A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life
  • A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life
  • A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life

A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life

3.7 46
by Jon Katz

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“People who love dogs often talk about a ‘lifetime’ dog. I’d heard the phrase a dozen times before I came to recognize its significance. Lifetime dogs are dogs we love in especially powerful, sometimes inexplicable ways.”–Jon Katz

In this gripping and deeply touching book, bestselling author Jon Katz tells the story of his

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“People who love dogs often talk about a ‘lifetime’ dog. I’d heard the phrase a dozen times before I came to recognize its significance. Lifetime dogs are dogs we love in especially powerful, sometimes inexplicable ways.”–Jon Katz

In this gripping and deeply touching book, bestselling author Jon Katz tells the story of his lifetime dog, Orson: a beautiful border collie–intense, smart, crazy, and unforgettable.

From the moment Katz and Orson meet, when the dog springs from his traveling crate at Newark airport and panics the baggage claim area, their relationship is deep, stormy, and loving. At two years old, Katz’s new companion is a great herder of school buses, a scholar of refrigerators, but a dud at herding sheep. Everything Katz attempts– obedience training, herding instruction, a new name, acupuncture, herb and alternative therapies–helps a little but not enough, and not for long. “Like all border collies and many dogs,” Katz writes, “he needed work. I didn’t realize for some time I was the work Orson would find.”
While Katz is trying to help his dog, Orson is helping him, shepherding him toward a new life on a two-hundred-year-old hillside farm in upstate New York. There, aided by good neighbors and a tolerant wife, hip-deep in sheep, chickens, donkeys, and more dogs, the man and his canine companion explore meadows, woods, and even stars, wade through snow, bask by a roaring wood stove, and struggle to keep faith with each other. There, with deep love, each embraces his unfolding destiny.

A Good Dog is a book to savor. Just as Orson was the author’s lifetime dog, his story is a lifetime treasure–poignant, timeless, and powerful.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Barking, lunging and nipping at visitors, terrorizing school buses and crashing through a window screen to pursue a cat in a neighbor's house, the hero of this absorbing, if melodramatic, memoir hardly seems a good dog. But Orson's fangs are firmly set in the heart of dog journalist Katz (The Dogs of Bedlam Farm), who tries everything to soothe his frenzy-acupuncture, chiropractic, "Shen calming herbs from China," sessions with a "shamanic soul retriever"-then moves to a farm where the border collie's native sheep-herding instincts might flourish. Ultimately, the therapeutic benefit accrues to the author, who finds in Orson a "soul mate" who saved him from mid-life crisis in the New Jersey suburbs and brought him to an ecstatic communion with nature. Katz's flagrant anthropomorphizing and his intense emotional involvement ("I was nearly crying with frustration, torn by my growing love for this dog") and heart-to-hearts with Orson ("[w]e can't go on this way," he sobs after a school-bus incident) will resonate with dog lovers, while perhaps puzzling others. When he Katz gets some psychological distance, though, his subtle, evocative descriptions of the beasts around him-including Rose, another border collie whose brilliant herding steals the show-vividly capture the fascinating, enigmatic lives of animals. Photos. (Sept. 26) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Readers of Katz's A Dog Year and The Dogs of Bedlam Farm will already be familiar with the lovable, lunatic border collie named Orson. Katz buys a farm in upstate New York and acquires a flock of sheep, hoping to calm Orson and redirect his energies by training him in sheep herding. But Orson doesn't perform well at his task and instead becomes Katz's protector, occasionally nipping at farm visitors. "Alternative" methods of domestication-e.g., acupuncture, chiropractics, herbs, and sessions with a shamanic soul retriever-aren't enough to prevent Orson's biting, and ultimately, Katz is forced to make a heart-wrenching decision. His devotion to Orson shines throughout; in turn, Orson helps Katz appreciate sunsets and star gazing. Not as humorous as John Grogan's Marley and Me, this loving tribute to that once-in-a-lifetime dog, with reflections also on the other animal residents of Bedlam Farm, is highly recommended for dog lovers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/06.]-Eva Lautemann, Georgia Perimeter Coll. Lib., Clarkston Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Katz concludes the canine love story he began in A Dog Year (2002). Border collie Devon was a misfit from the moment he arrived at the Katz household in New Jersey. He tried to herd garbage trucks, snowplows, buses, kids on skateboards. After months of attempting to discipline the high-strung pup, Katz took him to train with Carolyn, an animal behaviorist and sheepherder. She observed that to Devon, the world made no sense. She also noted the pup was terrified of his own name; thus, Devon became "Orson." Realizing that the dog would never adapt to suburban New Jersey, Katz pulled up stakes and relocated to a farm in upstate New York. There, Orson found a measure of tranquility alongside Rose, a disciplined border collie; Clementine, a sweet Lab puppy; and Winston, a rooster with "Patton-like authority." While Rose herded sheep, Orson made Katz his work. The dog sat quietly while his owner wrote, and the two took moonlit walks to observe Sirius, the dog star. On an all-terrain vehicle, they daily patrolled the farm-and, illegally, the surrounding town. While he wasn't perfect, he was Katz's once-in-a-lifetime dog. "Orson helped me, deep into my sixth decade, to stay open, to not shut down," he writes. But suddenly the dog began to nip visitors and, worse, bite them. As his violence escalated, the once-skeptical Katz embraced every available treatment: traditional veterinary medicine, New Age acupuncturists, even an animal shaman. Orson became more aggressive, and Katz faced a terrible decision: Is it morally right to keep a dog that poses a danger to others?A heartbreaking memoir of love, friendship and responsibility.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

