10 June

“Are The Children Affectionate With Tina?” How My Amish Neighbors Treat Their Animals, They Let Them Be

by Jon Katz

The Amish have taught me several things; one is that there are many ways to do things, not only my way. It’s a good lesson to learn in such a judgemental, divided, and aggrieved nation.

Everyone seems to feel entitled to judge everyone else, especially if they can hide behind a computer to do it.

Some people want me to attack the Amish; some thank me for defending them, some think I love them too much. I like how much dust I’ve stirred up. This is why God created writers.

I don’t accept other people’s judgments of me; I’m not comfortable with any of this labeling, really. Mostly, I want to describe my new neighbors; they landed on my doorstep, a gift from the heavens for a writer. I write what I see, not what I am told to see or what other people saw.

They are a fascinating community. I don’t tell other people what to do; I don’t judge people too much unless they are part of the nasty mob despoiling our country, mostly on the Internet.

Yet another animal rights activist said on my blog this morning that it is well known that “millions of Amish keep their dogs in filthy places.” Since there aren’t millions of Amish, I took this as something of a distortion.

My neighbors, the Millers, are Amish, and they have no puppy mills or animals in filthy places. They don’t even have filthy places.

So I can only speak for them and what I have learned from them. And that’s a lot, especially when it comes to animals.

Like the Republican Party, some elements of the animal rights movement are practitioners of the Big Lie.

If your interest is in railing about puppy mills and abused horses, you’ll need to go somewhere else. I’ve learned again and again to be careful about believing what animal rights groups say and claim.

I’ve heard them lie so often and so brazenly that I have no trust left for them. And I’m really down on liars these days.

But I love watching Moise and his family with their animals. In a surprising way, they harken back to the days of Jack London, when there was a powerful spiritual connection between people and their dogs, a simple one. They simply existed next to one another, without all the trappings of the capitalist world – toys, expensive vets, treats, gourmet food, beds, and baby talk.

There was a purity to that, to letting nature take its own course. Dogs have been serving humans for thousands of years. They don’t need to be bribed or coddled or trained to do it.

This makes sense for people who wish to be simple and plain. Freedom and work is the basis for the Amish relationship with their dogs, not love and manipulation.

Most of you want to know what Cindy is asking in her message to me today:

Are the children affectionate with Tina?” asked Cindy. “I am curious since the family is not demonstrative, but Tina gives you a hug every time you come over.”

It’s a good question and an important one.

I’ve been writing about Tina, an Amish dog up the road whose paw was sawed off in an accident. The Millers embraced her and took her in; she is their farm dog now, a heeler mix of some kind; she is very much a family dog.

As I wrote yesterday, I’ve figured out that her work on the farm is watching the children, following them around all day as they move about the farm or do their chores. The very young children are mostly given the run of the farm and are encouraged to move about freely.

But they have a great working dog to watch over them and make a lot of noise when they wander too far or to the wrong place.

Other readers are still in shock from learning that the Amish farmer cut off Tina’s paw when it got stuck in a gas-powered saw and didn’t rush her to the vet, he treated the wound himself, and she was running around two days later.

Several vets wrote me to point out the farmer almost certainly saved Tina’s life since she would have bled to death in the time it took to get to a vet and hops around the big farm easily on her three good legs.

The interesting thing for me is not the issue of animal abuse (why don’t the people e-mailing me get off their asses and go to Ohio and stop these awful crimes. It’s tougher than sending e-mails but more meaningful).

For me, it’s the very different yet effective way the Millers and other Amish families I’ve observed around here treat and train and live with their animals. There is a lot for me to think about and learn from it.

When I first saw Tina, I wondered how she was treated; I’d heard a lot about the Amish and their animals. What I found was that Tina is one of the happiest and most loving dogs I know.

I would take her in a minute if the opportunity ever arose. I doubt it will.

Many people had the same question as Cindy, so I wanted to write about it. It goes to the heart of the differences between them and us when it comes to animals.

The first thing I can say with authority is that the Amish treat the horses, goats, and dogs I’ve seen well; I would almost say professionally, that’s the word that comes to mind.

We have all read the accusations and convictions involving some Amish families, puppy mills, and abused horses. I’m sure some of them are true.

I can only say the Amish I have been meeting and speaking with treating their animals well and conscientiously; I do not believe they would abuse them or any other animals.

I was shocked a few years ago to learn that Irish farmers often treat their border collies like farm implements; they sleep in barns, are routinely kicked and whacked when they mess up, are never given treats, or given human affection and attention beyond their training.

The Irish farmers are also often accused of abusing their dogs.

Many of their border collies are not trained at all; they learn by doing and watching. The farmers there believe the dogs have herding and work instincts inside them, and the only problem they have is when humans mess them up.

In some ways, the Amish remind me of them.

First off, Cindy’s question. The Amish do not touch their animals, give them treats, talk sweet or baby talk with them. They give them tasks to perform and very often talk about them and praise them.

