The New Work of Dogs was my first Jon Katz book, after he had been repeatedly recommended to me from other knowledgeable dog people. I admit that I stayed away from him for a while, because the snippets of Katz I had read before seemed very sappy.
This book, however, was not too sappy. Essentially, it’s a book about how we are relying on dogs in more intense, emotional ways in the 20th- and 21st-centuries. It’s very close to the late Caroline Knapp’s Pack of Two, except that he writes about both men and women’s relationships with dogs.
In this modern age, we ask our dogs to bear a lot of emotional burdens for us, and this trend is what initially sparked Katz’s research. Dogs don’t just live in the backyard on a chain anymore (at least, we hope not); they are members of the family, recipients of a multi-billion dollar pet supplies industry, and life companions in a way they have not been previously.
The stories in this book are taken primarily from his upper-middle class community in New Jersey. We meet a recently divorced woman who received her husband’s German shepherd but doesn’t really want the dog; an intense investment banker and his untrained and unruly labrador; a lonely single woman who makes her dachshund her surrogate baby; and a club of divorcees and their dogs who meet together on a regular basis.
I enjoyed reading the stories, but the book did make me feel a little depressed in the end. There didn’t seem to be an overarching message to the book, except for: “Look at the ways we emotionally abuse our dogs!” Every person in this book was projecting emotions onto their dogs, making their dogs a mirror of their own personalities and anxieties. I guess this is what we all do, in some ways, but I really wanted the people in these stories to take a good, hard look at themselves. It’s time to train your dogs, people. It’s time to start talking to them and thinking of them as furry humans. I’m sure Katz himself felt this way about some of his subjects, but since he was maintaining a journalist’s objective distance, he wasn’t trying to reform their relationships.
If anything, this book is a good warning of what can happen when we expect too much from our dogs. Dogs do provide immense emotional comfort and joy, but we can’t expect them to be our therapists, husbands, pastors, or children. They’re dogs. Let them be dogs.