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A Good Dog

By Jon Katz

Random House

Jon Katz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 140006189X

Chapter One

Carolyn Wilki told the five of us to spread out into a circle in her pasture, with our dogs. We were an odd group, a mot­ley mix of dog lovers and our anxious border collies and shepherds arrayed near an aging stone farmhouse in eastern Pennsylvania in the blazing summer sun.
The other four people did as instructed, along with their dogs. I didn't.
Devon and I were in our third month of working with Carolyn, a respected and fiercely opinionated sheepherder and dog behaviorist. She'd suggested that we join this herd­ing class in addition to our weekly lessons. So we had, with trepidation. I'm not generally a joiner; I don't have a good history with groups. And Devon was not a dog who played well with others, either.
Once we were mostly in formation, Carolyn brought out her antique metal box filled with small figures of dogs, sheep, and fences. I groaned.
Carolyn was fond of her toy farm creatures, which she'd shown me on our first visit, and loved to demonstrate the bal­let that constituted sheepherding-human, dog, and sheep all moving in relation to one another. She would haul her box out and carefully place the components in their appropriate positions on a picnic table or on the grass. Then she'd sketch out herding and training moves like an NFL coach diagram­ming complex patterns for offense. The papers she handed herstudents when class ended were filled with X's and O's, squibbles and arrows. The X's were dogs, the O's were peo­ple. If the X's went here, she'd explain, then the O's would go there. The sheep were usually the squibbles.
Devon and I were rarely where we were supposed to be. He herded sheep the way he herded school buses-forcefully, impulsively, explosively. At least the sheep could run.
This role-playing was not the sort of thing either of us was especially good at. I was allergic to being lectured to, had hated just about every class and teacher I'd ever had, and the favor had been returned. Poor Mr. Hauser actually wept in front of my mother when I had to take his math class for the third time. Neither of us could bear the idea of going another round. Authority issues continued to plague me through my adult life. One reason that being a writer suited me was that most of the time the only jerk I had to put up with was me.
Devon had similar issues with commands and obedience. Training seemed to either upset or excite him, and learning to herd sheep seemed unlikely to be an exception.
You are a ewe, Carolyn told me, pointing to an O on her diagram, and placing one of her tiny white plastic sheep along a toy fence. You will stand over here and wait to be approached by a dog, she said, gesturing to an eighty-year-old woman in a sun hat holding a terrified sheltie on a leash.
Everybody else seemed willing, even enthusiastic, about acting out these herding moves. But I didn't want to be a ewe. Devon looked up at me curiously; I knew there was no way he was going to do this, either.
In fact, he suddenly charged after the sheltie, chasing him under Carolyn's truck. I pulled him back, made him lie down, and he settled to watch the proceedings.
As Carolyn passed by, dispensing instructions, I whis-pered-hoping to avoid a scene-that I didn't want to be a ewe, or to play this game. Carolyn did not suffer fools or rebels gladly. I don't care what you want, she muttered. Do it. It will be good for you.
I couldn't. No better at being submissive than this strange dog I now owned, I told Carolyn this wasn't the right class for me. Devon and I retreated to our room (Carolyn's Rasp­berry Ridge Farm is a bed-and-breakfast as well as a training center) to brood. I put Devon in his crate and lay down on the bed. Outside the window, I could hear the dogs and sheep going through their exercises as Carolyn offered sug­gestions and critiqued the proceedings. Much as I often wished for a more pliant dog, I also wished I were a more compliant human. Life would be smoother.
It's an article of faith among trainers that the problem with dogs is almost always the people who own them. My dog and I were both impulsive, impatient, distractible, and restless. That was why we'd come.
Carolyn was an impassioned believer in positive rewarding training, a training method that emphasizes reinforcing ap­propriate and desired behaviors, and generally rejects negative or coercive methods like yelling, swatting, or even more abusive responses.
Positive reinforcement puts pressure on the human, rather than the dog, to suppress anger and impatience, and simply praise or mark good behaviors-with words of praise, food, clickers, whatever works. It asks a lot of people; they have to take a long view of training and curb some of their stronger instincts. For somebody who is by no means an all-positive person, like me, it was difficult-especially with a dog like Devon, who daily challenged one's patience.
