogs sometimes donít get the help they need. They give up on people and say Ďwhen I get depressed, my dog is going to be there.í It sometimes makes it less likely that theyíll get the professional support they need or face the problems they have with connecting with people. People who surround themselves with dogs and cats get very busy and engaged. But the dogs and cats arenít therapists. They donít make troubles go away. And in my own case, I would be very distressed if my wife felt the dog was more supportive of her than I was. I would want to know about that and I would see that as a problem to fix. So speaking for me, and I love dogs quite a bit, Iím crazy about my dogs, but I donít want them to be the same thing as my wife is or my daughter is or my human friends are. Theyíre not human relationships and thereís a difference. Now if weíre going to evolve into a new kind of inter-species relationships where dogs and cats are going to replace people, so be it. But thatís a pretty big evolution and itís troubling.


The other problem is thereís not enough discussion about whether itís good for the dog or the cats. Because the more theyíre seen as being people-like, having complex emotions, the more neurotic and aggressive and problematic they become. Because theyíre animals and they donít do this kind of work. They donít think about us. Theyíre not jealous. They donít get bored. Theyíre not doing all the types of things people are attributing to them. So weíre basically taking this whole species and rather than allowing dogs to be dogs, weíre treating them as either children with fur, or, more problematic, as animal therapists for us. Sometimes this may be fine. Itís not necessarily bad or evil but itís raising a lot of questions that we ought to be talking about and weíre not talking about.


FIELDWORK: Can you talk about examples of the over-emotionalization of dogs that you saw? How if, even if not wreaking havoc, how does it affect them?


JON: One of the cases was where a woman had put up her daughter for adoption early in life. And later she went back looking for her daughter and the daughter wouldnít speak to her. It was traumatizing. The woman had just been through two divorces and she basically had given up on people and adopted a puppy. And she was hopeful because she saw this dog as her child and she thought of herself as this dogís mother. And she put the dog in diapers. The dog slept in a crib. The dog was not housebroken for many, many months. It got neurotic. You know 400,000 children in the United States were bitten seriously enough to require hospitalization. Thatís a lot of bites. A lot of it flows from the emotionalization of dogs because people who see their dogs as human like or filled with emotions or abused, they donít train them. They donít see themselves as there to impose discipline on them.


And everyone in our culture is familiar with the dog that jumps on people. The dog that bites people. The dog that is obnoxious. The dog that poops all over peopleís lawns. The size of neurotic behavior is endemic in the dog world. Only a small percentage, three-five percent, of Americans train their dogs at all. And I think the reason is this view of dogs as talented children rather than as animals. Animals are treated differently than people. Theyíre trained differently. They really need to learn that they live in a complicated world that wasnít built for them.


The planners of the American city never imagined 70 million dogs being kept as pets. So there are hardly any places in America really equipped to handle this massive influx of dogs. Who are not allowed to run free and liability issues and insurance issues. So theyíve become a huge civic problem because sixty percent of Americans donít have dogs and many of those people are plenty ticked off by all the dogs running around and the havoc created because theyíre not trained.


FIELDWORK: When I heard you speak at Barnes & Noble, you said something to the effect that in New Jersey thereís no free space for dogs?


JON: Yes, there are a number of states where thatís the case. New Jersey is just one of them but there are many others. In New Jersey, there is no single legal place to take a dog off of a leash. That means that dogs are required to be on a leash all the time. Now most dog people circumvent that by finding little parks for their dogs to run but itís illegal. Itís not legal anywhere to run a dog off a leash in the state of New Jersey. Or in the state of Massachusetts. Pennsylvania. Itís very common. These laws are an epidemic. Thereís no town in America allowing dogs to roam freely. Theyíre all passing laws to restrict the movement of dogs. Dogs are not allowed in the workplace. People have allergies. So you have basically an animal never supposed to run free in his or her entire life span. And thatís pretty troubling if you love dogs.


