Listening to Dogs: How to be Your Own Training Guru by Jon Katz
Pros: Personalized training philosophy offered, Familiar goofs and dog moments we all share
Cons: Not a dog training book, Possibly not suitable for first-time dog owners, Last few chapters wander, Not much that’s new
Years ago trainers recommended establishing pack order when working with our dogs. A few went so far as to have the alpha family member mark boundaries with his/her urine. Later a friendlier form of training, positive behavior reinforcement seemed effective yet gentler. So many variations exist today that first-time dog owners become confused and clueless. Author Jon Katz offers a different perspective in his book, Listening to Dogs: How to be Your Own Training Guru. This isn’t exactly a dog training book, it’s not something I would recommend for a first-time dog owner, but he does provide something for reflection.
My relationship with Katz’s books has been a love/hate bond. I read everything he writes including a few books I treasure and a couple I’d prefer to fling across the room in protest. In Listening to Dogs Katz doesn’t pretend to be a trainer or a guru, he claims he avoids questions on how he trains his dogs, he suggests that what works for his dogs on his farm probably won’t work for you and your dog in your house/yard/apartment. He suggests that trainers such as Cesar Millan know how to work with their dogs in given situations but when dog owners attempt his methods they frequently fail — and then assume they’re incapable of training their dogs. Most of the books seem to have “little to do with the lives of most dog lovers and owners” – another reason they search for mystical dog-training gurus.
Katz states that “dog training has been one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. It is not, for me, an exercise in authority, a matter of technique, a rigid theory that smothers thinking, individuality, and the very personal nature of our relationships with these animals.” It is my interpretation based upon reading this book and all of his previous books that he has grown like the rest of us in learning how to work with our dogs. His observations over the years are based on close relationships with his furry companions which has taught him to respect them and that they will in turn respect him. Practice and observations have also provided him with confidence in working with his dogs.
Katz offers a few suggestions on how he approaches some basic training. He teaches his dogs how to live in their world (his and the dogs’s world). Katz is a delightful storyteller but he almost completely lost me (he was at risk from being flung across the room) when recounting a moment with a mousetrap and some cheese to discourage a golden retriever from inappropriate behavior. Later I completely agreed with him when he said to never give a dog anything for free — to always make them work for the reward, whether it’s food, play or something they enjoy. He keeps crates for his dogs when he’s gone to prevent them from getting into mischief. He claims he doesn’t have the time or energy to use some of the popular strategies so instead he applies his own versions.
These customized strategies, however, come from his many years of experiences with his dogs. I firmly believe that my own relationship with a very special dog is because I have tremendous respect for her as she does for me. I’ve never had to raise my voice at her (she’s a Labrador), I allow her to examine items when we walk so she understands her community, she receives praise and rewards for doing what is asked, and I spend a lot of time studying her body language as she does mine. Years of following the advice of pack theorists never produced such a sweet dog. Instead, I agree with his motto for training, “Dignity with dogs.”
Katz uses Listening to Dogs as a vehicle for a refreshing and exploratory look at the booming dog training business and dog training book industry. He states early that like “most American dog lovers, my bookshelves were lined with hundreds of dollars of books on training dogs.” (My own is stuffed with dog training books as well as great stories including all of Katz’s.) But when push came to shove, none of the books on his shelves offered practical suggestions for his Labrador Lenore. He needed his own strategies and for most of the last few years of working with dogs, he has been his own guru.
Practice and Practice, Communicate and Observe
Listening to Dogs begins tight. The brief stories are typically heartwarming offering insight into the relationships he shares with his dogs. This is not a dog training book, but rather a book of his personal philosophy that offers different perspectives. The brief book (64 pages) begins to wander toward the end and occasionally he pontificates on topics such as the rainbow bridge or emotionalizing animals and attachment theories. Several valuable take-aways make this worth reading. It’s a fast read, the pictures of his various dogs are delightful for fans, and he makes training sound positive and personally rewarding. It is and it’s an experience everyone should have but if you’re new, read this with the knowledge that you still want to learn how to train your dog to the basics and that skill will come from another source AND it will mature with practice.