30 September

The Messages Of Dogs

by Jon Katz

As I’ve written before, I believe that some dogs are spirit animals. They guide us through a particular passage of life, and they leave when they are ready.

I’ve been studying dogs for decades now, as well as living with them, and one of the most beautiful things about dogs is that we can tell our own story, and divine our own individual meaning as it applies to our lives.

Because dogs are mysterious, even mystical beings, and for all of our hubris and arrogance, we know so little about them.

We know precious little about the interior lives of dogs – how they think, what they feel, what they see, and understand, what they hope for.  The honest scholars of dogs –  Frans De Waal, James Serpell –  freely admit this.

It is not the most lucrative position to take, as we can see on Amazon.

Many dog people don’t agree with me about what we know; they insist they do know what dogs are feeling and thinking, and more power to them. I love not knowing, I love dogs because they are not like us, not because they are.

From what I’ve seen and believe, dogs are alien beings; we are just beginning to understand them after all these thousands of years. In recent years, they have come to mean something different to human beings; their new work is tending to and supporting our emotional lives.

That’s a significant change from hunting with us and protecting our caves.

Sometimes they mess us up; sometimes we mess them up. Sometimes they lift us up; sometimes we lift them up.

I believe that every dog that comes into my life has a message for me, and the messages from my dogs have changed, enriched, defined and challenged my life. I think every dog is different, just as every human who loves a dog is different.

Julius and Stanley, my first Labs, came to show me that I could be a writer, work alone, and write books without a day job. They were my first spirit guides in the country, sharing a year in my cabin that would have been almost unbearably lonely and unnerving without them. Their message was that I could survive working alone, being my own boss.

Orson came to lead me out of the desert that was my suburban life, and my troubled existence. He got me to sheep herding, to moving to the country, to bringing sheep and donkeys. In a sense, he was the architect of my new life.

Rose’s message was that me, a city  boy who had never set foot on a farm, could handle living on a remote farm with 90 acres, four barns, and sheep, donkeys, barn cats and dogs all by myself and survive lambing, sheepherding, brutal winters and blizzards, loneliness and challenge for six years. I thought she was my own Buck from Call Of The Wild; she helped me to feel safe and secure there.

Frida came to bring me to Maria; she was the vehicle through which I earned Maria’s trust, and eventually her willingness to share her life with me.

Frida was her spirit dog, and then my nemesis, and then my friend. She and Maria both mistrusted men, and for good reasons. Once Frida accepted me into her life, Maria also did. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Lenore’s message was to keep love alive. That was the reason I called her the Love Dog. She is what you want in a human, my therapist told me. She was right Lenore kept love alive in me when its flame was flickering, she gave me the hope and inspiration to look for love, she was there when I found it.

Bud’s message was to remember the needy and vulnerable dogs as well as the needy and vulnerable humans. Rescuing a vibrant spirit like Bud is a wonderful way to get a dog, even if it isn’t the only way.

Red’s message was to bring me to this new phase of my life, he was the transition dog, from my life as a shepherd and animal writer to the Mansion, Bishop Maginn, and the Army of Good. Red was my passport and my guide and companion into this new world. He paved the way for this vibrant new chapter in my life. The right therapy dog is a teacher, a window into empathy and compassion, a reflection of what I need as well as what others need.

What a rich legacy.

And now Zinnia, I am not sure yet what her message is, it might be years before it is clear or revealed to me.

She may be my last dog or one of them.

She may continue the therapy dog work of Red in her way, or guide me to some different outcome or direction. It would be wrong to guess. Stay with me to see.

I trust my dogs.

Each one has marked a passage in my life.

Each one led me to a different place in my life. Each one made me a better human being.

They taught me to listen as well as talk, think as well as assume, be humble in the face of these alien creatures and admit what I do not know.

They taught me empathy, patience, acceptance, and respect for the other. And they urged me to be happy and live by my own measure, not the dictates of others.

(The piece was not published before I got a bunch of messages asking “what about Fate?”, and “what about Izzy?” Why not add Homer or Lucky, while we’re at it?

I’m taking a deep breath but responding. Fate is a wonderful dog but she did not alter my life in the way Orson or Red did. She might yet, or her meaning might become clear to me one day.

