With his books A Dog Year, The New Work of Dogs and, now, The Dogs of Bedlam Farm, author Jon Katz has become the dog guru of the baby boomer generation, a generation the author says has failed miserably at the daunting task of training and properly caring for canines.
Katz spends much of his time at Bedlam Farm in upstate New York where he herds sheep with his two border collies Orson and Rose and is currently training a lab puppy, Clementine. His books are surprising in their frank and intimate treatment of the dog-human bond. In essence, Katz's philosophy boils down to a statement made to him by a dog trainer and quoted in the prologue of his new book: "Face it: If you want to have a better dog, you will just have to be a better goddamned human."
Katz argues that dogs mirror our humanity, patience, discipline and commitment -- or our lack thereof.
"I always hear people blaming the dog -- she's spiteful, she's willful, she's temperamental," said Katz. "Taking personal responsibility for that is hard, but it's necessary."
While Katz's work to now has addressed the intense personal bond between dog and owner, he is also deeply concerned with the national problems of overpopulation, out-of-control behavior, and abuse and neglect of dogs, pointing out that there were around a million reports of dog bites in the United States last year and that human ignorance is largely to blame.
"It happens to be one of my pet issues," he said, no pun intended. "Too many people have dogs who shouldn't have them and who don't know how to take care of them.
"There are 80 million owned dogs in the United States, and 10 million dogs in shelters. That's too many dogs, and too many people take them who don't really want them."
This trend is partly a baby boomer phenomenon (dog as attractive accessory) and partly a marketing problem ("Madison Avenue pushing dogs as part of the American Dream"), says Katz.
But fans of Babe and 101 Dalmatians who expect to get the "Disney dog" that never chews up things or poops in the wrong place often end up frustrated by the real demands of raising and training an animal to be successful in a world that's often inhospitable.
Training is key, says Katz, but according to figures from the American Veterinarian Association, in spite of wide availability of trainers and information on training dogs, only 3 percent to 5 percent of Americans train their dogs at all, and many of those do it insufficiently.
"The result is an epidemic of antisocial behavior that's probably natural to dogs, but is disturbing to the community at large," said Katz.
In addition to not providing training, Americans often choose the wrong dog, and the dog pays for those choices.
"The process of getting a dog is almost shockingly haphazard and ignorant," said Katz. "The thing that I think is the most serious mistake people make is getting the wrong breed. For example, enormous hunting dogs in urban areas get neurotic because they don't get enough exercise, don't have enough work."
Most important when making the decision to get a dog, says Katz, is to understand the responsibility entailed. A shelter dog often requires rehabilitation and need lots of attention over a long period of time.
"Americans love quick fixes," he said. "More and more people should conclude that maybe this isn't the best time for them to get a dog, if they can't make the commitment. Training really goes on forever.
"You have to understand a dog is going to cause disorder. Dogs fight with other dogs; they roll in disgusting stuff. If there's nobody in your family that's willing to make the commitment to stick with it, don't get a dog."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Jon Katz will sign and discuss The Dogs of Bedlam Farm
Thursday, Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m.
The Boulder Bookstore, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder