Writing about his own dogs in A Dog Year, Jon Katz became immersed in a larger community of dog lovers and came to realize that in an increasingly fragmented and disconnected society, dogs are often treated not as pets, but as family members and human surrogates.
The New Work of Dogs profiles a dozen such relationships in a New Jersey town, like the story of Harry, a Welsh corgi who provides sustaining emotional strength for a woman battling terminal breast cancer; Cherokee, companion of a man who has few human friends and doesn’t know how to talk to his own family; the Divorced Dogs Club, whose funny, acerbic, and sometimes angry women turn to their dogs to help them rebuild their lives; and Betty Jean, the frantic founder of a tiny rescue group that has saved five hundred dogs from abuse or abandonment in recent years.
Drawn from hundreds of interviews and conversations with dog owners and lovers, breeders, veterinarians, rescuers, trainers, behaviorists, and psychiatrists, The New Work of Dogs combines compelling personal narratives with a penetrating look at human/animal attachment, and questions whether this relationship shift is an entirely positive phenomenon for both species. Katz offers us a portrait of a community, and by extension a country, that is turning to its pets for emotional support and stability—a difficult job that more and more dogs are expected to do every day. The New Work of Dogs is a provocative and moving exploration of the evolving role dogs play in a changing and uncertain world.
From the Hardcover edition.
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About the Author
the National Magazine Award, he has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, and Wired. He is a contributing editor to public radio’s Marketplace and to Bark magazine. A member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, he lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Paula Span, a reporter for
The Washington Post; their college-student daughter, Emma Span; and their two dogs. Katz is working on his next book, which is about women and dogs. He can be e-mailed.
From the Hardcover edition.
Hometown:Montclair, New Jersey
Date of Birth:August 8, 1947
Place of Birth:Providence, Rhode Island
Education:Attended George Washington University and The New School for Social Research
Read an Excerpt
A as gracious as the shady township of Montclair is, as hip and pricey as it is becoming, there’s no escaping the fact that it sits squarely in New Jersey, a beacon in the vast sea of ugly industrial and suburban sprawl that is the state’s most famous characteristic. Malls and condo complexes lap at its lush borders from every side.
But Montclair remains an enclave of old homes on streets lined with giant oaks and maples planted eighty years ago, some of which fall in every big storm. It has more movie screens than hardware stores and more Thai and Japanese restaurants than fast-food outlets. It is utterly obsessed with education and the present and future development of its much-attended-to children.
Founded as a summer retreat for wealthy New Yorkers, it also reflects the sobering disparities in wealth that characterize contemporary America. Along the ridges of the Watchung Hills, the living rooms of vast, meticulously maintained mansions have clear views of the Manhattan skyline. In the South End, small apartments and houses are home to most of the town’s poor residents.
For reasons few can recall, Montclair is actually divided into two parts—Upper Montclair and plain old Montclair. The two Montclairs share the same government, municipal services, and school system, but Upper Montclair is richer and whiter, with an upscale shopping area and its own zip code.
Partly because of its proximity to the cultural and media institutions along Manhattan’s West Side, Montclair attracts rafts of writers, artists, editors, journalists, TV producers, and other media people. So even minor civic squabbles tend to make their way onto the pages of The New York Times, since half the people who work at the paper live here, or so it sometimes seems.
Montclair is, for much of the surrounding area, a Manhattan surrogate, a place to go for indie movies or fusion cuisine.
It’s commonplace to go out for a walk and see a commercial being shot at the picturesque train station down the street, to encounter a New Yorker writer or a soap-opera star at church or at the organic-foods supermarket, or to spot Yogi Berra, the New York Yankee legend, getting his SUV serviced downtown.
Less-celebrated residents commute into Manhattan or out to the exurban office complexes and business parks that stain the surrounding countryside. A growing number sit by their computers all day in home offices, visited at intervals by UPS and Fed-Ex trucks, with whose drivers they are on a first-name basis.
Newcomers—drawn by improved rail lines into the city, the town’s growing rep for sophisticated cultural offerings, and its deserved tolerance for diversity (all driving real estate prices through the clouds)—are streaming in from Brooklyn and Manhattan. They bring an informed, somewhat combative, politically correct edge to the civic life of a town that was fairly intense to start with.
Montclair is also something of a social laboratory, where trends and traits pop up before hitting the rest of the country. Moms leaving home for work, kids strollered around by nannies, dads staying at home, then moms growing disillusioned with the workplace and returning home to raise their kids—we could track it all as we walked our dogs. We saw the influx of families with two mommies or two daddies. We watched the town become a magnet for interracial couples. An already successful and settled black professional class expanded. The Wall Streeters stayed with their Beamers and Mercedes.
