The New Work of Dogs by Jon Katz

Dear Reader:

I have just finished Jon Katz’s The New Work of Dogs (#55 ADE).

I have read most of his dog books: Katz on Dogs: A Commonsense Guide to Training and Living with Dogs (HC, very good); Izzy and Lenore (library, about his lab pup and one of his border collies?); A Good Dog: Orson, the Dog who Changed my Life (Library, about one of his border collies – this might have been the one who was really damaged); Soul of a Dog (Library); Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm (library); Running to the Mountain: A Midlife Adventure (library).  I own A Dog Year (ADE) and The Dogs of Bedlam Farm (ADE) but I’m not sure that I’ve read them yet – now that I can read them on my ipad, I’ll find out.

I enjoy his writing very much (obviously!).  He has a good sense of humor and we have a lot in common.  He loves upstate New York to which he moved about 10 years ago, he loves to read, he loves dogs, and he’s a loner.

We share a philosophy with regard to dogs (and all animals, really).

This is to say that:

1) Dogs are not people – I’m not their mommy, they lack most human emotions (like guilt), and they are not born with the ability to learn English or any other human language (they can respond to verbal cues, but this is different than language acquisition);

2) We humans have tremendous responsibility for the dogs we take on.  We are responsible for their quality of life: keeping them safe, keeping them well-fed and watered, keeping them well-exercised and having fun; keeping them mentally challenged and active; taking care of their medical needs, including reducing pain and treating things like arthritis; and making the hard decision IN THEIR INTEREST (not ours) when the time has come to euthanize;

3) We have a responsibility to use positive training techniques to ensure their safety and ours and to help them understand human expectations;

4) Shelters that “warehouse” dogs for years are not acting in the dog’s best interest; and

5) The world doesn’t need another mean dog.  If a dog is vicious and no amount of training is going to change that, the dog should be euthanized.

The New Work of Dogs is a brilliant book that I read in about a day.  It has a fascinating premise that seems so obvious in hindsight, which is that today’s American dogs always have work and a job, but it usually isn’t what they were bred to do.  Their job is usually to be companion, exercise partner, friend, and, sometimes, defender.  I never thought about it this way.  He uses one or two cases per chapter to illustrate the invaluable roles our dogs play today for the ill, the aging, the young, the harried, people going through emotion trauma, and so on.  Instead of the herding, hunting, guarding, and pulling that various breeds were created to do.

The book includes lots of touching stories of elderly people whose dog is their only real companion, of a woman who is dying for whom her dog is an invaluable helpmate, and a young boy in a poor neighborhood with a dog who defends him (the boy, however, hits the dog to “juice him up” and stand up for the boy, this is a sickening part of the book).

He also includes a chapter about two dogs owned by neighbors.  Both are large herding and hunting breeds.  And their stories are very different.  One family treats their dog like furniture, refusing to crate or train them or really exercise them.  As the dog gets to 70-80 lbs, it ends up tied outside most of the time, bored, lonely, and unloved.  In contrast is the dog across the street with a family that trains and crates the dog, exercises it, and takes it everywhere.  The dog is happy.  The family is happy.  The people who meet this dog are happy.

In a week when the American Kennel Club announced a new therapy dog title: THD for dogs that get Delta (or other society) certification and make 50 therapy visits to facilities (woohoo!) I found it particularly fitting to read a book from such a thoughtful writer that recognizes the changed role that dogs are playing in society today.  I highly recommend his books.

How about you?  Are there any dog-related books that you’ve particularly enjoyed?

Happy reading, Ruby



  1. Mary

    There is a wonderful NY Times story today about a golden retriever who gives comfort to children and other young distressed witnesses when they have to testify in court.

    As to books relating to dogs, for non-fiction, I liked Through a Dog’s Eyes by Jennifer Arnold, a trainer of service dogs. She also has had her own service dog since she was quite young, because of having multiple sclerosis. For fiction, I adored The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. The writing is beautiful and its main dog character provides a service. Obviously these types of dogs fascinate me.

    • Kathy

      Hi Mary:Thank you! I missed the NYT piece. I LOVED the Sawtelle dog story – I listened to it driving four hours a week to our puppy class. I have not read Arnold’s book, but have heard of it. There is a documentary based on it on amazon video on demand. Happy reading, Ruby

  2. I have only small disagreements with Katz; having grown up with and since lived around Labradors for too many decades I think some dogs are capable of emotions like guilt 🙂 I’ve seen guilty Labradors tell on themselves because they just couldn’t live with having done something wrong, lol.

    Language acquisition is also a tricky topic; I would argue most of us don’t “acquire” language the way we think we do…but that’s a whole other blog isn’t it?!

    I am in complete agreement that dogs rely on people for the quality of life they will have. I’m glad that Katz does so well educating people about that. Do you have a favorite book by him?

    • Hi Christy: Thanks for writing! I’ll push you a bit on the guilt topic since I know you think a lot about and are very knowledgeable about dogs — how do we know that the lab had not learned to associate certain behaviors with human frustration and then had a guilty look that was really a submissive worried look when a human found out…

      My favorite Katz book, great question – I’m not sure I can distinguish them because he in nearly all of his dog books is really telling the story of his life with his dogs and the books pick up different times in his life (he has also written a lot of crime novels). So, my best suggestion would be to start with an early one. Interestingly, he has a book coming out next month about losing a pet… A couple years ago he swore he would never write another book about his dogs and since then he has come out with two dog-related books (although not strictly about HIS dogs).

      Looking at his author page on Amazon, Running to the Mountain looks like his earliest “my life” book, but if I remember correctly, this is less about dogs and more about his life. His earliest dog one seems to be A Dog Year (2003) – this was also made into a movie with Jeff Bridges (I enjoyed it). He’s telling the story of finding his farm and dealing with a tough border collie…

      Mary (another subscriber) pointed me to a NYT article yesterday that is getting a lot of attention – at about a golden who sits with kids testifying in difficult trials. This is one of the most popular articles on the NYT site right now and has generated 200+ comments – the issue is whether it unfairly influences juries. It is interesting because people are arguing both sides in the comments and many of them are lawyers and judges…

      I don’t know what I think – I suspect it DOES influence juries…. but I also think it is incredibly tough for kids to testify about abuse and being witness to violent crime… Ruby

  3. What is guilt but worried submission to the social context we each find ourselves in?

    I intend to read the NYT article tonight; I think it is pretty hard to see someone with a service animal of any kind and not have a reaction to that, if for no other reason than because it is a visible difference that we’re still not that used to. Anything that marks one of us out as different has an impact on others I would suggest.


  1. The List « A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books

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