Jon Ronson is perhaps my favourite storyteller. From the very first page, his books never fail to draw me in and I’m sure I can trace my interest in the human mind back to his book ‘The Psychopath Test’ (if you haven’t read it, do it now - well, after you’ve finished reading K9 Magazine, it’s fascinating).
From psychopaths to the porn industry (‘The Butterfly Effect’) and military personnel who began to believe in strange things (‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’), Jon meets people from all walks of life and his books are an exploration of a whole host of subjects and the interesting people behind them.
Jon doesn’t give many interviews so when he kindly agreed to chat to us about his love of dogs because he “couldn’t turn down the chance to talk about Josie and Floppy”, I was thrilled and eager to hear more about the dogs he shares his life with.
Our call starts 30 minutes later than planned because Jon is in the writing zone. It turned out that it worked well because at the last minute I had heard a ‘dogsblog dog’, Barbounia, owned by author Polly Samson and her husband, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, was going to be making an appearance on BBC Two.
Hi Jon, thanks for making the time to chat with us.
Is just now a good time for us to talk?
It is, thank you.
How was the TV show?
It was good thanks. As well as K9 Magazine, we also run a dog adoption website and Barbounia was a dog we helped find a new home for. He was on a culture show with his owners Polly Samson and David Gilmour and their ‘Von Trapped Family’.
Oh! I know Polly and David, but I haven’t met that dog yet.
Oh, lovely. Well, thank you again for your time. I know you don’t do many interviews.
No, but I couldn’t turn it down. When I told Josie she got so excited she humped my leg.
I was listening to the Louis Theroux podcast that you were on and I heard you mention that someone once tried to put you off getting a dog because eventually, they’ll pass away.
Yes, it was my wife Elaine’s mum. She said, “You can’t get a dog because if you do they’ll die and you’ll be upset.” (laughs)
You have two dogs don’t you, who came first?
Our first dog was Floppy and he’s now 11 so we got him 11 years ago. I’d never had a dog until we got Floppy, but because Floppy doesn’t really fulfil all the needs a dog owner wants - he’s a bit like a dog in slow motion (laughs) - we got a second dog, Josie. She’s sort of a speeded-up dog, so between the two of them, we are experiencing all manner of dog activities.
Floppy and Josie / Photo Credit: Jon Ronson
How long ago did you get Josie?
We got Josie maybe eight years ago, we’d had Floppy for about three years when we got her, so yes it was about eight years ago when we added Josie to the mix.
What made you choose them? Were you looking for particular breeds?
It was my wife. She chose both of them. With Floppy, because neither of us had ever had a dog before, I don’t know why she ended up going for a Tibetan Terrier, when she went to meet the breeder she said: “We’ve never had a dog before, can you give us an easy one?” (laughs) and she gave us Floppy who is indeed the world’s easiest dog.
He is literally happiest when he hides my socks and eats my food. He doesn’t want anything else in life other than sock hiding and my food, whereas Josie has many needs. Many. She’s quite high maintenance compared to Floppy who is very low maintenance. (laughs)
Jon, Josie and Floppy / Photo Credit: Jon Ronson
Did Floppy change much when Josie arrived?
No. I was working and Elaine came back with Josie without telling me that we were going to get another dog. I remember it so well. She was such a tiny puppy and Floppy walked over very slowly to get to her and Josie barked and Floppy just turned and walked away thinking ‘Okay, this is how it is now’. (laughs)
I mean they sometimes fight but most of the time they’re best friends.
I have three dogs and they all get along pretty well but every so often my oldest puts her marker down, like ‘I’m the boss’. But to be honest she’s always been a bit like that. We have a video of her arriving as a tiny puppy 14 years ago meeting my Labrador, Chloe, for the first time. Chloe, unexpectedly, was not a fan and she usually was pretty mellow. But I think because Mia was quite hard-headed, Chloe got over it.
Ah. Did they get on after that?
They did. They were really close.
That’s really funny. You know there was this moment when Josie was really young and I was upstairs working and I could hear Floppy going nuts downstairs just barking and barking. He does do that sometimes so I ignored him but he kept going and going so I finally went downstairs.
What had happened was that it was just after Christmas and the Christmas tree was down but we hadn’t taken away the Christmas tree holder and Josie had got her collar somehow trapped in the Christmas tree holder and was running around with this massive metal Christmas tree holder attached to her and Floppy was just going nuts.
When I freed Josie it just made me realise that Floppy sort of saved her. I didn’t realise how intelligent he was but he was calling for me to help because he couldn’t do it.
Josie and Floppy / Photo Credit: Jon Ronson
Exactly, although Lassie would have found a way to get Josie free.
Most people in lockdown are now discovering what it’s like to work from home with their dogs. I guess you must experience this fairly regularly when you’re writing. How do Josie and Floppy usually keep you company?
Oh, they’re not well behaved. We moved to the countryside and Floppy’s like a new dog up here. Whenever a motorbike goes past he chases them. We had to put up a fence because otherwise he’d just be gone.