In fact, Montclair seems to include some of everything and everyone. WASP country-clubbers live more or less harmoniously with Jews and blacks; single professionals from Manhattan coexist with kid-crazed boomers from Brooklyn; ardent liberal professors and Republicans and conservatives manage to get along; lesbian and gay families mingle with Asian immigrants.
Of Montclair’s 38,977 inhabitants, 23,000 are white and 13,000 African-American. The 2000 census also found 73 American Indian or Alaskan natives, 1,300 Asians, and nearly 2,000 Hispanics.
Maybe they get along reasonably well because there is no mistaking what Montclair is primarily about: children. Kids are why most people move here or stay here, why they sound off angrily at school board meetings and gather intelligence on math teachers and soccer coaches with the same ruthlessness and determination that archaeologists comb desert sites for dinosaur bones.
Day and night, station wagons, SUVs, and vans zip back and forth between friends’ houses and hockey and lacrosse games, karate classes and art lessons. For Montclair’s hyperstimulated middle-class children, a day without a positive educational or social experience is—well, there hardly are such days.
But high up on the list of things this polyglot town cares most deeply about—close behind real estate values—comes dogs.
Montclair, it turns out, is Dogville, U.S.A. According to the American Veterinary Association’s U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook, Montclair almost perfectly exemplifies the American dog-owning population—educated, affluent, child-centered, and middle-class to the core.
Dog ownership increases as family income rises. Nearly 40 percent of American households with annual incomes of $60,000 or more own a dog, compared with fewer than a quarter of households with less than $25,000 in income.
More than three-quarters of dog owners nationwide are home owners, and dog owners are much more likely to be highly educated than the population as a whole. This is Montclair.
As is obvious on TV every night, dogs have become part of the American Dream package, that vision of supposed success and joy that includes a house, a patch of lawn, kids, and a car or two. An affectionate canine companion completes the picture.
In Montclair, people focus on their dogs with much the same intensity they apply to their children, the difference being that dogs can’t play sports, take music lessons, or apply to college, fortunately for them.
I’ve been walking dogs—first Clarence, a golden retriever; then two yellow Labs named Julius and Stanley; now two border collies named Devon and Homer—in and around Montclair for nearly two decades.
So have a lot of other people, raising all the policy issues that have cropped up in every town with dogs: Should dogs walk off-leash? Should they be permitted to run freely in parks, or, for that matter, be admitted to parks at all? How much barking constitutes a nuisance? Should people be permitted to own so-called “dangerous” breeds like pit bulls? How vigorously should the police enforce clean-up laws? What if people want to own more than one dog or two?
Such questions have become so sensitive that what a big-city newspaper would refer to as “a senior police official” would agree to meet with me only on condition of anonymity. He also insisted on leaving the jurisdiction: we met at the Eagle Rock Diner in adjacent West Orange. “In my shoes,” he told me in a hushed voice over coffee, “there is just no percentage in talking publicly about dogs. Every dog call is bad. Either there’s a nasty biter loose, or some dog ran away, or there’s a dogfight, or somebody’s dog is barking late at night. It’s nothing but trouble. Whatever you do, you lose. People will fight harder for their dogs than they do for themselves.”
The township issued 1,049 licenses for dogs in 2001, but officials think at least three times that number are in residence without licenses. Although local ordinances require vaccinations and licensure, the senior police official confided what dog owners already know: this isn’t high on the cops’ list of unlawful activities, so the law gets widely ignored.
The numbers fluctuate, of course. Trainers and walkers and groomers talk about “Christmas dogs,” the legions of adorably beribboned puppies placed under trees that will inevitably mean an upswing in their business a few months hence.
Like the rest of the town, the registered dog population is diverse. But among the properly licensed dogs are, in round numbers, 50 beagles, 150 golden retrievers, 200 Labs and Lab mixes, 20 German pointers, and a dozen cairn terriers along with hundreds of mixed and indefinable breeds.
Because dog ownership correlates with class, since they are expensive to own, Montclair may have more thoroughbreds than many towns; despite its mix of incomes, it remains a predominantly upper-middle-class community. But people’s attitudes and feelings about their pets are the same, regardless of income.
It’s stunning just how much the dog experience has changed in the past few decades. Years ago, people went to the pound to find a dog, or got a puppy from a friend’s or neighbor’s litter. Those who bought purebreds or boutique breeds were a privileged minority, their well-born dogs an affectation.
