Jon Katz and the spirit of dogs
If you love dogs and good writing, chances are you’re familiar with the work of Jon Katz, a former journalist and CBS News producer who has chronicled his life with dogs in such memoirs as A Dog Year: Twelve Months, Four Dogs and Me and Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm.
Now for the first time, Katz offers his wisdom about dogs and life to a younger audience in a new picture book, Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm. Featuring Katz’s own photography, the book profiles each of his four dogs—Rose, Izzy, Frieda and Lenore—and shows these beautiful animals at work and at play.
Though the language and the story are straightforward, there’s an important lesson contained within: that every individual (whether dog or human) has strengths and weaknesses, and that each can play a role in the success of a family or community.
We contacted Katz at Bedlam Farm in upstate New York to find out more about the project.
Why did you decide to write a book for children at this point in your career?
Children are the purest and most intense animal lovers on the earth. They experience animals in a very particular way, unfettered by the many issues adults bring to their attachments. Animals are the beloved and imaginary comforters and soulmates of many children, as psychologists can attest. Kids talk to animals in very touching ways.
Animals are sometimes scary to them, but more often are very loving and never cruel or wounding. Animal fantasies are a seminal part of childhood development. The Bedlam Farm dogs run the gamut for kids—the troubled dog, the love dog, the serious dog, the healing dog. Until I wrote Meet The Dogs Of Bedlam Farm, I didn't quite realize how broad and familiar an emotional range Lenore, Frieda, Izzy and Rose covered.
What would you say is the message of the book?
Being loving and generous is serious work. It's important. Despite all of the arguing and controversy we see and hear about, love and acceptance are very powerful forces. Every child I have ever met knows that, even if the grownups forget. Our culture is sometimes tense and combative and I think animals like dogs can reinforce for children the notion that we don't have to communicate in an angry way. We can come together, exist together, work together. Love is work.
Do you think the book will appeal primarily to children who love dogs?
Despite contemporary marketing ideas, I don't think books appeal so narrowly to one spectrum or another. You don't have to have a dog to love dogs and you don't have to love dogs to appreciate a sweet story. I get messages from animal lovers but also many people who just like stories. Marketing is an important tool, but it ought not overwhelm ideas.
You've long been known as a talented writer, but now you're a photographer, too. Why do you think photography has become such an important part of your life?
I can't even describe how much I love taking pictures. Words are one way of telling a story. Photos another. Now, videos yet another and I am doing all three. The new story is visual as well as textual and Meet The Dogs Of Bedlam Farm is very much a new kind of story. I was prepared to argue for my photographs being included, but it wasn't necessary. Holt wanted that as much as I did. Photos can be static and cold, but I have worked hard to use my photography to capture emotion, especially in animals. The photos in this book are very emotional, they capture the spirit of each of the dogs—you can not look at Lenore without smiling, Rose demonstrates the virtue of hard work, Frieda is the trouble side of all of us, and Izzy is a sweet soul who helps people in the most profound way. I can write that all I want, but the photos show it and add depth and credibility to the story. Photographing animals is complex, but I think animal photography works especially well for children, makes the stories real and credible.
You clearly love your dogs but you don't believe they should be treated like children. Can you explain why you make that distinction and why you think it's a bad idea to treat pets like human members of the family?
Children and animals are different, and we ought never to confuse the two, in my opinion. You don't ever want to treat a dog like a child, or a child like a dog. In our culture, the idea that dogs and children are different is becoming controversial. Dogs are not children with fur, or "furbabies." They are animals with alien minds and sensibilities and instincts. When dogs are treated like children, it is impossible to train them or communicate with them. Sometimes we become disconnected from one another and we turn to dogs and cats for comfort. That's great, but we need perspective.
And I would never want my daughter to think I think of her in the same way I think of a Labrador Retriever, as much as I love Lenore. I wonder what children make of the idea that people see dogs and cats as their children. It can't be good. There is also the important message that all animals can be a bit dangerous if they are misunderstood or mistreated. When a dog is frightened, it can hurt people, and many children do get bitten (a rising number.) We need to maintain the distinction between dogs and kids, for the sake of both. We don't need to transform these wonderful animals into mini-versions of us. Let dogs be dogs and kids be kids.
Dogs are very different from humans, young or old, and their minds are very alien. It would be so much better for them if we understood how they really think rather than turn them into versions of us.
Near the end of the book, there's a beautiful photo of all four dogs resting around the woodburning stove in your farmhouse. Did you have to pose that photo or do the dogs really gather together there at the end of the day?
My dogs all gather by the woodstove, especially in the winter. I never have to pose them there. Dogs are pack animals, they love to hang out with one another. It wasn't always that way. Frieda was very aggressive with the other dogs at first, and Rose likes to be alone, or at the window looking at sheep. They are at ease with one another now, and all I have to do to get them to band together outside is yell "photoshoot" and they all come together and wait. My dogs are all media experts. :) They seem to know that's where the biscuits come from.
Each of your dogs has a distinct personality and temperament. Do they ever squabble like human siblings do?
Honestly, my dogs do not squabble, in part because I just won't tolerate it. They all get plenty of food, water and treats, so they don't have much to fight about. They all have different roles as well, as the book points out. My dogs are with me most of every day, so I have the opportunity to correct troublesome behaviors. I do a lot of calming training and obedience work. Well-trained secure dogs don't squabble, in my experience. They get food, exercise and attention and they are quite grounded and responsive. They also adapt to one another. There was some jockeying for bones early on, but we worked through that. I never worry about that now. I can't remember the last time where was a confrontation of any kind. Rose and Frieda are two dominant females and there was a lot of posturing for a year or so, but nothing serious, and that is gone. Lenore doesn't squabble with anybody or anything. She is really the Love Dog.
What were your favorite books as a child?
I'm sorry to say that books were not a part of my childhood, so I read few of them. I remember Grimm's Fairy Tales and Hardy Boys, but that's about it, so I am especially fortunate to be able to write children's books. It is one of the reasons I wanted to do it.
What's next on your writing schedule?
I have two more children's books coming out from Holt. And in October, a book for Random House on grieving for pets, Going Home: Finding Peace When Animals Die. Next year, a short story collection called Dancing Dogs. And then a book on Frieda called Frieda and Me: Second Chances.