He’s also quite curious around new people. He barks when new people come but settles down pretty quickly, whereas Josie is very skittish and never stops barking at strangers and we have to put her in the bedroom. It’s sad, she’s like her own worst enemy sometimes.
We’ve also had to start keeping her on the leash when we take her out because there are chipmunks everywhere in the hiking areas around where we live and she just goes insane. Elaine nearly lost her a couple of weeks ago, she just wouldn’t come back. They were in a forest and for nearly an hour she didn’t come back, so since then, we’ve had to keep her on the leash. I’ve tried to explain to her that it’s her own fault but I don’t think she understands.
It’s scary. I mean Floppy has a lot of common sense but Josie is different. It’s like when my son was little and as a baby, I felt like he was always crawling towards bleach and knives and everything like that. Josie has no common sense, you know, if she’s got the scent of a chipmunk she’s like a drug addict. You can’t stop her. She just won’t listen to us calling her back.
Josie at home with her squirrel toy / Photo Credit: Jon Ronson
So, Josie and Floppy are your first dogs, what makes now the right time to have dogs?
I’ve never really thought about it before, but I think now it’s come at the right time because now it feels perfect. I’m sort of quietening down my life a little bit, you know, I’ve been working too hard for too many years. Basically I couldn’t stop working for 35 years. But now I’ve decided to take things easy a little bit, so having two dogs is just perfect.
Did you grow up around animals?
I grew up with cats and in fact, one of my cats was a bit dog-like, meaning she had a little bit of a personality and wanted to play.
I remember a quote in one of your books, also my favourite one, ‘The Psychopath Test’, where you quoted CEO Al Dunlap saying, ‘If you want a friend, get a dog. I’m not taking any chances, I’ve got two.’ And I remember you talking about the portraits of his dogs on the wall in his house before you gave him the Hare Psychopath Test.
It’s quite interesting how many of the world’s leaders own or have owned dogs. Do you think there’s something about the dog that makes them able to be a trusted confidante to people in positions of power?
Well, that’s what Al Dunlap said but he was partly quoting someone [Harry S Truman said something similar, ‘If you want a friend, get a dog’]. I think Al Dunlap was possibly a little bit psychopathically minded and the fact that he had a big German Shepherd is probably telling, don’t you think?
In the same way that he had sculptures of predatory animals, German Shepherds are a sort alpha dog. I mean I’m sort of out of my comfort zone here, but I equate German Shepherds with people who like predatory animals.
So maybe the breed of dog is also telling. Like, I can’t see Dunlap with a Schnoodle.
Do you think if someone owns a dog it makes you think differently about them or does it not necessarily change your opinion too much?
I mean it’s certainly a bonding experience. Certainly in New York City, I mean not now with the pandemic, but if I’m not wearing my headphones and I’m walking Josie and Floppy other dog owners will just talk and it happens more in New York City than other cities I think. People just come up to you and start talking. So yeah, there’s certainly a bond of sorts between dog owners.
There are leash laws in New York so by law you’re only supposed to have a dog off their leash before 9am or after 9pm in Central Park, so strictly speaking, the only place a dog is allowed off-leash other than in dog parks is in Central Park before 9am or after 9pm, but in reality, there’s a lot of flouting that goes on, for instance in Riverside Park and in Central Park during the day. But it does mean if you go to the park at 8am in the morning you’ll see huge groups of dog owners with their dogs off-leash, it's like a community, so yeah I’d say there is a bond between dog owners. Definitely in New York.
Do Josie and Floppy ever react in a way towards someone that makes you think differently about them before you get to know them?
That’s a good question.
Josie barks at pretty much everyone except for a few trusted friends. Once she trusts you she’s adorably friendly, she’s very cuddly and fun.
But funnily enough, this guy came round about a year ago because he’s adapting one of my books into a sitcom and he wanted to talk through some of his ideas and Josie who is usually so skittish was snuggling up to him and constantly flogging him with her paw, so actually thinking about it she must have sensed he was a safe person. So maybe yes, yes it happens.
Photo Credit: Jon Ronson
With Floppy the opposite happened once. I wasn’t there but it was really stressful for my wife and son, who was really young at the time.
They were out with Floppy and basically they were accosted by a scary man who was yelling at my son. And Floppy has a really loud bark, it can be quite scary, he’s a Tibetan Terrier so he’s like a watchdog in a way. But this time when my wife and son were in actual danger, he pretended to be invisible. (laughs)
Oh no. Mia, who I mentioned earlier is a Rottweiler and we were broken into a few years ago and she did nothing. She went back to bed in fact. She left it to Chloe to hobble downstairs and see him off.
I always say that these are probably questions you won’t have been asked before - and probably won’t be again, but hopefully you will find them fun to think about.
If you could swap roles with one of your dogs for a day, who would you choose to swap with and why?
I think I would choose Floppy because Josie’s quite neurotic and so am I. Floppy doesn’t want a huge amount out of life. He stares at me while I eat so I give him bits of food and he hides my socks and that’s all he wants out of life, so I’d definitely choose to swap with Floppy.