But they rarely speak to them, other than to whisper some commands to the horses while they are out on the road.

But like the Irish herding dogs, they are implements, tools of the farm; they are not pets or furbabies. Tina can come in and out of the house as often as she wants, but she is not invited to sleep in a bed.

Sometimes she wanders out in the woods on some mysterious journey and sleeps by the trees, like the deer. It’s okay with the family; they know she’ll come back if the coyotes don’t get her. It would not occur to them to try to stop them.

Like their children, they give their animals a great deal of freedom and a lot of responsibility. In both cases, they trust God in keeping their loved ones safe.

Tina and the horses never venture off the farm or into the road, even if they have a shot at getting free.

If Tina ever did get caught by coyotes, at least she got to live the life of a dog. But I think she’s way too smart for that.

So, no, they aren’t affectionate with her in the way I am with Zinnia, yet there is a strong and visible bond between her and them.

They don’t hug her or scratch her belly, call out her name, tell her how much they love her back or have cute nicknames, or towels, or framed pictures on the walls (they have no pictures on the walls.).

Tina is always with them, watching over them. The Amish never speak of their dogs as having been abused, even though some of them most probably were. They get their dogs in all kinds of places. They do not get them from expensive breeders or animal rescue groups. They do go to shelters.

At meals, Tina is sleeping on the floor, at their feet. At night, she sleeps where she wants – sometimes in the house, sometimes in a barn, sometimes on the grass, or with the horses in their pasture.

She is a creature of the place; she belongs to no single person. There are no blankets or soft dog beds for her.

She is well-fed, her coat is shiny and strong, her teeth healthy, her temperament calm and loving. Like most of her breed, she has an extraordinary amount of energy and is fearless, even around the giant horses.

Moise often tells me her story, and he has thanked me several times for getting her a dog foot that heeps her coat moist and shiny and has given her more energy.

The animals on the farm are almost shockingly well trained. When a buggy comes onto the farm, they release the horses from the harness, and they all trot right off to their pastures and wait to be let in.

Absolutely nothing I’ve seen rattles the horses or  Tina, people, dogs, trucks. Motorcycles go by the farm every day; they don’t stir, bolt or panic. When the new goats arrived, Tina watched them, climbed up the hill, and sat down between them.

I’ve never seen an Amish person actually train a dog or horse, yet their animals are among the calmest and most obedient I’ve seen.

What I believe happens is that, like the Irish farmers, they trust the animals to do what they need to do and what is asked of them, and since they are with these animals day and many nights, there is a symbiotic transference that goes on. The dogs watch them do it, and so they then go and do it.

The horses seem to know when they’re heading out long before the people come for them. Whenever there is work involving children or animals, the dog is there, keeping order like Rose and Red and any good working dog.

Once again, nobody told her what to do or trained her to do it. It seems they mostly let the animals do what they are naturally inclined to do. This is an even more promising training approach than positive training.

Cesar Milan would have nothing to do at the Miller farm but talk to his camera crew.

The Amish do not hire animal trainers, nor do they study videos and $30 books on raising the perfect dog.

I should point out that the Amish have been breeding and living with dogs and horses for centuries. They are knowledgeable breeders and caretakers. They often teach their children how important it is to take good care of animals to be strong and healthy enough to work on their farms.

There is absolutely no sappy stuff, no cooing, talking in high voices, or anthropomorphizing.  The animals are not their children or best friends. They do not seek emotional support from them.

They do not project their own shit and neuroses onto their animals. When I ask them about separation anxiety and animal grieving, they look at me as speaking a foreign tongue. And I am.

Their love of Tina is not just utilitarian, but it’s never over the top. They have a beautiful working relationship with her. When the horses can no longer work, they are sold or put to death.

It’s a bit more complicated with the dogs. They are free to grow old and live out their lives. If they get terminal illnesses, they will almost surely be put down, shot, or killed in some other way; They will not get chemo or  expensive surgeries.

Some Amish will call vets for homesick farm animals, but the Old Amish will not take an animal to a vet; their reasons are sometimes practical, often spiritual, a matter of scripture.

When I visit the farm, I yell when I see Tina, and she comes running for a scratch or hug. If she sees a child heading away from the farmhouse, she will turn away instantly and run to check on them.

She fell in love with me the second she figured out I was bringing the big new bag of dog food, made especially for dogs recovering traumatic injuries. Moise was grateful to get it, fed it diligently, is pleased by the results, and has paid me back for every penny that it cost.

The Amish appreciate animals; they need them and have lived closely with them for half a millennium. They know them well and understand what they need., not what people need.

They also understand what they need to survive; they know that dogs don’t really need treats or toys; it’s the humans that need to give them treats and toys.

They don’t need to talk to their dogs, scold them, speak in funny voices, or bring them to animal playgrounds. We tried to give an alfalfa treat to Moise’s horse, and he rolled it around in his mouth and dropped it on the ground. He didn’t know what it was.

