BOOKS: The New Work of Dogs & The Dogs of Bedlam Farm

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2004:

Two books by Jon Katz–
The New Work of Dogs:
Tending to life, love, and family
2003. 237 pages, paperback. $13.95.

The Dogs of Bedlam Farm:
An Adventure with Sixteen Sheep,
Three Dogs, Two Donkeys, and Me
2004. 260 pages, hardcover. $22.95.

Both from Random House (1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019).

 

“Bedlam” is defined by the Columbia Encyclopedia as “a place,
scene, or state of uproar and confusion.”
The term derives from a Cockney corruption of the name of the
Bethlehem Hospital, the most prominent mental institution in Britain
from as early as 1329, and definitely after 1403, until 1930.
From 1670 until 1770, Bedlam supported itself by collecting
admission fees from those who wished to view and perhaps torment the
lunatics. Among the first successes of the organized humane movement
in Britain was securing passage of the 1774 Madhouse Act. This
introduced medical inspection and oversight of madhouses, to try to
keep a fast-growing private madhouse industry from perpetuating the
abuses that occurred at Bedlam.

Perceiving how the Madhouse Act presaged the 1822 passage of
the first British animal protection law and the 1835 British ban on
dogfighting and cockfighting may be difficult in retrospect, but at
the time there was a direct linear relationship. Before Humanity
Dick Martin et al could halt animal fighting as entertainment, they
had to halt comparable mistreatment of humans who had been reduced to
animal status.
None of this has anything to do with The Dogs of Bedlam Farm,
while the relationship of sheep-farming to humane work may seem
equally obscure.
Jon Katz, however, is much better known as a dog trainer than as a
sheep farmer, as author of a column abut dogs for the online
magazine Slate, and as cohost of Dog Talk, a monthly Northeast
Public Radio program.
When Katz bought his small farm in upstate New York and moved
there with three border collies, his sheep, and a donkey, he
discovered that he had embarked on a life-altering experience.
Until then, despite his involvement with dogs, his life had
centered on writing news, commentary, and several successful
mystery novels pertaining to the introduction of the Internet to
mainstream life.
“What better place to test my notions about dogs and humans
than here, with border collies and a bunch of sheep? Could I learn
to be a better human? The four of us and our little band of animals
tucked away on a hillside through a glorious fall, the bitter
upstate winter, and a cold, muddy spring filled with lambing, could
probably find out,” Katz theorized.
Katz found out how rigorous and demanding farm life can be.
Enduring the winters, competing for a living against giant food
conglomerates and factory farms, small farmers survive through
hardiness, self-reliance, and occasional help from others in the
usually closely knit rural community.
Katz and his border collies found a useful role in the
farming community by helping others to solve various animal problems.
“Every few weeks, I got a call that began, ‘Are you the dog
guy?'”, Katz writes,
“‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘I’m the dog guy.’ And, as I proudly
announced to Paula (Katz’s wife), after a few months Orson (one of
the collies) and I had earned $80, several pies, and three dozen
free-range eggs.”
Katz writes with humor and insight into his own personality
defects. This is a touching book about self-realization and the
bond between some people and their dogs.
The Dogs of Bedlam Farm is the 12th book Katz has written.
His 11th is The New Work of Dogs, in which he argues that the roles
of dogs are evolving, and that providing emotional help to humans is
in truth a job, just as much as herding sheep or guarding property
was the job of dogs in the past.
Katz describes how dogs eased the pain and isolation of women
going through painful divorces and suffering terminal illness, a
young man in a tough, poor neighborhood, people who turn to their
dogs when they cannot talk to their families, and an ailing old man
who just needs company.
Katz also points out how some people find meaning in
otherwise empty lives by working to rescue dogs.
Cats likewise fill these roles for many people, but the
empathic and emotionally responsive nature of dogs especially well
equips them for the work.
Katz reminds readers what happens to companion dogs when the
human perception of need for them no longer exists, and that humans
have a moral obligation to remember their needs.
“It is important to grasp the truth of our relationship with
dogs,” Katz concluded, “for their sakes and ours. We need to
understand more about what we are asking them to do and why. Failing
to do that can put dogs, and our relationships with them, at risk.
If we ask too much of them they will suffer. We will become
disenchanted with them and, in some cases, fail to get the kind of
help we really need.” –Bev Pervan

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