Review: The New Work of Dogs

The New Work of Dogs.

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.

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5 thoughts on “Review: The New Work of Dogs

  1. I read this book a while back and remember liking it. Katz reports the stories as illustrations but you’re right – he is not there nor in this book to train the people or their dogs. I don’t remember if in this book he speaks of his pockets overflowing with treats for every training opportunity but I hope so. I enjoy his books – I remind myself to take them as they are: a man whose life was literally transformed by adopting a Border Collie in the suburbs and who is now a member of pet trainers (can’t recall the acronym). After finding his books, I read them voraciously and in order, watching a person grow in knowledge and prejudice about training his dogs – willing to open himself up but drawing the line at harsh methods.

  2. It always seems that when publications excerpt Jon Katz’s books, they choose the sappiest chapters. It’s probably because those get the best crowd reaction. And while his books can tend toward sap, they aren’t all sap.
    I would highly recommend A Dog Year and A Good Dog, as in both, you can see Katz himself transform in the way those profiled in The New Work of Dogs don’t.

  3. I’ve read one Katz book before, “A Dog Year”, and I didn’t find it overly sappy at all. Though when it comes to dogs, my sap tolerance meter is probably set very high. I really like his voice. He comes from place of exploration that appeals to me.

    I loved Knapp’s Pack of Two, just finished reading it recently, in fact. If this one is at all similar, then it is definitely worth my checking out!

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