I gave Tina one small treat, which she dropped and stared at for 10 minutes before eating it. I didn’t do it again. I didn’t want to start a habit that her owners didn’t believe in.

Moise admires Tina’s spirit and courage, yet their relationship is somewhat transactional. He values her for her work ethic and usefulness, not for the way she loves him or loves her.

Moise loves animals and knows a great deal about them; he says living without animals is unimaginable.

I’m sure some of the grotesque stories the animal rights groups use for fund-raising are true; I do not think being cruel to animals is something most Amish would do.

It flies in the face of their faith and their teaching. I’ve also learned that the animal rights movement is not always friendly with the truth, especially when lies bring in so much money.

Like the carriage horse drivers in New York, the Amish can show us that it is not cruel or abusive for domesticated working animals to work; it is their very soul.

It’s also possible to treat animals well without showering them with things that people need but that they don’t – treats, gourmet foods, kisses, hugs, fancy carpets, and blankets, projections, and assumptions.

The Amish rarely go to doctors themselves; why would they take their dogs to vets?

All their dogs have to be is dogs.

The plain life is not cheap; it asks the sacrifice of church members. I don’t know where so many Americans got it into their heads that they have the right to tell other people how to live, but I don’t believe that I have that right.

It costs a lot of money to take dogs to vets for all of their shots and dests. Amish dogs are very healthy and live a very long time.

So the big lessons for me are also simple. Dogs, like children, need freedom and space to explore the world and feel safe in it. In our culture, it’s getting rare for a child to walk to school alone.

We talk too much in training and give our dogs too little space and room to figure some things out for themselves. We speak critically and in loud and horse voices, voices Tina will never hear.

My notion that working animals will be given a chance will become what we need them to be greatly reinforced by what I see the Amish animals do.

Those sessions in pet stores, those videos, those books on how to have the perfect dog are either unnecessary or junk. They weaken our resolve to do it ourselves, and we are the very best trainers our own dog will ever have.

Our pets need work, not just love. Like children, they need to learn how to navigate a complete world.

They need experience, not just chew toys and treats. Let them be dogs whenever possible. They know how to do it. And they learn from seeing us do it, like the Amish ponies and dogs, and the Irish border collies learn.

The dogs I see are not abused. The people I see are not abusers. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I’ll keep at it.

7 Comments

  1. Great post. What I see from your writing is their animals are partners in their lives. Sounds a lot better than the ways many people almost fetishize their pets.
    Ironically it made me think of a story in one of Cesar Milan’s books. When he came to America, he didn’t speak English & was shocked at all the crazy, chaotic dogs he saw. He said the happiest, calmest dogs he saw were those living on the streets with the homeless people. That the dogs were partners with the homeless, a tool for them to feel safe & they had a mutually beneficial relationship.
    Also one other thought of the Animal Rights people. I am a Catholic & it reminds me of how some sick men who hurt children made it so difficult for the large majority of good priest trying to serve their parishioners. I know I generalized & hated priests, especially the bishops & above for years. Now I try & look at them as individuals & am humbled by their service in the light of the outcry by many. Doesn’t mean I don’t think the guilty priest shouldn’t be held accountable. I think that is what Animal Rights people did with the Amish & puppy mills.
    As always – thanks for making me think!!

  2. I live amongst the Amish in Lancaster… almost all our friends are Amish, not English, and my wife & I grew up in the burbs of NYC.

    In the 6 years living here we have learned so much about them & have enjoyed our friendships with so many of the Amish. We have been welcomed into the community surrounding us and are grateful for this.

    We have found that a household usually has one pet dog that lives with them. Those that have several dogs for breeding treat their dogs very well, after all it is a business for them and the dogs health is important to having puppies.

    We have never witnessed any mistreatment, always in clean environments and are always we taken care of. Just like in English society there are good & no so good people — we just have not experienced the not so good individuals.

    I could go on about our friendships and experiences but for now I’ll say goodbye.

  3. You really hit the nail on the head. I grew up with dogs in the house, petted and vetted. When I married into a family that was from eastern Kentucky. They had farms and working dogs, and the animals were not pets. The dogs helped them hunt and herd cows, and they ate the scraps of food after the family ate, and anything else they could find. I found it to be different, but it made sense.

  4. Please don’t tell people with crazy ideas to come to Ohio. I live in Ohio and we have enough crazies of our own.

  5. I understand and agree on most parts. However, I think most people don’t have the opportunity to raise animals in that type of environment.
    Because they live in apts,cities etc. People need to train their dogs.
    I dog agree dogs need a job and /or have a a lot of time outdoors. Large dogs especially.
    I have a golden and we have done for years therapy work in a detention facility for juveniles. I also let him run free. He knows a lot and listens to signals and words I never taught him.
    I wish every dog had this chance.

    1. I agree Laurie. Few people can raise dogs in that way, including me…I would never let my dogs run loose all day and I go to vets when there is any problem at all..the point isn’t that we should all be Amish, the point is that there are different ways of learning and doing things, its good to think about them.

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