March 19, 2008

Inside Animal Minds

They're smarter than we thought.

I'm such a hardcore little fact-checker.

Went to Los Angeles on Friday and wound up in the Grove Barnes & Noble, rereading everything by J... by J... [shudders]. Honestly, I can hardly bring myself to give him free publicity pronounce his name. He's the opposite of a fact-checker. His work is bad for dogs, and very bad for border collies.

Jon Katz has parlayed inept stockmanship and mismanagement of his dogs into a Slate column, a movie deal, the odd radio appearance and a string of books, and there's a website, too, but I won't link to it. [Oh, all right, dammit: here.] He is a willfully ignorant, patronizing author who wants you to believe everything he tells you about dogs in general and border collies in particular even though, gosh, he's never claimed to be an expert or anything. And besides, experts are just big old snobs, ha ha ha! He is like that man who wrote The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California back in 1845 with directions to a new route he'd never actually traveled himself and when a group of settlers took his "shortcut," they wound up struggling across the Wasatch Range and the salt flats of western Utah and were trapped in the snows in the High Sierra, where they ran out of food and resorted to cannibalism.

On second thought, he's much worse than that.

Here's sheep farmer and border collie handler [and owner/moderator of the Sheep Production Forums] Bill Fosher, in response to a complaint that those mean old border collie snobs "spew venom" at poor Jon Katz:
I spew venom at him because of some of the horrible things he has talked about on a local public radio call-in show, such as letting a five month old Border collie puppy "have a couple of hours of unsupervised time" with the sheep to "let her get to know them." He also claims that highly-trained Border collies are trained with clickers and treats and that poses and postures are trained, rather than actual stock work. He says things like this as if he knows what he's talking about, and in fact he doesn't know sh!t from shinola about sheepdogs, sheep [or] farming [...]

In the end, I really almost don't care about what he did to Devon/Orson. I care about what other people might do to their dogs if they emulate him.
Katz arranged for Orson, his first border collie, to be euthanized after the dog developed severe behavior problems and bit three people. Orson, or Devon, as he was originally called, was given to Katz by a woman who breeds conformation border collies from New Zealand/Australian lines. And would that breeder and importer of show champions be the same woman who called authentic, working border collies "needlessly hostile, undomesticated dogs"?

She would.

According to Katz, any dog that "violates the fundamental contract between humans and canines" [have your dogs signed that contract? Neither have mine] should be killed sooner rather than later, unless you care more about dogs than you care about children, you sicko. From Nathan Winograd's blog:
[F]ear mongering at HSUS has taken a new turn with the publication of an interview with best-selling author Jon Katz, author of “A Good Dog,” in the current issue of Animal Sheltering entitled: “I Chose a Child’s Face Over My Dog.” The question and answer format with Katz does nothing to illuminate the truth about aggression or dangerous dogs, and in fact, only serves to heighten stereotypes and perpetuate myths. That Katz killed his dog because of what he considered severe aggression is not what one takes from the article. That would have been a very different piece, a tragedy for all involved—Jon Katz, his dog, and the people his dog hurt. And maybe, just maybe, our hearts would have hurt for all of them.

Instead, HSUS asks a series of very deliberate questions which not only globalize the tragedy that occurred in the Katz family, but appear to assume the worst in dogs, and the worst in people who want to see less of them killed. Opposition is dismissed as irresponsible. Dog lovers are pitted against children. It’s the type of either-or, you-are-with-us-or-against-us, your-dog-or-your-child hysteria most of us, especially those of us who love both our dogs and our kids, dismissed long ago. In fact, the parallel to attacks the nascent animal welfare movement was subjected to from industries which hurt animals is stark. Our movement’s history is littered with these sorts of unfair accusations by those who profit from animal exploitation.

And the tenor of the article—which is merely restated as Katz' viewpoint giving HSUS “plausible deniability” about the viewpoints advanced—results in the following conclusions:

* Killing dogs becomes unacceptable only when people inappropriately “humaniz[e] dogs.”
* “Millions of people are bitten by dogs every year, many tens of thousands of children.”
* If you do not believe in killing dogs, you have made them “quasi-religious objects of veneration.”
* “Millions of Americans seek medical attention every year for animal bites or attacks.”
* “[F]or every troubled or aggressive animal kept alive for months or years, healthy and adoptable animals go wanting for homes and often lose their lives.”
* “Insurance companies are paying out billions of dollars to people bitten by dogs.”
* As a result of dog bites, “lawyers [are] injected into the human-animal relationship” and this is exacerbated by people who want to see dog killing end.
* Adopting a Pit Bull appears to be more trouble than it is worth.

Every one of these conclusions is deeply flawed and deeply offensive.
And speaking of deeply flawed and deeply offensive, here are excerpts from an online chat last summer:
Question: One other question, our new border collie is extremely sensitive to loud noises. If there is thunder is the far distance, she will cower and go hide under the bed. As you can imagine 7/4 was very difficult for her. is there a way to desensitize her to loud noises?
Jon Katz: Desensitizing is possible,but difficult and time consuming. I don't know any border collies who are sensitive to noise -- partly why they are such great herders. I put mine in crates when I leave the house or when storms approach.
Sweet Jebus. This just in.
Question: Hi Jon -- do you know of someplace near Boston where I could see a herding trial? I've seen the kind held in a ring, but would love to see the type held in a large, open space (my dream vacation is to go to Scotland and watch Border collie trials, but it's not going to happen any time soon. --- Thank you!
Jon Katz: Hey Keely, Izzy and I were just herding geese along Storrow Drive. You can go to the akc dot org website for lists of AKC sponsored herding trials. I am sure there are many in N.H. and Massachusetts.

Sigh. To the left is a scene from an AKC "herding trial." There is a dog back there in the dust of this small arena, and the run was given a qualifying score. Three runs like this, and your dog receives an AKC "herding title."

The photo below shows the Open field at Zamora, CA. This is a USBCHA trial. The AKC has never, and will never put on a sheep dog trial as challenging as Zamora. Click here to find the next real trial near you. Your dog won't win a "herding title" by doing well on a course like this, but everyone will know what he's made of.

Of course I'm just a snobby old elitist to bring any of this up. Katz again:
[Border collie snobs] tend not to favor a variety of approaches to training their dogs but adopt uniform--and very rigid--methods. Those dogs you see winning ribbons on TV don't get there by relaxing and finding their own way. Every move they make--the way they sit, at what distance from the sheep, how they hold their heads--results from intense, almost relentless training. I used to watch in amazement as trainers waited until a dog's head was pointed in precisely the right direction, then click a clicker, over and over again.
Where does he get this?

NO ONE trains a working border collie with a clicker. [I suppose a clicker could be used for training "obedience on stock" — but that is not the same thing as stock work.] Check out the YouTube video in the left sidebar to see a top handler at work with a good young dog, and read the terrific new book Top Trainers Talk about Starting a Sheepdog to learn more about the real nature of "summoning the dog's genetics," as Donald McCaig puts it.

Katz writes that border collie snobs are "annoyed" with him
because I have border collies in the first place (they think people like me shouldn't), because I don't take them to competitions (too many uptight people shouting at their dogs), and because I've homeschooled them, avoiding the pros and adapting their training to life on the farm. My methods are admittedly unconventional. Rose is a true heroine, but there will be no championship ribbons in her future. The snobs won't approve of my new technique with Izzy, either.
Oh, please. This is such absolute, self-serving nonsense.

Katz bothers me because I hate to see livestock stressed, because I hate to see dogs put in dangerous situations, and because I believe writers have an obligation to do thorough research and tell the truth.

And what Bill said: "I care about what other people might do to their dogs if they emulate him."

DoG help us. This may be a very bad year for border collies.


Anonymous said...

There is a very special, very hot place in hell reserved for Mr. Katz. After ruining Orson by refusing to consider using any kind of aversive to teach the dog more appropriate behavior, he then went out and wrote a book about his great 'learning experience' thereby poisoning the heads and hearts of thousands of clueless pet owners and - probably - killing untold numbers of dogs.

He is a great fan of the philosophies of those such as Pat Miller who has been quoted as saying that it is better to kill a dog than to correct it.

Utter insanity.

And, speaking as someone who has just a wee bit of knowledge on stockdogs, but who was fortunate to get much of it from great sources (like Derek Scrimgeour and my friend Donald McCaig) - border collies (and kelpies like mine) are most definately NOT clicker trained. A whistle, a crook and one's mind and body are the key tools involved.

Anonymous said...

You know what this reminds me of? How much people who really knew things about dogs "back in the day" 1910-1940ish) loathed best-selling author Albert Payson Terhune ("Lad: A Dog," etc.) for painting himself as an expert on dogs in general, collies in particular.

Katz and Terhune share the same motivation: Making a good living as a writer. Nothing more, nothing less.

Heather Houlahan said...