He’s a very smart dog but he’s not neurotic and it would be nice to not be neurotic for a while.
There’s been a big rise in people training their own dogs as emotional support dogs over the years and in some cases, they have dogs at airports to calm people down before flying. Have you seen them?
I have. I’ve been to Tulsa a few times over the last couple of years for a story and there’s always a couple of emotional support dogs at Tulsa just wandering up and down the gates so you can stop and fuss them.
You mention being a little bit neurotic. I am a bit too, if I'm honest. Do you think Josie and Floppy have helped you over the years?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve often joked that I wish I could take Josie on the plane with me but she’s so neurotic she’d need her own service dog. But when I said that to a friend she said ‘That’s an old joke’. (laughs)
Josie’s a little bit anxiety-inducing because you can’t let her off the leash because she goes running off. To be totally honest I can’t be with Josie when she’s off the leash somewhere because when she runs away it triggers my anxiety. I don’t have that feeling at all about Floppy because I know he’s sensible and self-aware.
Floppy at home / Photo Credit: Jon Ronson
But every morning Josie just looks so delighted to see me. Floppy’s the same. If we go out to dinner and come back, they’re both so excited like ‘Where’ve you been, I can’t believe that you did that too us’. Floppy makes a really strange excited noise and Josie’s just so excited that she licks the hell out of me. So in those moments absolutely they help with anxiety. Most definitely.
There’s nothing quite like coming home to your dogs, is there. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been out for 10 minutes or two hours, the greeting is usually the same.
Oh totally. It reminds me of a cartoon I saw in the New Yorker one time where there’s a guy who has just come home from work and the dog is just clutching his leg (laughs).
What did your dogs last do that really made you laugh out loud?
They make me laugh all the time but the last time I remember really laughing was a couple of days ago.
Floppy’s honestly such a slow dog except for when a motorbike goes past, and then he becomes a different dog.
Anyway, I was in my office working and Floppy was in the garden and a motorbike went past and about three seconds after I saw Floppy run past. His speed was ridiculous and it made me laugh because the rest of the time he’s extremely slow.
What’s your fondest memory of Josie and Floppy?
There’s so many, I mean I live for those dogs. Floppy saving Josie’s life would be up there. I could tell he was pretty proud of himself.
On Josie’s second day, her first morning here, she was asleep on our bed and I just remember her as a tiny little puppy waking up and doing an excited dance, like she was just so excited and happy to be alive. That’s a very happy memory.
And just a hell of a lot of licking. So much licking I can’t tell you. Sometimes a bad memory is when she’s licking and puts her tongue inside my mouth.
Where’s Floppy and Josie’s favourite place in the world to be?
Wherever we are. Floppy doesn’t really mind being in New York City too much but Josie doesn’t really like it. Whereas here we have a garden and she can run around. She’s so much happier here than in New York. With Floppy happiness is quite a difficult emotion to gauge but with Josie, she’s so much happier here.
Josie exploring / Photo Credit: Jon Ronson
There’s an old country estate park near us called Claremont Park and at this time of year it’s full of chipmunks and she goes insane. Chipmunks are like an intense obsession for her.
One time she was looking at squirrels and she was on her lead, and a park ranger came up and told me off because she was looking at them.
There’s a lady in Riverside Park who feeds the birds every day and she absolutely hates dogs and she actually stalks dog owners taking photographs if she thinks we’re allowing our dogs to upset squirrels or birds. I had to call the police on her one time because she was literally stalking me, she was walking right behind me and taking photographs. Anyway, she hasn’t done it since I called the police.
I mean it was bad. Some people said I shouldn’t call the police because it could have made it worse, but I did and it didn’t make it worse. She got a warning and hasn’t done it since.
What do you think is the most important life lesson we can learn from dogs?
Good question. I know what psychotherapists would say to that.
What would they say?
They’d say that the best thing about dogs is that they live in the moment. Dogs don’t ruminate.
My psychology is so far from that (laughs), I never live in the moment. I’m constantly ruminating.
I think my mind goes into overdrive far more as an adult than it did when I was younger. OCD is a particularly strange one because you give something else, this random thing, credit when something goes well and you take all the blame when it goes wrong. It gets off scot-free then.
What is it that you ruminate on usually?
My ruminating is usually if I’ve been slighted. Like somebody I’ve treated well has then done something bad back towards me, not so much any more but I went through a phase until about two years ago. I now work really hard to stop doing it.
Finish the following sentence: my dogs are...along with my work and my family, they are the things I love the most in the world.
And finally, if you could ask Josie and Floppy one question and one question only, which they could answer, what would you ask them and what do you think they would say?
I often wish they could talk because I’ve got a pretty good feeling that they’d be complementary to me. I think I’d get some good feedback. (laughs)
So because I feel quite confident that my dogs would offer positive feedback on my dog parenting skills I think I’d like to ask them “Am I doing okay?” and I think they’d say, “You know what Jon, we have no complaints”.
So yes, I’d solicit praise. (laughs)
Many thanks, Jon!