Dog training was little known and little needed, since most dogs merely wandered their neighborhoods and were seldom walked on leashes. Mailmen and children got bitten from time to time, but it hardly ever made the news. Fighting breeds were almost unheard-of. People surely loved their dogs, but by contemporary standards, few spent much time or money on them. Dogs were in the background, not at the center, of family life. They slept in the basement or—unthinkable today—in a backyard doghouse, chased after cars and other dogs, ate table scraps.
They came and went. Some got hit by cars, others ran off or were put down when they got sick or old. When that happened, people went to the pound for another dog. Beyond the initial round of puppy shots, people rarely invested much in veterinary care.
Often much loved and fondly remembered, dogs were not treated as family members, according to behaviorists who have studied human-animal bonds. Nor did they have playdates, a phenomenon fairly common in Montclair today. The notion that they were a part of one’s deepest emotional experiences would have been a joke.
From the Hardcover edition.
A Talk with Jon Katz
1) Your previous book, A Dog Year, was a personal memoir about you and your dogs. Did writing that book lead you to THE NEW WORK OF DOGS?
Definitely. My dogs and I traveled the country for two months after A Dog Year was published. We talked with hundreds of dog owners and lovers, and I was mesmerized at the rich emotional landscape I was seeing between people and their dogs–in part because it reflected what I felt myself. My dogs had changed much of my life–what I wrote about, how I spent my time, how I felt about things. I realized that many books were being published about dogs, but not many were being written about the people who owned dogs, and why we feel so strongly about them.
I saw people giving dogs human names, allowing dogs into their beds, showering them with expensive treats, and attributing human emotions to them. As one person after another came up to me with pictures of their dogs, living and dead, and talked about how much these animals had meant to them, I kept thinking, “Why is this so? Why do we love our dogs so much? Why are we treating them more and more like members of our family, and less like animals?” My initial research reaffirmed something new and dramatic was happening. The number of dogs had skyrocketed from a few million to 68 million in just a couple of decades. And pet care has become a $30 billion industry. I wanted to know why.
2) What exactly is the thesis of THE NEW WORK OF DOGS?
In an increasingly disaffected and disconnected society, where the extended family has declined, people are mobile, work has become insecure, and many Americansspend hours a day in front of TV or computer screens, Americans are turning to dogs more and more for emotional support. Dogs are helping them through loneliness, divorce, aging–all the anxieties of modern life.
3) So, working breeds (border collies, Siberian huskies, etc.) aren’t performing their traditional jobs anymore?
Some are, and dog sports are thriving, but of course few Americans have access to sheep farms or sledding trails, so while these hobbies are vibrant, they are no longer dog’s primary work. That has become tending to their complicated and increasingly anxious owners. This isn’t always the case, of course. Many dogs are acquired for simple, distinctly non-emotional reasons: security, for example.
4) You discuss attachment theory in THE NEW WORK OF DOGS. How does that fit into pet ownership as you have seen it?
When A Dog Year was published, I was surprised to hear from researchers at the University of Kentucky who pointed out that the book was a classic example of attachment theory (and therapy) at work, that I had obvious attachment issues with my border collie Devon, and vice versa. This surprised me. But it also made perfect sense. Many dog owners, according to psychiatrists at the University, re-work attachment issues through their dogs and other pets. Attachment theory holds simply that the degree to which we did or didn’t attach to our parents in infancy shapes our relationships and sense of security later in life. Attachment theory has become a cornerstone theory of modern psychiatry. Researchers of the University of Kentucky agreed to work with me on THE NEW WORK OF DOGS, helping me analyze the attachment issues at work in the powerful human-animal relationships I was tracking. They had a huge impact on my understanding of the human-animal bond and its growing importance in modern life.
5) Beyond explaining why people love their dogs, why is attachment theory practical or important?
It can help people understand why they feel the way they do about their dogs. For example, why do so many people overfeed their dogs? Why is so hard for many people to train the animals they bring into their homes? Attachment issues often come between people and the proper care of their dogs. Understanding attachment can also help in choosing the right dog.
6) Unlike a lot of books and studies that attempt to understand a canine’s thoughts and motivations, you chose to look at the thoughts and motivations of the owners. Why is that?
There’s a million books about training and understanding dogs, but only a handful about the people who own them. To me, that was the opportunity, the untold half of the story. I am not a dog trainer (though technically I became one to research the book). What drew me were the motivations and feelings of the people who felt so strongly about their dogs and were relying on them through critical transitions in their lives–from terminal illness to adolescent isolation to divorce. I felt this use of dogs mirrors the nature of our increasingly edgy, lonely and fragmented country.