If I did get such a message from her, I would have included it in the piece. The list is not about dogs I love, but about dogs that have guided me into altering the path of my life. 

Every dog I have ever had has not done that.

Every dog is not the same, every dog is not a spirit dog, some dogs have messages that aren’t clear for a long time, some are great dogs who are not about messages. And thanks for the lovely comments I did  receive about this piece.)



  1. Jon you never fail to amaze me with your postings about dogs. I am a ‘dog person’, well, I like cats, horses, sheep, goats and cows but dogs are my life. And what you say about dogs being in our lives for the time they are needed to be there resonates with me and I try to remember this, because right now, I’m likely on my two last dogs. I’m no spring chicken, over eighty, I have two Australian Shepherds, 7 & 8 yrs. of age. The eight year old drives me crazy with her barking, I’ve bought a beeper bark thing, she’s still barking. Meg, my 7 year old has my heart & soul. She is part of me. She is my life. Your words give me strength in facing my future which I hope means I’ll live long enough to see these guys into old age, and knowing too, dogs can die, especially of hemangiosarcoma, which I’ve experienced in two of my Aussies and they can be gone overnight, or in a week’s time. Loving dogs is easy, loosing them is not. Thank you for your gift of words, your books, your blog.
    Sandy Proudfoot, in Canada

  2. “I believe that every dog that comes into my life has a message for me, and the messages from my dogs have changed, enriched, defined and challenged my life. I think every dog is different, just as every human who loves a dog is different”
    Jon, I thank you for your words here, for the books you’ve written on your dogs and animals, for the honesty of your life and writing about it. I have not seen the movie but somehow, I must find it one day. To have left all that you did behind would have been very difficult to do, not only for your then-family but for yourself. It took courage and takes courage to make changes in our lives, but your statement above, keeps me centred on my own two Australian Shepherds, my last two given my age of eighty-two. One is a barker and drives me bananas, the other, is quiet, mischievous and my heart and soul. Why I have been given a barker at this late stage in my dog-life I don’t know but she is sure a challenge for me, the other, well, we are one. Thank you again for your sensitive writings and encouragement for others to reconsider their own thoughts and perceptions.
    Sandy Proudfoot, Canada

  3. Amazing piece! Thank you. I will be thinking about all the dogs we’ve had and have now….taking the time to look back on my life and see the patterns that have been woven through it and where my beloved dog’s came and went. I don’t do that often enough. Thank you so much.

  4. Sorry my message got posted twice, last night your site was asleep and I had to post it twice, then didn’t see it…so posted again this morning…but the words are the same, the feeling, the same, thank you so much for writing as you do about the animals that have come into your life. Putting a dog down is something I’ll never get used to, even if they are old and/or ill and this is the most humane thing you can do for them. It leaves me feeling very depressed for awhile. Dogs are such a strong part of connecting with humans, they follow us around, they sleep with us sometimes (Meg is snuggled into my back many a night), they travel with us in our cars, they are there for us every moment of the day they share with us. I’m looking forward to your new pup if this works out for you and the breeder feels the pup is right for you, that’s what good breeders do…they are careful as to whom and with whom they place their pups.
    Sorry again for the duplication, now ‘triplication’
    Sandy Proudfoot

  5. Jon-You’ve referred to one of these books before but I thought of these 3 when I read about your dogs.
    In MEDICINE CARDS by Jamie Sams and David Carson, the Dog card symbolizes Loyalty. When I drew my medicine cards for the first time over 25 years ago, Dog was one of the 9 totem animals that I drew.
    In Ted Andrews ANIMAL-SPEAK, Dog stands for Faithfulness and Protection.
    In Brad Steiger’s TOTEMS, he refers to all 3 of these qualities as being attributed to the dog.

  6. Sandy
    I was 78 when I wrote Jon about considering the purchase of a German Shepherd pup. Jon suggested my heard was telling me what to do, & my brain will tell me how to do it. I bought the Shepherd pup! I adore her, and while I live with fact that I may someday need to rehome her, for now she is happily living with my household of creatures & seems to pace herself to accommodate my energy , so thank you Jon and enjoy your animals Sandy !

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