Bedlam Farm Blog Journal by Jon Katz

29 May

Leadership And Dogs

by Jon Katz

Someone referred me to a Facebook page where a dog trainer was advising a woman with an aggressive and dominant puppy to piss in the dog’s food to curb his aggression.

It might sound extreme, he said, but it’s just a dog, it’s what they understand.

Even by the shallow standards of social media, this was a first for me. God bless vets, I thought. I’ve never known a dog who would understand that.

If the dog won’t eat the food, he added, just let him go hungry, he said, he will eventually give in.

In so doing, he would become more submissive. This, of course, is why I get snippy about social media vets who dispense lots of advice, but little wisdom. All morning, I thought of those poor dogs trying to eat urine-soaked food. Maybe the trainer should try it, so he can be less aggressive to dogs.

I get my advice from vets, they went to school for six years, owe tons of loan money, and invariably love animals – why else would you do it?

The peeing advice just seemed plain stupid to me, as well as cruel. To treat a dog like that is to surrender your authority, not establish it, and make the dog even more fearful, confused, and defensive.

That is the failure to train, not training.

Training is, at heart, a spiritual experience, not only about obedience or domination.

It is about establishing a healthy and clear and loving communication with a dog. Training is the language you use to talk to the dog and help him, or her understand how to live in an alien world.

Training is how our world makes sense to the dog, and gives him or her away to navigate it. I always remember that a good dog is a dog that doesn’t behave like a dog, and a bad dog is a dog that does behave like a dog. It isn’t easy for them.

I see my role as a dog owner as being about leadership and stewardship; I am the leader of the pack, not the boss of the dog, or the toughest dog. There’s a big difference.

There is a substantial mental proponent to asserting authority over a dog.

First, you have to mean it and project conviction and authority. That’s when I visualize, I picture what it is I want to happen.

Dogs are master readers of human emotions; if you think of your dog as abused and piteous and too fragile to be made to behave, you are doomed from the start.

If you think you can frighten or bully the dog into behaving (or piss your way to dominance), you have also set yourself up to fail.

I establish my leadership in many ways without pissing on their kibble.

Food is essential to dogs; it is the pathway to talking with them.

Before I put the food bowl down, I ask my dogs to sit and stay and wait. I do not ever let them rush out of the door ahead of me. I ask them to sit and stay until I release them with the command “okay” or “let’s go.”

One command is better, but I use two or three. They obey them all.

In general, I assert leadership by asking for something before the dogs get anything – a ride, a walk, a treat. My dogs get nothing for free; they are rewarded for everything they do that I ask them to do (I use small and healthy treats for reinforcement.)

Half the time, I don’t offer treats, I mix it up to keep them focused. Gifts become less frequent as the dogs mature.

I do not allow rough playing or barking or ball chasing in the house.

Dogs exist in part to please us, they will become the dogs we need if we let them.

If any of my dogs get excited, I toss a marrow bone into the crate and let them cool down. They love to go in their crates; there is always something good waiting for them.

But I need for my office and house to be peaceful, it is where I work.

Crates are an essential training tool, especially for excitable or aroused dogs; they are another way of asserting gentle and indirect – but enforced – authority. I am serious about commands.

I never give a command I can’t enforce, and when I give it, I don’t quit until the dog does it.

Commands have to mean something, or the dog will become what I call a “multiple choice dog,” they choose which commands they want to obey. It’s hard to go back and change that.

I use treats the way seal trainers do in aquariums – the constant promise of reward until the behavior becomes so rote treats become less necessary or not necessary at all.

I always try to give my dogs a chance to succeed, not fail, and although I frequently lose my temper and shout,  I am mostly gentle and consistent.

My dogs know I love them and won’t hurt them, they don’t pay much attention to my outbursts, as when they eat donkey or sheep droppings.

Like Maria, they are not unduly moved by my moods.

But I need to be self-aware. Before any commands, I stop and think. Am I calm? Clear? Patient? Training out not to be tense or angry. I don’t need to tell the dog I am the boss, like any good leader, I just need to be clear and consistent.

If I’m in a bad mood, I don’t train my dogs.

Dogs hate confusion and uncertainty; they are renowned creatures of habit, they don’t want any trouble, they just want to eat, sleep, run, sniff, and know what is expected of them. They are creatures of habit, lovers of tradition. They will happily do the same thing at the same time every day of their lives, providing they get what they need – food, exercise, work, and love.

