Saturday, January 27, 2007

Train in Vain Indeed

First off, I know I said I would quit bitching about the weather but for the 7th weekend in a row it's cold (21 degrees feels like 11) and there's white stuff falling from the sky. A lot of it. That's all I'm sayin'.

Warning: I'm going to discuss Jon Katz' latest book, 'A Good Dog' which is a continuation of the story of Orson/Devon for those familiar with his earlier books. If anyone is planning on reading it and doesn't want it spoiled you'd best stop reading right here.

I'm not exactly a fan of Jon Katz. I believe I've used the words 'pompous ass' to describe him on more than one occasion. I'll confess that I enjoyed his first book, 'A Dog Year', though many parts of it made me cringe. His experimental 'training' methods ranged from the appalling to the bizarre and I always considered him a train wreck when it came to his ideas on training and dog behavior. However by the end of the first book Devon, later renamed Orson, seemed to be doing well so I figured who am I to judge.

I can't remember much of the second book, 'The Dogs of Bedlam Farm' in regards to Orson's behavioral issues but I certainly don't remember them being a huge concern. I got the book from the library so I don't have it to refer to and I had found it a snoozer and quickly put it out of my mind.

So it was somewhat of a surprise to see Orson being described as demented, psycho, and even aggressive at the start of 'A Good Dog'. I gave away my copy of 'A Dog Year' so I can't check but I certainly don't remember the 'A' word being used. There are plenty of articles by and interviews with Katz where he's gassing on about what a success he made of Orson-earning a herding title, going on book signings, even doing therapy work. Here's a link to one such interview: Katz interview Dogs that do therapy work have to have rock solid temperaments, who in their right mind would do therapy work with a dog with aggression issues? Why is this dog suddenly being portrayed as seriuosly troubled? The answer of course is that it's all a set up leading to the end of the book when Jon puts him down after he bites 3 people.

My first reaction to this book was anger and frustration. However I wasn't altogether comfortable passing judgement on this man. I know people who've had to put down dogs for severe aggression and what a painful decision it is. I also know it's problematic to make judgements about a situation like this without having all the facts and there seem to be some big gaps in that department. So I decided to do a little research. Surely this man can't be as clueless as he portrays himself. He claims that he spent years working with trainers on this dog but none of his books seem to reflect any knowledge of how to rehab and manage an aggressive/reactive dog.

Any sympathy I may have had quickly vanished after doing a little reading. Here's a wiki that's pretty revealing, esp. the 'Controversy' section: Katz wiki This quote sums it up, 'As with his earlier rejection by the geek subculture, Katz's writings on dogs have met with a largely hostile reception within the border collie community, where he has been faulted for a fundamental lack of understanding of the dogs and their work, and for offering misguided training advice while professing an expertise that he in fact lacks'. The links to the border collie forums are also interesting. In addition here's a link to the readers' reviews of his book on Amazon: Amazon reviews The most disturbing part of the reviews were the comments Katz himself made in response to the negative reviews. He was defensive, obnoxious and outright nasty in some of his responses where he could have taken the high road.

The biggest problem I've had with his books over the years is his stubbornness when it comes to taking advice from trainers. He seems proud of his rejection of their advice and all too willing to offer plenty of his own even though he has no experience, credentials, knowledge or science behind his spewings. Here's an example from one of his articles for Slate: Train in Vain The troubling issue here is that he often portrays himself as an expert on call in radio shows and during interviews. He's even published a dog training book called 'Katz on Dogs, A Commonsense Guide to Training and Living With Dogs'. Yet throughout 'A Good Dog' he plays for our sympathy claiming that he's not an expert on dogs, just a plain old Joe who took in this crazy psycho dog and did the best he could.

Which leads to my final beef-did this man really do all he could? Clearly he did a lot but was it for him or the dog? Did he buy the farm for the troubled dog, who clearly had no interest in or aptitude for sheep herding, or for himself to give himself something to write about and help with his mid-life crisis? There's plenty of mention of half assed sheep herding as therapy for this dog but little mention or evidence of systematic desensitization, classical conditioning or the kind of strict management that's necessary for an aggressive dog. He claims he trained the dog every day but gives no specific details of what he did or how often he did it. Was he using proven training techniques in a clear, systemic and consistent manner or his own half baked ideas? Most troubling of all was his complete refusal to go to a vet behaviorist and have even the most basic tests done. He claims these tests would have cost $5000-$6000 but he could have started out with a basic battery of tests costing in the hundreds then moved on (or not) to the more expensive tests if the first round turned up nothing. Furthermore, while $6000 sounds like a lot of money to a regular person is it really that much to a rich guy like Katz? Seems he can afford to pay for all those expensive herding lessons and doesn't blink twice at $400 for an animal communicator let alone the elaborate renovations to his farmhouse or the cost of the farm itself. Let's not even get into the money Katz spent on the dogs he bought from breeders after he put Orson down. How much of that money came from royalties earned off of Orson's stories and how much money is he yet to earn from the movie coming out about Orson's life? Surely Orson deserved to have some of that cash spent on potentially saving his life. The excuse Katz uses for not spending the money-his neighbors are living in terrible poverty and it doesn't seem right to spend that kind of money on a dog. If Katz is so concerned about social issues surely he could find a more altruistic way to spend his ample amount of free time and money. Is spending his time and money on sheep herding and house renovations somehow easing the suffering of his neighbors? Did he spend that $6000 on food or health care programs for his neighbors?