FIELDWORK:  When you say that sixty percent of people are not dog-owners, and the forty percent areÖ so youíre talking about a real chasm that amplifies emotional responses of whether to have dogs or not. And Iím wondering whether itís reflective of other polarizing issues because of demographics in America. This fragmentation around emotionally charged issues.


JON: You see this polarization and fragmentation across the spectrum of issues, from guns to abortion to dogs. Thereís a left and a right and they battle each other eternally. But the country seems to be losing its ability to reach civic consensus on things because everyone seems to form entrenched positions and basically just argues them. And the dog people in the dog world are a classic example. The arguments over dogs, the way theyíre resolved, itís just insane. Thereís nothing in the middle. You either abandon dogs to no public spaces or you fight to allow them in every public place. California and other places there are these raging battles about dog runs and parks with public access, and thereís not a real good civic solution really, because if you have dogs confined to certain areas, it forces people into ghettos. Where you donít know what kinds of dogs are there. And you donít know if theyíre trained or not. Or friendly or not. And you donít know whether theyíre healthy or not. Itís not really the ultimate answer to the larger civic question, which is Americans donít really have a way to solve these civic issues any more.


FIELDWORK: One of my favorite chapters in the book was about a lawyer. A burly guy with a family who he rarely saw because he was a partner at a law firm in New York.


JON: Rob. He was a lawyer with a family. He commuted in from Montclair every day. But would get up every morning at four am to give his dog Cherokee a run.


FIELDWORK: Yes, and he would meet up with these other dog walkers who were all walking their dogs without leashes. Most of them were men.


JON: All of them were men.


FIELDWORK: Right. And theyíd walk in silence and they barely knew each other and they were almost like a bunch of dogs. Can you give more of a description of them? They were so interesting to me.


JON: If you look at the gender studies between men and women, women tend to be drawn toward pets because they see the pets as having emotionally complex relationships with them. And men are drawn to pets because they donít talk. And this was the case with Rob. Probably what he loved best about the dog was he had a silent buddy who was loyal and dependable and whom he didnít have to speak to. And when you see men together with dogs, itís quite funny because they just plod along and donít talk, whereas when you walk with women and dogs, theyíre talking about their lives and their friendships and their ups-and-downs. Where men just donít do that. And when you enter the dog world, you see these differences. But men love dogs just as much as women.


FIELDWORK: Can you describe the setting for those walks in the morning?


JON: Sure. This is a daily five am gathering of men who sort of all know each other and sort of donít. They know all the dogsí names but donít know all of their names, and they just walk along a ridge overlooking Manhattan. They call the dogs back and forth. And sometimes theyíll talk about sports or the weather or the market, but theyíll have these basically silent walks for an hour. And the dogs will get to run around like maniacs. And then of course they donít see the dogs for ten, twelve, thirteen hours later. Itís very important to the men. What they have in the dog is a great silent buddy.


Rob was somebody with three kids and a wife, and he would say to me the dog was much more than a friend. Iíd ask Ďwhat does that mean?í But he couldnít say. He couldnít really talk about it. Men generally have trouble articulating these relationships. They donít want to talk about their feelings. They never have and probably never will.


FIELDWORK: The other interesting thing besides this wonderful portrait of male silence with their animals was the idea of this park, which was a haven for dog lovers. Because they could let their dogs run free. But it was also illegal. You have a lawyer basically breaking the law every day.


JON: Well, every dog person does something illegal everyday. Itís nearly impossible to have a dog and stay legal. At times if you donít have a doggy bag and the dog takes dumps, you canít clean it up. Sometimes you see a chance for your dog to run around a bit and you let him off his leash. You canít have a dog and be 100 percent legal in America anymore. Unless you want the dog to lead a completely aberrant and un-natural life. Itís just part of this civil disfunctionalism I was talking about. The reservation where Rob was walking Cherokee is a favorite haven of dog owners. Itís a 75-80 acre park surrounded by these split-level houses. And people who live around there are constantly calling the police, complaining about dogs running around there. And the dog owners are constantly in guerilla warfare with the Sheriff who is coming around giving tickets. They use walkie-talkies. They use whistles. They sound alarms. They go on trails where the Sheriffís jeep canít go. Itís insoluble. Itís the one place in Northern New Jersey where they can go with their dogs. And I donít see any resolution to these things. Itís one of those low yield semi-conflicts that go on forever.