Puppies need to play; it is a huge part of their learning and socialization experience. Dog playgroups can be very helpful for that. Adult dogs are usually practicing hunting and killing when they play. I throw balls and such once or twice a day and always outside.

I avoid dog playgroups. It’s a good way for dogs to get aroused, sick, or bitten, and an excellent opportunity to meet neurotic and over-protective pet owners.

Sorry. I know there are excellent playgroups. I just don’t like them or see the need for them, especially in the country. The ones I’ve seen in New York City tend to horrify me.

Since my dogs don’t eat or play or go outside without permission and are asked to sit, lie down, stay or wait five or six times a day, they come to see me as their leader. I am also the source of good things – food, rides,  walks, treats.

I usually walk Zinnia and/or Fate in the woods once a day. That tires them out and gives them a chance to smell interesting things and eat revolting things and throw them up later.

We have lots of fun together, I am always overjoyed to see them, and they are delighted to see me.

When a dog is trained, he or she is calm and safe and proper training is perhaps the best way to bond with your dog, and for the two of you to understand and trust one another.

Once a year or so,  when the dogs get crazy or loud, I do what I call “the bear,” I road and stand over them and act like a big bear. Their eyes go wide, and they look at each other. But I get the feeling I have established my authority.

This is what I do when a dog blows me off or ignores my command. Nothing, for several minutes. Then I try again.

If I am distracted or pressured, or very busy, I yell. That works do. But it should be rare. My dogs know me well enough to know I will never hurt them. Puppies sometimes are not that secure. Trust comes before training.

Stewardship is a different thing than leadership.  The dog benefits from it but doesn’t need to be trained for it.

I am responsible for the dogs and their well being.

My job is to see that they are fed, loved, sheltered, and healthy, never in unnecessary pain. I am always their advocate; it is my job to see that their lives are not prolonged out of my selfishness or self-interest.

I see my life with my dogs as a contract.

I will take good care of them and show them how to live safely in the world and peacefully with us. My dogs have never chewed anything other than their toys, quickly become housebroken, are quiet in the house, and my office.

I don’t believe in unconditional love.

My love for dogs is not a given; it isn’t automatic. I have to earn their love; they need to earn mine. They have the right to be loved, fed, trained, exercised, and sheltered. To go to the vet when they are sick, and to eat healthy food recommended by my vet.

In return, I ask that they respect my time, my work, and our home. I ask that they do what I ask them to do, and I insist that they never harm a human or another dog. Those are conditions; my love is not unconditional.

A dog that harms other dogs or people cannot be my dog. When my very beloved border collie Orson bit three people in one day, one of them a child on the neck, my love turned to responsibility.

He could not function safely in the world. A platoon of doctors and me failed.

Dogs need time and space to be dogs.

They can be crazy and playful outside, but our house is a quiet working space, and mostly, they respect that. When they don’t, they get time in their crates to meditate and settle.

They appreciate their crates and often go into them to rest. Dogs are den animals; they love small and enclosed spaces.

People who think crates are cruel are depriving themselves and their dogs of a great way to settle, feel safe, and control training. Dogs in crates to not wreck property,  get in fights, grab food off of counters.

If you think your dog is a small and vulnerable child, you will never have or know the pleasures of a well-trained animal, one with whom you can live in love and harmony.

So that’s my idea of leadership. Everyone does it differently. There is more than one way to do it. Every human is different; every dog is different; every environment is different; every litter experience is different; every house is different.

Unfortunately, there are so many inbred and poorly bred dogs circulating now, almost ever dog is a crapshoot. It is so important to choose carefully and not let anyone else tell you how to get a dog.

That is one reason I went to such lengths to find an exceptionally ethical and diligent breeder for Zinnia. Her excellent breeding shines through every day.

And I lucked out with Bud, a rescue dog from Arkansas, a loving and feisty character.

But I never tell anyone else how to get a dog, or that there is only one way to get a dog. What a useless excuse for advice. I write this piece because lunatics –  like the one who pees in dog food – run amok online.

I insist on being my guru, I don’t need $30 books from Cesar Milan or want them.

I wish the same for you.

29 May

Flo At The Bathroom Winow

by Jon Katz

When I step out of the shower in the morning, there is usually a cat in the window, watching me and keeping me company.

Flo is the cat who broke through my indifference to cats, she simply seduced me, patiently and persistently, for two years before I gave in.

