The Barnes & Noble Review
I can't think of a single dog lover who won't love Jon Katz's memoir of his year with two Labs and two border collies. For one thing, the cast of characters is so appealing. There are the easygoing Julius and the mischievous Stanley, two white Labs; Devon, a super-smart two-year-old border collie, high-strung, with low self-esteem; and Homer, a border collie puppy, as sweet and uncomplicated as Devon is not. It's a great crowd.
For another thing, Katz writes with great humor and warmth about living with dogs and the way they transform their owners. "Dogs live on a scale that I can comprehend; their lives are an outcome I can affect," he writes. "They make me happy, satisfy me deeply, anchor me in an elemental way. Sometimes it's hard for me to trust people, or to find people I can come to trust. I trust my dogs, though. They would do anything for me, and I for them. That's a powerful relationship, no matter what the species."
As the book begins, Katz reflects on his relationship with Julius and Stanley, "whose chosen work was to reflect on the state of the world, lick neighborhood kids, and accompany me through midlife." Together, they go on strolls, spend summers on Cape Cod, and enjoy long, happy weeks at Katz's mountain retreat. In fact, they achieve such a Zen state of human-dog harmony that it's surprising when Katz actually follows up on a suggestion from a breeder in Texas to adopt Devon, an emotionally battered border collie with many, many issues. But, writes Katz, "Change loves me, defines and stalks me like a laser-guided smart bomb. It comes at me in all forms. Sometimes, changes come on four legs. "
If Julius and Stanley reflected one part of Katz's nature, Devon certainly appealed to another, more troubled side. Devon was the canine equivalent of Jesse James. He chased buses, jumped fences, and could extricate ham from a sandwich, leaving the bread and cheese untouched. He could even open the refrigerator, pop open a plastic container, extract (and eat) a roast chicken, and hide the evidence. Ultimately, Katz and Devon come to terms in a confrontation of wills that is deeply moving.
The fourth dog in Katz's dog year is recommended by Devon's breeder. While Katz was considering the puppy, he appeared as a guest on Oprah to promote a book. During the commercial break, he confided his indecision to Winfrey, then called up his long-suffering wife, Paula, right after the show:
"Honey, great news," I said, "Oprah says we should get the puppy!"
Homer came to live with Jon Katz and his family, and he made everyone happy.
"Oprah! Oprah Winfrey just told me to take Homer if it will make me happy. And it will."
"Oh, God," was all she said.
Read an Excerpt
Welcome to Newark Airport
He was a two-year-old border collie of Australian lineage, well-bred but high-strung, and in big trouble. He had been shown at obedience trials in the Southwest. But something had gone very wrong with this arrangement and his breeder had taken him back and was working to find him a home. He needed one badly, she told me. That was all I knew about Devon when I drove to Newark Airport to pick him up.
I already had two sweet dogs and I had plenty of non-dog-related responsibilities as well. I wasn’t particularly keen on taking in a third dog.
But this breeder, who kept a fierce eye on her dogs even after they’d left her kennels, had been e-mailing me for a while. She’d read a book of mine called Running to the Mountain, which featured Julius and Stanley, not only as coverdogs but as major characters.
She called me up; before long we were spending hours on the phone. Deanne wasn’t pushing me, she kept saying, but she believed this dog belonged with me. She meant to make it happen.
I’d been fascinated by border collies for years, poring over books like The Versatile Border Collie by Janet Larson, browsing Web sites where owners post stories of their dogs’ weird behavior, exchanging tentative e-mails with breeders. They were such intelligent dogs, I’d read, and somehow exotic. But everyone I consulted said more or less the same thing: unless you have a hundred acres right outside your back door, don’t do it. I had only a normal suburban New Jersey yard—and did I mention that I already had two large dogs?
So I hemmed and hawed about adopting a border collie, especially one with more than the usual . . . issues. A part of me was drawn to the idea, but the rational part said: Stop! Danger ahead!
Deanne was patient, persuasive, persistent without being pushy, a subtle line she walked with great skill. The better we got to know each other, the more effective her message. Devon, she said, was a special case in need of special handling. He was uncommonly bright, willful, and emotionally beat up. From my book, with its descriptions of Julius and Stanley and of my cabin in rural upstate New York—close to border collie nirvana—she suspected that I had a high tolerance for odd dog behavior. And Devon was, well, odd.
After a few weeks of this back-and-forth, she put him on a plane and shipped him from Lubbock, Texas, eastward to his new life. On a balmy spring night, I stood outside the American Airlines baggage freight window in Terminal B.
Waiting nervously, I recalled in particular the warning of breeder and author Larson. She was straightforward: “In border collies, the wild type or wolf temperament is common and seems to be genetically linked to the herding behavior. This means that many border collies make unstable pets, and some can be dangerous. Remember that these dogs were developed as sheep herders, and in the mountains and moors they did not need to be sociable with strangers. As a result, shy and sharp temperaments are fairly common.”
In my thickly settled neighborhood only about fifteen miles west of New York City, you don’t encounter many mountains or moors. You don’t see many border collies, either.
Doing my homework had only increased my trepidation. Border collies need vast spaces to roam, I read. They had insatiable energy; they’d go nuts living out the fate of many suburban family hounds: locked in crates or basements all day while the grown-ups worked; never properly trained, socialized, or exercised; growing increasingly neurotic while the kids, for whose sake the dogs were allegedly acquired, often wound up ignoring them.
Border collies, I read further, sometimes mistook kids for sheep and nipped or bit them. They had peculiar habits, interests, needs, and mood swings. Working dogs in every sense of the word, diggers and foragers, they abhorred loneliness and inactivity and hated having nothing to do. If you didn’t give them something to keep them occupied, they would find something themselves.
They often had trouble with other dogs, herding or chasing them. They obsessively pursued squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, cars, and trucks—that is to say, anything that moved quickly away from them. Always in pursuit of something mobile, they’d take off explosively when they found it, racing after it at blinding speeds. Once launched, few things—shrubbery, fences, traffic, shouts—could slow them down.
Newark Airport is a sometimes overwhelming place, justly famous for its nearly continual mobs, traffic, congestion, and delays. Devon’s plane had been routed through Atlanta, and the airport monitors said that his flight would be late, though not how late. This had to be rough on any dog, let alone a wired-up border collie with a delicate psychological history. Poor guy. I pictured him in the dark hold, feeling the plane move, the crates and luggage vibrating as the deafening engine roared nearby. Terminal B was unlikely to be a welcoming destination, either.
I had only the vaguest sense of what this dog looked like. I’d declined Deanne’s offer of a photograph, mostly because I didn’t want to make an adoption decision based on looks. That was a bad reason, I thought, to get a dog.
Parts of his story were vague. He had never lived in a house much or, I gathered, had a single human to attach himself to. He’d been neutered only a couple of weeks earlier, by the owner, before she gave him back to Deanne. The usually routine surgery had gone badly: the vets couldn’t put him to sleep with the usual amount of anesthesia, so they increased the dosage, and then they almost couldn’t wake him up. He was iron-willed and smart.
“Devon’s got some things to deal with,” Deanne told me. My understanding was that Devon had been raised for obedience competition, had fallen short in some way and been replaced. This wasn’t an uncommon fate in obedience show dogs, who aren’t raised to be pets. When they fail—and they know when they fail—they have no real purpose.
So Devon had languished. “He needs somebody to connect to,” Deanne told me. “He’s discouraged.”
She also told me I could change his name—it was a tad Martha Stewart for my taste—but I figured he’d have enough to adjust to.