FIELDWORK: Thatís an interesting aspect. This low-yield intractable issue that people canít negotiate. So theyíre ongoing. Like a permanent flu. You have talked before that there was a lack of civic consensus, not just with animals but also with guns. It reminds me of conversations weíve had about the Internet where you observed that the Internet is becoming less of a global web than gated communities of users.


JON: I think you see across the spectrum of civic discussions where the world is in entrenched positions. You look at the Jeffersonian idea that we all come together with our different points of view and we thrash them out and reach consensus.  Well, in todayís world we all join our own mailing list and we interact with like-minded groups of people. Dog lovers talking to dog lovers. Liberals talking to liberals. Religious people talking to religious people. And people using blocking software to filter out other people who donít agree them. Or to attack them in these relentlessly hostile public forums online. Which are really havens for the hostile or obsessed addicts among us. And so itís very difficult for anyoneÖ thereís no place that I can think of where non-dog owners and dog owners can come together for a civil conversation about a middle ground that would make everyone happy. The non-dog people run around screaming about dog-poop and bites and poorly behaved dogs. And they just want the dog banned from every place but backyards. The dog people love their dogs and want to give their dogs a wide variety of experiences. They want to take them to work. They want to go on vacation with them. And these two impulses are in total conflict with each other.


Iím taking my dog to places, even where itís legal, and people scream at me. ĎNo dogs here, we donít want dogs here, what are your dogs doing here!í And I sympathize somewhat with their laments. We know that most people donít train their dogs. You get a big strong aggressive dog without giving them any training or background, so how is the non-dog person supposed to know which is a good dog and which isnít? Which has been trained and which hasnít? Who is responsible for them? In my neighborhood I see dogs all the time. Rotweillers and pit-bulls that people get from shelters and bring home without any training. And think theyíre doing very righteous work, which in some cases they are. But for the rest of the neighborhood itís terrifying. People who are walking their children along the street. And I know that pit-bulls are not evil dogs. Theyíre quite nice dogs naturally. But how is the public supposed to know that? How are parents supposed to know? Especially when you have some people who donít train them and donít know what theyíre like and can get in real trouble. So overall thereís no civic authority thatís able to come together with this or any other issue I know of and can come up with some sensible middle-ground policy. Like maybe dogs can be walked off a leash at certain times. Or maybe people should be required to train dogs if they have access to public parks. Or to pass a citizenship test before their dogs are allowed access to other dogs and people. Which does happen in some countries. Which wonít happen here because the dog people violently resist that kind of thing and the non-dog people are constantly attacking the dog people and trying to restrict them of their animal. So Iím not hopeful about it.


FIELDWORK: You mention other countries. Any thoughts on how America compares to Western Europe?


JON: America is one of the most polarized countries in the western world. In Germany the government regulates the sale and breeding of dogs. You canít get a dog without permission of the government. You canít breed a dog without permission. So all those puppy mills and the out-of-control breeding companies would not be possible in Germany. But this is more government control than Americans would like. Americans donít tend to like government control. But in Germany you do have to train dogs and show that theyíre from a breed that has good disposition. And itís regulated. And considering that so many people get bitten by dogs here, Iím not sure itís such a terrible idea that we have some oversight. Especially with how dogs are bred. Because dogs are being mass-marketed and overbred. So Golden Retrievers, which are very popular, are just being destroyed by puppy mills where you have inbreeding and where you have dogs with indisposition and health problems. And thereís nobody regulating them. So when you go to get a dog, you have no idea of what kind of dog youíre getting or what line it comes from or whatís going to happen. Thatís a huge problem.