Over the years, Flo and I have deepened our relationship.

When the wind blows the curtain open, I see she is keeping an eye on me, keeping me company, her mailbox with a pillow – her favorite resting spot – is just outside the bathroom window.

When I went outside a few minutes later, I found the remains of a chipmunk,  most of which she had eaten. I love the fine line cats maintain between ferocity and affection.

Flo keeps an eye on me.

28 May

Will Everything Change? I Think Not…

by Jon Katz

If you learn anything as a reporter, it’s to be wary of apocalyptic predictions.

I think journalists are pretty good at reporting what’s happening now, but they tend to lose their heads and perspective when it comes to preparing us for the future.

You might have noticed, as I have, we are prepared for very few of the really big things that happen to us, and that when there is trouble, there is a nation of academics, book writers, pundits, scientists and various “experts” lying in wait to get on TV and predict the end of something – like life as we know it.

In just the past few days, I’ve seen a score of interviews, articles, think tank gnomes predicting unimaginable change at every stage and level of life, even as the past few weeks have reminded us that the future always surprises us, it has never yet happened as we were told it would happen.

As a reporter, I learned that apocalyptic and alarming predictions and breathless warnings bring good ratings, good profits, much panic, book sales, and hand-wringing.

It seems to be human nature to anticipate the worst. Nobody would bother to watch TV if they said everything was fine.

Most of the time, nobody pays any attention to these breathless prophets and gurus. When there is a great tragedy, they come rushing out of the darkness like bats awakened in caves.

Some of them make good sense, but you may notice that the best scientists are very careful not to tell us they know the future.

Nobody predicted Mr. Trump would be president, many people predicted at least two million Americans could die at the hands of Pandemic. Governor Andrew Cuomo has said a hundred times that nobody predicted what would happen accurately because nobody knew what would happen.

Remember all the hysteria about China? New Yorkers got the virus from Europeans, says the governors. Nobody knew, nobody could have known.

We were all walking in the dark.

I read just yesterday that most colleges would go out of business, restaurants as we know them would vanish, cities would empty out, nobody would go to work in offices again, movie theaters would close, Broadway and all theater would disappear, cities would be abandoned in droves and go bankrupt,  we’d never see our doctors again,  schools would go virtual, and we would be wearing masks for the rest of our lives.

I don’t believe most of those things will happen, at least not for forever.

The coronavirus was serious enough, it doesn’t need to be dramatized and made into a Dystopian nightmare. Sometime within the next year or so, somebody will produce and market a vaccine, and while a lot of things will change, a lot of things will stay the same.

Once people are no longer frightened of getting sick, they will quickly return to normal life.

In fact, much of life will return to normal.  We will love the things we have always loved, and do the things we have always done. With some important new twists.

What makes more sense to me is that the Pandemic will accelerate a lot of changes in business and retailing and health care that were already in great flux.

Young people will want to go to college and be with other young people away from their parents so they can have sex, have fun, and prepare for the adult world. Colleges will still be ready to take their money.

Does anybody think all those gorgeous dorms at Yale and Harvard and thousand other schools will just be torn down and abandoned because mostly old people and poor people are sick? This is America.

Yes, malls are in trouble, they have been in trouble for years. And marketers know that demise of big, brick-and-mortar department stores has been coming for years and will pave the way for countless new, creative, and idiosyncratic businesses we haven’t even dreamed of.

They had decades to change, few of them did.

Online shopping is the future for many products and has been for some years. The Pandemic has sped that along, for sure Amazon, Target,  Google, Apple, and Walmart can’t count the money fast enough. Amazon is hiring 250,000 new workers.

The Pandemic has been good to them.

People will want to go out to eat because take-out and always eating and cooking at home is boring. Most people will still want to go to offices to know their bosses and co-workers and get out of their homes and into the world, meet clients and associates, see different things.

Kids will go back to school because they will want to, and more importantly because their parents will insist on it. So will the teachers’ unions and desperate mothers, who have been pressed back into double duty as workers and housewives.

For all the chatter about the virtual classroom, I  haven’t heard a word about who will be taking care of all of those kids while they are at home? Nobody will, they will be back in school, as they have been for centuries. A teacher/friend told me that one benefit will be that sick children can still go on Zoom and get their lessons.

“But otherwise,” she said, “it will be pretty much the same once a vaccine comes.”