Check out the reviews of Katz's snuff book "about" Orson/Devon on

I was one of the first -- possibly the first -- Amazon reviewer who endeavored to take that POS profanation of dead trees and beat the author bloody with it.

And the putz got onto Amazon and argued with me (and the other appalled reviewers, who are now legion).

Because, see, we just didn't understand the specialness of Jon Katz, and how very, very special his mid-life crisis is, leading to his special insights about his very, very special and very, very dead dog.

Also, the author of a "book" titled Katz on Dogs was very put out at being held to a standard of competence or accuracy on the topic of dogs, because, see, he'd never claimed any expertise on the topic

Anonymous said...

Smartdogs, I doubt Jon Katz is a follower of Pat Miller. She is a positive trainer, but her philosophy is not that it's better for a dog to die than receive a correction, but that a better fate for a dog is to die than be warehoused in a "no-kill sanctuary" forever.

Luisa said...

I won't second-guess Katz on Orson, but I will by God protest his poor stock sense, minimal dog-handling chops, shoddy research, etc., etc.

Here is an article by Pat Miller on adopting a shelter dog. Miller is a Sue Sternberg fan. A friend of mine [a shelter supervisor, Sternberg seminar attendee and one of the savviest animal people I know] says of Sternberg, "She wants to kill everything!" [Pit bulls especially.]

The Sternberg methodology doesn't appeal to me, but your mileage may vary. Have to add that none of the great dogs I've given house space to over the years would have survived that gauntlet. I don't believe purpose-bred dogs are meant to survive it.

gooddogz said...

As a trainer and member of BC rescue for 8 years, I hear what you are saying, and I nearly wet my pants at your Nat. Geo cover. My mixed up BC-X Charlee would never have passed and could not pass a TT right now. There are not many people on earth who would want her or could care for her.
I am certainly not sticking up to the number of dogs that Sue Sternberg has had put down, but I do think that Orson illustrates why she has the stance that she does. The general public cannot for the most part, handle problem dogs and her test finds dogs who can roll with Joe average public. Her test also assumes that there are very limited resources. Again, I am not agreeing, just saying.
On the flip side, as a trainer and behavior councilor, I see a lot of these people with dogs that should never have been placed with them in the first place,and they are now in a 13 plus year commitment with a dog that they can only enjoy sometimes. Just saying. BC's fry in shelters and we do not go by this test in deciding which dog we will take, but we do use TT in deciding where they will be homed and what kind of home they need.
I nearly fell of my chair reading that dogs should herd on STORROW DRIVE! That is the Charles river that seperates Boston from Cambridge, and has a very small grass area and tons of cars and traffic and people, and dogs, and dog walkers with multi dogs. PLUS,hello, THERE IS A LEASH LAW! What an idiot.

Anonymous said...

I weep with gratitude at the absolute correctness of your blog post and wish that it were required reading for anyone who has ever even looked at a dog.

Heather Houlahan said...

Nancy --

As for "herding geese on Storrow Drive."

When I lived in the Boston area, many Hub dawgs got a kick out of chasing geese in the park near the Hatch Shell, between the Charles and Storrow. Including my sweet GSD, a time or two.

It never occurred to us to make that goose-chasing revelry a line-item in the dogs' CVs.

I'm pretty sure that's what Katz's dog was doing, "herding" on Storrow Drive.

Edmund, my messed-up unemployed repo dog, has come in to inform me that dinner is late. I'll make sure to put "professional catering events coordinator" on his resume, which also wants some padding.

gooddogz said...
Here is a katz rant I wrote in 2005 Is this dog Rose seen herding in the video?

La Blogueria said...

Hola, en uno de mis paseos por aca, queria dejarte mis saludos.


Anonymous said...

Hi... this is certainly an interesting article. I just read 'A dog year' yesterday, and having lost my (pet, non-working) border collie a few years back i found it to be a nice tale which brought back a lot of memories.

However. Since looking at his website and discovering to my disgust that he already has completely different dogs to when this book was published, i did a bit of searching and just couldn't believe the guy. He obviously has a low boredom threshold and makes up excuses to rid himself of dogs when he gets fed up... and gets himself new ones. After all he'd been through with Orson/Devon, i can't believe he wouldn't persevere after a few bites.. and the bites can't have been that bad or the dog would have been out down straight away. Then Homer, who sounds like a perfectly loveable dog.. given away. the two labs in the book only needed to get a bit ill and they were put down without too much thought. he's then gone headfirst into the farm idea, and now is bored with that and is well into hospice work. unbelieveable. what next???
As i live in the UK and there aren't many animal shows on TV at the minute I hadn't heard of him before, but unfortunately seem like america is flooded! just hope he stays over there!

