People and their pets make for an interesting study and a compelling book, and Jon Katz spent an entire year with dogs and their owners in research for this latest offering. In it he explores the relationships people form with their dogs and how that reflects personal needs. Writing about how different current relationships with dogs are compared to those in the times when a dog’s work consisted of hunting, protecting, or herding, Katz says, “We live in closer emotional proximity to dogs, I think, because we need them more than our grandfathers did. Because we are increasingly discontented, disaffected, isolated, needier.”
His interest in exploring this subject was piqued following the publication of his last book, A Dog Year, in which he chronicled his relationship with his two labs and then his two border collies. Researchers at the University of Kentucky pointed out to him that the book was a classic example of attachment theory, which holds that the degree to which we did or didn’t attach to our parents in infancy shapes our relationships and sense of security in later life.
Intrigued by this theory, Katz met with owners and their dogs in a variety of settings to see if there is any truth in it. From the Divorced Dog Club to the old man who didn’t even want a dog until his daughter gave him Penny, one thing became increasingly clear. People do indeed turn to dogs to satisfy some emotional needs. It was also clear that some dogs appear to have an instinctive response to that need.
This was upheld by the example of Joey and Devon, one of Katz’s border collies. Joey is severely mentally retarded and had been noncommunicative for some time. When he saw Devon at a sheep-herding exhibit, he was excited and wanted to pet the dog. Devon, who was normally shy and unpredictable around strangers, responded immediately to the boy, jumping into his lap and sitting there for a full half hour.
Later, Katz took the dog to visit Joey at the residential center where he lived. The boy was thrilled and Katz was amazed:
“It was startling to see this excitable creature, a dog who normally wouldn’t leave my side, sitting as if fastened to the wheelchair of a disabled boy who suddenly loved him. The two seemed to connect in ways I couldn’t explain. Over a couple of minutes, Joey quieted, a bright and happy smile radiating from his face. Devon lay almost immobile, as comfortable and as calm as I’d ever seen him. I felt sure he knew he was working. He seemed to be bringing as much focus and determination to this visit as Homer (his other border collie) did to herding sheep.”
Despite that statement, Katz is reluctant to say unequivocally that a dog can truly sense an emotional need and respond to it in the same way an instinct impels a dog to herd a sheep. Even when relating the story of Donna, a young woman with cancer, and her dog Harry, Katz held to the side of caution. The relationship between Donna and her little Welsh Corgi was deep and strong and he was almost as attentive to her as a person. Donna referred to him as her “heart. He makes me smile, keeps me company, gets me off my butt.”
Classic tales of dog heroes makes some people want to accept that the Corgi was like a miniature Lassie, but Katz believes that we will never know since we can’t get into the mind of a dog and find out.
Written with the same strength of style that made A Dog Year so popular, this book will appeal to dog lovers and those who love a dog-lover. It helps make some sense of the sometimes complex connections, and Katz captures the essence of dogs and people with vivid wordage and a true sense of story. The only place the book drags is in the opening chapter that deals with the history and social structure of Montclair Township in New Jersey, which Katz dubs Dogville USA. That could have been handled in a few short paragraphs and allowed the reader to move on to the people and their dogs, which is the true test of the attachment theory.