Video conferencing makes sense for some doctors in some situations. But not in all situations. Seeing people in person is also considered essential for practicing good and intuitive medicine.

Nobody wants to live their lives in a room looking at iPhone photos or Zoom screams. You can’t heal wounds or do surgery or tell brutal truths on cellphones.

Humans have never wanted to live in that way.

Even the happiest couples I know would go bonkers at the thought of never leaving their homes spouses seven days a week.  I would and I love my wife dearly.

Most suburbs and heartland towns are just not as interesting as cities,  don’t offer much to do, have little good health care or shopping, that’s why people fled them in the first place.

There is perhaps some truth to all of these hyper-ventilated predictions.

But perspective is critical in situations like this, and media is a double-edged sword. It will inform you and drive you mad at the same time. Politicians are generally useless when it comes to the future. It is not something (unlike fund-raising) that they need to know.

I’d remember this:

Nobody ever got on TV predicting that everything will be the same.

No cable news channel ever made money by denying the imminent collapse of our democracy or of Western Civilization.

No politician ever gained votes by saying nothing needed to be done urgently.

Our culture is Dystopian by nature and culture, it is not known for being calm, reassuring, or even remotely accurate.

Not a single national journalist predicted the rise of Donald Trump. And here they all are four years later, unabashed or humbled, and assuring us every single thing in our lives will change.

I’ll be honest. I have no idea what the future will be like, I would bet a lot on the notion that our lives will change a lot less than we are being told it will change.

My own experiences tell me this – that everything will change is not true, or even remotely true. The fact that it is perhaps true to some degree true in some instances is not especially dramatic or transformative. Dystopia makes for better novels and movies than predictions.

If you live in rural America right now,  or in many cities, you just learned once again to be careful of predictions. Experts sometimes have to spout worst-case scenarios just to get people’s attention away from their cellphones and Facebook scribblings.

They probably saved a lot of lives that way, by warning of the worst and preparing for it. I don’t begrudge them that.  But enough is enough. The future will take care of itself, it doesn’t need us to try and foresee it at the moment..

I believe the governors did the right thing by shutting us down, they had no real idea what was happening either. But it’s worth remembering that almost nothing that happened as a result of the coronavirus was what we were told was going to happen.

I see no reason why the future will be much different. In a year or two, I believe me and my wife and daughter and granddaughter will be living in and looking at a world that will be quite recognizable to us.

I read in the Kabbalah recently that God told one of the angels that when he finally gets sick and tired of humans and decides to bring life on the earth to an and,  there will be no wise men around to predict it.

Nobody, he said,  will see it coming.

28 May

A Lonely Petunia And Faith

by Jon Katz

Two weeks ago, I asked our mason to come and repair the back porch steps, he replaced some crumbling concrete. I asked him to embed my faith stone into the concrete, hopefully as a gift for future generations.

Yesterday, a petunia was bumped out of a hanging flower arrangement and fell to the concrete floor.

I moved it over and put it next to the faith stone, I thought it would make a nice still life photograph.  It was posed, the flower didn’t fall right on the stone.

But somehow, I thought the two went together.

28 May

Caught In The Middle

by Jon Katz

In the current political atmosphere, it is assumed by media and most citizens that everybody on the earth who has a thought must be on one of only two sides, liberal or conservative.

Wendell Berry, the farmer and author I consider to be a brother from another mother, writes that “it doesn’t matter that neither of these labels signifies much in the way of intellectual responsibility or that both are paralyzed in the face of the overpowering issue of our time: the  destruction of land and people, of life itself, by means either economic or military.”

Failure doesn’t matter in this environment. It’s the perpetual arguing that counts. That way, nobody can ever accomplish anything, which is sort of the point.

People who put labels on other people or themselves, are to me, about as thoughtful and exciting as branded cattle.

Once the label goes on or is accepted, it will define a person for the rest of life. I feel trapped in the middle, like one of those horror movies where all the walls are closing in at once.

The two-label system means that roughly half the people in the country can dismiss anything anybody says if he or she ever takes a position that is “conservative” or “liberal.”  And every bad or dull idea is one or the other, and none of them can see the light.

The labels expand all the time – red, blue, left, right, and are mindlessly embraced by the media, since lazy journalists can tag somebody without talking to them or doing any thinking at all.