FIELDWORK: Everyone would assume Germany would have regulations.


JON: Yes, they would assume that but thereís something to the idea that the German government really wants to know how dogs are being bred. And they want the breeders to demonstrate to them that dogs with reliable dispositions are being bred. And the inbreeding, that we know is very dangerous, because thatís where the most aggressive dogs come from, the breeding of brothers and sisters and fathers and daughters, so they can produce a lot of puppies to be sold, and itís a health problem. A safety problem. And itís a serious problem for dog owners because there are so many dogs by the millions being cranked out that are dangerous or frightening or unhealthy. At some point, there are so many dogs, and so many controversies about them, that there will have to be some kind of civic involvement about them.


FIELDWORK: You use the word civic authority. The whole idea of authority as a concept strikes me as having such a negative concept. Itís a generational thing. My father, for him itís something to trust. For me and the baby boom generation, itís something to scorn or fear. You use the word civic authority, and it strikes me that youíre suggesting that there is something to be valued. That without civic authority that we lose something.


JON: Look at it from a contemporary view. If thereís a SARS epidemic, we have no trouble turning to a civic authority to tell us Ďhereís what is happening. Hereís where you canít travel. Hereís what public officials should know.í Warnings are given out. Vaccines are given out. And the public is informed. And we expect our civic authority to monitor the epidemic and tell us what to do. Same with terrorism. Same with a lot of health and safety issues, from cars to traffic. With dogs, or certainly hot-spot issues, we seem to have given up the civic authority.


Liberals have trouble because they push government too much. Now the conservatives come along and say Ďwe donít really want government at all.í The whole idea of a civic authority stepping in to resolve these issues in a town like Montclair, this is the job of the mayor and the city council. Theyíre supposed to sit down and say Ďokay, we have a lot of dogs and we have a lot of people who are upset about that. And here are the rules. Youíre going to have to train your dog. Youíre can go to these parks at these hours and do these things. And the non-dog population can stay away at those times if theyíre unhappy about it. And if your dog bites somebody or poops on somebodyís lawn or causes trouble, youíre going to pay a penalty for it. Either weíll take the dog away or weíre going to force you to show us that youíll be responsible.í Authority can act, of course. New York got very tough about dog feces issues so people clean up after their dog now. Though that city, more than most, is out of control. You walk in the streets in New York and you see more big hunting dogs than you see in North Carolina. And so you canít really legislate the thoughtless and reckless way people get dogs. Or fail to be responsible for them. But it is a civic issue. Because the 400,000 children that were bit last year is every bit a public issue and greater than the amount of people who died from SARS. One issue is appropriate for the civic authority and one isnít.


FIELDWORK: Why do you think Montclair canít resolve it?


JON: The dog issue, like other issues, tend to become so polarized that politicians tend to run away from them. People who love dogs equate restrictions on those dogs with unimaginable tyranny. People who hate dogs just want dogs banned from their lives without any moderation or reason. Neither group speaks to each other. The deputy police chief would not meet with me while I was writing the book in my town. I had to go to a diner where he was in civilian clothes where he would not be recognized to talk about dogs. Because he was terrified about being quoted about it. He said Ďno public official wants to get involved in the dog issue because itís a nightmare. You either run into one half of the town or the other.í He would talk to me about terrorism. But he wouldnít talk to me about dogs. Itís a classic example of how polarized a society we are about it. The dog people are just as strident as the non-dog people are. I mean, I love dogs, but I understand why people are nervous about all these wild animals running around. Iíve been bitten by dogs and knocked over by dogs, and their owners always tell me Ďwell, they never did that before.í Or ĎI didnít know that they were going to do that.í Dogs are not trained.


FIELDWORK: Itís kind of funny. The dog issue is the secret, dirty unspoken issue in America.


JON: Itís a tough issue. And I understood, youíd have to be an idiot if you were a politician to get in the middle of it. Unless you have to.


FIELDWORK: Itís a losing proposition.


JON: Absolutely.