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading A Good Dog, and I had previously read The Dogs of Bedlam Farm. I was shocked that he decided to put Orson down, and I got a very bad feeling about it. I think Orson was not what he "needed" him to be, and he justified killing him. What is the longest amount of time he has had any of his dogs? I agree with the above poster who suggests that Katz tired of the dogs, or perhaps, they no longer met his needs. I think Mr. Katz has LOADS of personal issues, and his dogs suffer the consequences. He had a screwed up childhood, true, but I think Katz would have been better having gotten "traditional" therapy, and left the dogs to someone else.

Anonymous said...

I just found your post through a search "I hate Jon Katz". Kudos to you for speaking your mind I agree wholeheartedly.

Jon Katz has no business hosting radio shows or penning advice books about dogs.

I believe he euthanized Orson to provide material for a new book and line his pockets. Or perhaps just something to break up the boredom. Whatever the reason it was not good enough. He claims the dog saved his life and repaid Orson by taking his. You cannot tell me he could not have tried to find a trainer that dealt with aggression or territorial dogs or that he could not have built a secure fence to keep him from biting people or found someone who could have cared for him. I recall reading in one of his earlier books that his sister is a recluse that takes in Newfoundlands perhaps she could have taken him. Basically, Katz did not want the responsibility of taking care of Orson. He was too LAZY to care for this dog that he claims save his life.

I will never buy another Katz book again. I have no intention of seeing the new movie. If there is any justice Katz will go bankrupt and spend his elderly years picking food scraps from dumpsters.

Beverly said...

Thank you for taking the time to demonstrate what an idiot Katz is. Hard to believe the ego of the man to set himself up as an expert on something about which he knows absolutely nothing (herding with Border Collies). As Bill pointed out while he is a danger to his own dogs and vastly amusing to those if us who know what an idiot he is, he is a danger to the general public unable to differentiate between his fantasies and reality. What a rich fantasy life he must have and how sad his dogs can't be protected from it.

Anonymous said...

I'm about 3/4 of the way thru "A Dog Day" by Katz, and I've not been under the impression that he considers himself an 'expert'. He's a writer and a dog owner, the end. This annoyingly arrogant criticism is ridiculous, and it really makes you look, well, like loud-mouthed know-it-all's. No one takes loud-mouthed know-it-all's seriously except for other loud-mouthed know-it-all's. Might as well get over it.

Rob said...

He's a writer and a dog owner who didn't bother to research dogs, and who put down one of his animals for purely spurious reasons.

Fixed that for ya, Anon.

Unknown said...

Well written blog....

Anonymous said...

And he's gotten worse. He's rearing sheep now, and even though he should know some of the many mistakes he's making [since he had sheep once], resulting in various conditions- he never takes responsibility for his mistakes, or even admits mistakes. He's a complete bully online now, maybe he always was, but with his blog and Facebook, he seems to become more arrogant and down right offensive to many people who try to ask questions or leave comments. He dishes it out, argues with reviewers, but can't seem to take much hot air when it comes back at him-especially when it is well thought out, reasonable questions-if it doesn't agree with his mindset, bang, head but, you're out of there!

Anonymous said...

I can't agree more with your position. Katz is purely a writer and anyone with a modicum of dog experience will quickly conclude he is utterly informed about dogs. The "crime" of it is that because he has a background in media, his clueless drivel is taking by fools as dog-speak.

While listening to his call-in radio show in the past, I was amazed that he seemed to get stumped several times by callers in each show. Almost without exception I could have answered the stumpers. And there are people (many) out there who've forgotten more than I'll ever know about dogs. So why is he on the radio?!?

His most recent book Second Chance confirmed to me his utter incompetence and even worse, that of his astoundingly irresponsible wife. No one but no one should make such egregious mistakes with an aggressive dog. He and his wife make them a practice.

Shame on the media for giving him air time.

Anonymous said...

I have read most of Katz's books, heck I had him as a guest speaker at our library. I do not even own a dog, but this man's nonsense and self worship are becoming worse by the day. I was terribly upset when he killed Orson. Then it was Rose, the subject of another one of Katz 's books. Today's blog featured his shooting of a lamb, which he referred to as sacred, and for whom he did not bother to call a vet. And last evening a rant about who should and should not post on his blog, and what they should and should not discuss. I fear that this guy, his wife and his animals will end up being a front page tragedy. Check out his facebook page.