I was also struck at the haphazard way people acquire dogs. Sometimes it’s for kids who love puppies but are overwhelmed by grown-up dogs. Sometimes it’s at malls from disreputable breeders. Americans love the idea of the cute puppy, but often struggle to deal with the grown-up aftermath.
7) You interviewed hundreds of people and met scores of dogs. How did you narrow down which stories to include in the book?
I wanted a mix of funny, powerful and revealing stories, tales that showed rather than told the points I was trying to make. So there are men and women, adults and kids, a range of different kinds of people. Each story has a different point to make about the growing range of ways in which dogs are being used to help humans with their emotional lives.
And by extension, are our expectations of them so unreal as to contribute to the epidemic abuse and abandonment? Up to 10 million dogs a year are put into the shelter system, many to be killed. Why do we rescue dogs but not people?
I was also awestruck at the hard work dogs are doing across the spectrum of human behavior to help their owners out. One thing I learned from my year exploring Montclair, NJ, the town I call “Dogville, U.S.A.” is that, increasingly, all dogs are working dogs.
8) That brings up an interesting point. Why did you limit your examples to this one New Jersey suburb?
Researching the demographics of dog ownership in America provided by the U.S. Veterinary Association I realized that my own town very closely reflects national trends in dog ownership in terms of income, gender, age, race and ethnicity. Montclair, New Jersey, mirrors the U.S. almost exactly when it comes to dog ownership.
9) I have to ask–what has become of "The Divorced Dog Club"?
They have scattered, as I explain in the epilogue, but are all doing well in their new relationships. All credit their dogs with helping them get through some tough times. I really came to admire these women, who turned to dogs for critical support in their lives while keeping sight of the fact that these companions were dogs, not people. They did not want nor expect their pets to replace human companionship.
10) Your profile of Betty Jean, who has rescued more than 500 dogs is particularly moving. How long have rescue groups like this one been around and has the Internet helped them grow?
The Internet has spawned a phenomenal explosion of the dog rescue movement. A decade ago, people went to their local shelters to look for a dog in need of a home. Now, they can go onto one or two nationally-linked websites and look at pictures of hundreds of thousands of dogs in need of new homes. Dogs are being transported all across the country now, and digital pictures are an integral part of the dog adoption process. Dog rescue groups are broken down by geography as well as breed. The Net has turned the dog rescue movement into a vast, linked, rapidly growing, all-volunteer, highly effective network. About 10 million dogs are believed to be in the U.S. shelter system at any given time, according to the U.S. Humane Society. Of those, about half will be euthanized.
11) THE NEW WORK OF DOGS seems, in a subtle way, to be an argument for less stringent leash laws and more stringent training laws. How do you feel about dog training?
I guess it isn’t that subtle. My experience writing THE NEW WORK OF DOGS has left me with a strong conviction that people need to train their dogs in order to have the dogs they need and will want to keep–dogs that can co-exist happily with other humans and dogs. I believe what almost all the trainers say: almost any dog can be calm, loving and responsive if trained properly.
I’d love to see more training laws and fewer leash laws, although I don't think either is really all that feasible for most of the country. We have more dogs than ever, but people are busy and distracted. Americans love cute puppies, but we don’t love what is often the aftermath–dogs that dump in the house, fight with other dogs, jump on people or chew furniture.
Few dogs are trained, and they are increasingly being segregated from the general population as town after town bans the unleashing of dogs anywhere. This may or may not be good for humans, but it’s a disaster for dogs. They were literally born to run. Even though there are tens of millions of dogs, they are being deprived of the opportunity to mix freely with humans and dogs, which can lead to neurotic and aggressive behavior, thus more laws and restrictions. It’s a civic morass in a way, one nobody is thinking through very clearly and intelligently. We need to also work hard to remember, I think, that dogs are animals, not people. They don’t think like people nor react like people. I think a lot of people are losing sight of that.
12) What's next for Jon Katz?
I have been struck by the fact that the dog world is increasingly dominated by women. Most new vets are women, as are most breeders and trainers. And more than 80 per cent of the primary caretakers of dogs are women. This reality is very recent, reflecting radical changes in the dog culture, and very interesting. In THE NEW WORK OF DOGS, I set out to find out why Americans are turning to dogs for emotional support. In my next book, tentatively titled Women and Dogs, I want to find out why women and dogs are becoming so deeply enmeshed.
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