Berry got it right; these labels represent the absence of thinking or intellectual responsibility for any idea.  No great thinker in world history would ever have permitted him or herself to be tagged in that way.

Would you call Socrates or St. Augustine or Plata a “liberal” or “conservative?”

Writing about President Trump last week, I saw one post that warned others that “he (me) is a leftist. He is not with Trump.”  He was warning his friends to make sure I was ignored.

Just seconds later, someone else called me a “racist and a person of white privilege” for suggesting that rural Americans are suffering as much or more than any other American social group other than Native-Americans.

She was also cautioning others to flee my blog, lest someone read something they didn’t agree with.

The American mind is shrinking before our very eyes; just spend some time on Twitter or Facebook. I hope Trump wins his battle to curb their power, although he would almost surely be the first to regret it (which is why it will never happen.)

Our political dialogue is debased, reduced to a kind of Middle School playground with name-calling and bullying, an increasingly dumb culture of wishful thinking, of absolute “positions,” oversimplified and often false declarations.

Or as Berry once put it, “no thought, no loss, no tragedy, no strenuous effort, no bewilderment, no hard choices.”

When a label goes on, nobody has to think anymore; it is all done for them. To be on the left or the right is to surrender or forego one of the most precious and unique things a human being is given: the power to think for ourselves.

Except when I think of branded cows, I can never figure out why people would do this, or why our society would accept it.

The left and right have produced a vast online archive of utterly forgettable messages I call “airballs,” because there is nothing in them, they have little or no effect, and they are forgotten as instantly as they are written.

How many great quotes from the left or the right do you imagine will show up on the statues and marble walls of the future?

Depending on the issues, I quite often disagree with both of these two ways of thought that have drained almost all vitality out of American politics.

I most often disagree with them when they invoke the power and authority of the government to enforce the moral responsibilities of individual citizens.

I have no idea what label I can be given from that position, neither the left nor the right seems to have taken up the issue, and both are happy to enable and exploit it when it serves their purpose.

Between the two alleged ideologies or philosophies which we call liberal or conservative, people in the middle – people like me – are standing on islands shrinking every day from the rising waters of narrow-mindedness. The water is almost up to my neck.

The middle ground is disappearing and barely exits. If you think in public at all,  you will join the ranks of all the other docile animals; you will be branded. Somewhere up there, Big Brother is peeing with joy.

I keep writing that I don’ t understand this, but Berry, one of my free-thinking heroes,  has given me a way to think about it.

The middle ground, writes Berry in his book Our Only World, “is the ground once occupied by communities and families whose coherence and authority have no been destroyed, with the connivance of both sides, by the economic determinations of the corporate industrialists. The fault of both sides is that, after accepting and abetting the dissolution of the necessary structures of family and community as an acceptance “price of progress,” they turn to the government to fill the vacancy, or they allow the government to be sucked into the vacuum.”

Having gutted rural and industrial America, and much of the middle class (along with Native Americans, who were gutted years ago), the left and the right between them make sure to turn each of these groups against each other.

Poor working people believe that President Trump is the solution, not the problem. How could that happen? In politics, most people eat what they are fed, especially if the menu is someone to envy or hate.

The idea is to persuade us that we have choices and that the real enemies are each, That’s why we don’t get together and turn on them.

Without a left or a right, auto workers, Native-Americans, African-American service workers, underpaid women, and displaced white factory workers might just band together and go after the one percent, who, according to the Federal Reserve, control 35.6 percent of the total wealth of the country.

On paper, Appalachia and inner-city Chicago are the same places.

As it is, they are too busy hating one another to talk much or think much.

By the way, that is also the primary reason that someone like  Donald Trump gets elected.  People are so angry and frustrated they literally can’t see straight.

As long as we embrace a left and a right, we stalemate ourselves and people can no longer act on behalf of their own best interests.

Yet we all do know that something is wrong, even though the two-label system ensures we will not agree on just what it is. So in 2016, the country sought radical “change.” In 2020 we almost certainly will seel radical “normalcy.” By 2024, we will need some radical change again, because nothing will really have changed at all.

If this makes you dizzy, that’s the point. One half gets to hate the other, and call them names. That’s what labels are for. And the old cliche is truer than ever: the rich just get richer and richer. Can they possibly control any more of our wealth than they do now?

The tough part is that we don’t ever get anywhere this way. We just keep taking turns. And we can always blame everyone but ourselves.

Photo: Zinnia in the wildflowers.

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