Katz has spent many years going on and on about how much Orson has done for him and how much he's learned from Orson but in the end it seems to me he's learned very little at all.

For a good book on how to rehab an aggressive dog check out Pam Dennsion's 'Bringing Light to Shadow' and for a great book on city slickers moving to the country check out 'Urban Dreams, Rural Realities' by Daniel Butler and Bel Crewe.


  1. Great post! Thanks for reading his books so I don't have to ;-). His columns in Slate led me to believe that Katz is an idiot (I blogged about one column that pissed me off a while back: ... I notice that his Wikipedia page has been updated since I read it last). I just don't have time to waste on idiots when there nare so many good dog books that I still need to read! I think he's just making it all up as he goes along, and that he latched onto dogs as his gravy train after being hounded out of the geek commuinity.

    Anyway, you rock, and this post is so much more well-written and well-reasoned that anything I could come up with!!

  2. Well, what I wrote was a lot more polite than what I was thinking.

    That's an interesting link in your blog post to the Slate article about 'properly bred' purebreds having superior temperaments. Devon/Orson came to him from a breeder (now located in Colorado just outside Colorado Springs) who breeds border collies for the conformation ring. Is that an example of 'properly bred' and is Devon/Orson an example of the superior temperament of properly bred purebreds? Part of his rancor towards the 'border collie community' (whatever that is) seems to stem from their rejection of breeders who breed BC's for the conformation ring. For some reason he insists on getting his dogs from these types of breeders and takes huge offense to any criticism of his dogs' lines. Of all the criticism on the Amazon site the comment that seemed to rile him the most was one that criticized the lineage of his herding dog Rose obtained from a conformation breeder.

    Certainly there are plenty of anecdotal examples of unstable temperaments in both purebred and mixed breed dogs. I've never seen any scientific studies proving that mixes are more unstable than purebreds. I'd love to see such a study, my biased, gut feeling is that the purebreds would come out the worse.

    And yeah, I cringe every time I see a German Shepherd Dog hobbling around a show ring. This is the obvious reason that the border collie community is so critical of the breeders who breed for the show ring.

  3. Anonymous5:15 PM

    I came upon this after I googled this guy, just to see what was out there- now 7 years later after you wrote this post- you have only to go read his blog [if you can stand it, I can't anymore] and worse, his FB fan page, where he loves to be the bully-usually when people of much greater knowledge of farm animals question his treatments. He is now botching up a bunch of helpless sheep. I agree with your above post-he is a bully, then, and now. He continuously talks about 'his past anger' but it appears to still be there. [his writing has become increasingly repetitive, enough that I wonder if he even realizes how he reposts over and over the same thoughts]. But what bothers me as a farmer is-while he loves to repeat he is not a farmer, he writes like he knows what he is doing - misdiagnosing, improperly feeding and managing-then he gets horribly bullyish when someone calls him on it. The following he has acquired because he has a bully pulpit, makes me sad, and yes, peeved. So many smart, enjoyable people out there-who also can write well, and share story, who aren't picked up by publishers. I want to tell his followers- "Your emperor has no clothes!" [Staying anonymous for fear of the bully man]

    1. Anonymous7:14 PM

      He has recently helped a farmer start blogging about his very real farm (compared to Katz's) and the guy, Ed Gulley at Bejosh Farm, seems very sharp, direct, out spoken. In other words, no dummy. I wonder that he doesn't see thru Katz. Maybe he does but just doesn't need to let him have it -- yet.
      I worry for Katz's dogs, and the sheep too, who are just being used. The only comfort is that his wife Maria seems to have a genuine heart and a love for all the animals. Hopefully she's looking out for them.

    2. Ugh, I haven't kept up with Katz and his books. Wish he would become obsessed with something else to write about that didn't involve animals.

  4. Thank you so much for your post and the update. I haven't read any of his books since the one mentioned above and I don't follow him because he turns my stomach and has nothing interesting to say. So many interesting, knowledgeable people out there, I can't waste my time and energy on this blowhard. Trouble is that as long as he has followers, he has a stream of income and a source to feed his ego so he'll continue on his way. Best thing to do is ignore the guy and discourage anyone you know from following or even better encourage them to follow the interesting and knowledgeable folk. So much easier to turn people on to good stuff than to turn them away from the bad.