Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Book Review: Katz On Dogs

My latest read is Katz on Dogs: A Common Sense Guide to Training and Living with Dogs by Jon Katz. I actually finished it quite a while ago, but I've been busy, and I figured such a thoughtful book deserved a bit more of a thoughtful review. Hope the wait was worth it!

Katz on Dogs is described as a "common sense guide to training", and that's exactly what it is. Jon Katz writes about his own experiences raising his 3 dogs, and stories from people he has encountered, using his own common sense and experience to come to conclusions about how to train your dog in such a way that you can live together in harmony. That's the reason I have such a love/hate relationship with this book. Sometimes his reasoning makes complete sense, and makes training my dog seem easy. Other times I completely disagree with him and feel like he's over simplifying, being unrealistic, or being just plain arrogant.

Jon Katz lives on a farm with his 3 dogs, 2 Border Collies and 1 Labrador Retriever. He's written a few other books that also cover his experiences raising his dogs, so I got the feeling I wasn't always getting the whole story. The two Border Collies, the way he described them, seemed to have behavioral issues he was working past, but he never went very in depth with his own dogs (he saved that for other people's),so I'm not sure what their deal was. I'm going to say upfront that halfway through reading this book I read that he actually gave away one of the Border Collies, and had the other one put down. When I read the article he wrote talking about the decision to put Orson down, he (again extremely lacking in specifics) mentions that Orson bit a child. Well what kind of biting? Did he send the kid to the hospital? Did he just nip at him a little bit, accidentally drawing blood? I think there's a big difference if it's a decision between life and death for a dog that supposedly completes you. I also read that he got rid of Rose, his herding dog. I don't know if that one's true, but it wouldn't surprise me since he didn't write about her with much affection in the book. Actually, all three of his dogs are written almost as caricatures, rather than read dogs. Rose, in the book, is the herding dog. She cares for nothing but herding. Orson is the dog with problems. He sticks by Katz, and cares for no one but him. Clementine is the new kid on the block and obvious favorite (probably because labs are easier?). She is the playful one that loves chasing squirrels and playing with sticks. Really? That's all there is to your dogs? Probably not, and Katz probably knows this, but for me it lessened his credibility because he made it seem like he didn't understand the depth of his dogs' personalities. He comes off as being rather cold, but that's probably just him trying to come off as objective.

The good points in the book were the beginning. Like all good dog books start, his first chapter is on making sure that getting a dog is right for you. He applies his common sense well here, by pointing out that dogs are a lot of responsibility, and you should realize what you're getting into. There is no perfect dog, it is an ongoing process that never ends. One thing I think he really nailed was the idea of the "quitting point". This is the point that we stop training our dogs, either because we don't realize we've stopped, we think we've trained them enough, or we've just given up. He also talks about the "good enough" dog. This is when we train our dogs to a point (usually the basics), then say that it's good enough, and stop training them. His lesson is that we should never stop training our dogs, or at least observing their environment so we can recognize when it changes. If your quitting point occurs before you've trained your dog enough to live harmoniously with him/her, then you should seek help in getting past it. I think being aware of the quitting point is important, because then you can be conscious of it, and know to watch out for it when you feel your dog is trained "good enough". He also has a lot of insight on multi-dog households, though again, he doesn't offer up very much in the way of specific examples.

Past that point, the book went downhill for me. The case studies were very uneven. Sometimes they were interesting and insightful, other times they were obvious. I think the worst chapter in this book is the one where tries to tackle nutrition. He obviously has no interest in canine nutrition. He feeds his dogs store-bought kibble, and basically refuses to judge people on how they feed their dogs because, obviously, he hasn't taken the time to learn anything about it. He even mentions, but doesn't address people who feed their dogs a vegan diet. How can you not say anything about people who feed carnivores no meat products? I'm not saying he should have torn them a new one, but why mention it if you're not going to address it? On the contrary, he wrote with an air of conceit toward people who take their dog's nutrition into their own hands. He had an air of conceit on a lot of subjects, including holistic medicine as well. He says that he never had a problem with his vet, so why wouldn't he trust what they tell him? Well that makes sense to me, but holistic medicine isn't necessarily about competent vets, though I'm sure incompetent vets often drive dog owners to holistic medicine.

This book was a good read, as long as I used my own common sense to separate out the good information and advice from the bad less good. In the end all Katz is doing is encouraging the reader to observe their dog from an objective perspective and consider what's best for both of you when figuring out how to live together. He heavily promotes training and being mindful of your dog. I definitely agree with him on all those points, and I gained some good perspective after reading this book. Reading this book may give you some good perspective as well.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in what they can do to better live with their dog. This is not a how-to book on training your dog. This book trains you. This book could be helpful to people who have dogs with behavioral problems and want to know how to better approach them, or to people who generally want some good ideas on raising their dog. I don't think this book is a keeper as a reference book. If your local library has it, I would recommend saving your money and getting it there. I may check out his other books another time, but for now I think my reading list is fine without them.

Update: I also want to add that anyone reading this book should not take what Katz says as gospel. If something sounds like an idea you'd like to try, do some research on it first. Some of his suggestions I found conflicted with other, more trustworthy sources, while others matched up with things I had already learned.


Jenna Z said...

Homer was the dog he got rid of:

I think Katz is seriously overstepping his boundaries when he represents himself as a trainer proficient enough to write a book.

JuLo said...

Oh ok. I had read it was Rose on some message board, but I think you're right.

That reminds me. There's something I forgot to include in my final thoughts.

I don't even think of it as a dog training book though. He doesn't really tell you how to train your dog (well he tries a little, but he sucks at it). He tells you how to be in the mindset of training your dog, which I think was interesting.

I had no idea he was such a controversial author until I googled him. Yikes.

Jenna Z said...

Yeah, dog people don't like him too much. He makes his living writing books, not working dogs. So he wrote a book, and another book and ANOTHER book and a series of articles about the same handful of dogs. A great place to find REALLY awesome books is Dogwise

I'm no expert by any means so I won't give you a long reading list or anything like that. But a really great book about the attitudes involved in training is The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell. I could suggest others I've liked if you want.

Oh, and I posted my punch recipe!

Jenna Z said...

Let's try the link again:
hehe, sorry. Doing too many things at once!

JuLo said...

You know, I read a review of that book on The Bark Online, and it sounded really good! Trouble is my library doesn't have it. :( So that pretty much is keeping it off my list for now. I've spent too much money on books lately. But once I get through my current stack, I'll pick it up.