One afternoon he escaped the yard in New Jersey (I have no idea how), and soon afterward I heard the by-now-familiar screaming and tumult in the street and went running out. Devon had intercepted half a dozen Jersey teenagers on skateboards, rounded them up into a tight cluster in the cen­ter of the street-skateboards flying in every direction-and held everyone there until I arrived.
Carolyn would not have approved of my response, which was not positive in the least. I screamed at Devon to get away from the kids, apologized profusely, and retreated into the house, Devon in tow. The kids thought it was funny; when they got home, their parents might not.
Recognizing that I needed help with Devon, a far greater challenge than my mellow Labradors, I'd started bringing him to Raspberry Ridge, along with my younger border col­lie, Homer. Homer didn't seem destined to be an ace herder, either, but he was much more attentive and controllable than Devon.
Carolyn often said she was surprised that I'd stuck it out with Devon's lessons; in fact, she told me, she'd doubted I would come back after the first session. Which had been marked by Devon's chasing her panicked sheep around a fenced pasture. The truth is, I never thought of leaving Rasp­berry Ridge. Eventually, we became regulars.
From the first time we drove down the long gravel drive­way, I was drawn to the place. Carolyn had an old stone farm­house, a giant barn and other teetering outbuildings, a junkyard, perhaps two hundred ewes and rams, an old don­key, a dozen or so dogs, and more than seventy acres of grass, meadow, and woods.
She lived upstairs in the farmhouse; guests and visitors oc­cupied the B&B rooms downstairs. She kept crates tucked all over the house, in which her herding dogs-border collies and shepherds-slept while waiting to work, exercise, or play.
These working dogs, I'd come to learn, led lives very dif­ferent from my dogs'. Carolyn let them out several times a day to exercise and eliminate, but generally, they were out of crates only to train or herd sheep. While they were out, Car­olyn tossed a cup of kibble into their crates for them to eat when they returned. I asked her once if she left lights on for the dogs when she went out, and she looked at me curiously. Why? They don't read.
They were happy dogs nonetheless, fit and obedient, so­ciable with dogs and people. From Carolyn's example, I was learning to respect the true nature of dogs: they are wonder­ful, but they're still animals, and not even the most complex animals. She didn't see them as four-legged versions of hu­mans, and woe to the student who did.
Still, they were everywhere. If you bumped into a sofa it might growl or thump. Some of her crew were puppies; some were strange rescue dogs.
The chief working dog was Dave, a venerable shorthaired Scottish border collie who efficiently ran the farm, moving sheep in and out of pastures and into training pens for lessons and herding work. This was an impressive fellow. I once saw a near-riot break out during a herding trial when some sheep crashed through a fence by the parking area, which was crammed with dogs, handlers, spectators, cars and trailers, and food stands. Carolyn yelled to me to run inside-Dave's crate held the place of honor by Carolyn's desk-and let him out.
When I opened the crate, Dave promptly rushed to the front door, pushed open the screen, and picked his way among the rampaging dogs and sheep and people. He gath­ered up the sheep and, at Carolyn's direction, moved them down the drive and into the back pasture, maneuvering them around lawn chairs and tents, barking dogs, and all the para­phernalia of a trial. He held them there until Carolyn arrived to close the pasture gate. Then he trotted right back to the house, nosed open the screen door, and went back into his crate. Dave was the anti-Devon, as grounded as Devon was excitable, as obedient as Devon was unresponsive, as useful as Devon was difficult and unpredictable. I told myself he was less interesting, too.
Carolyn's hallways were hung with crooks, ropes and hal­ters, flashlights and rain gear. She loved dogs the way great trainers do, respecting their animal natures, understanding their simple and sometimes crass motives, accepting them as they are, rather than trying to recast them into versions of ourselves. The signs of her success with this approach were also abundant: the walls were festooned with trial ribbons and awards.
Yet she spent much of her time working with less her­alded dogs and their desperate people. Troubled dogs from all over the country came riding up her driveway. I remember one pair of newlyweds who arrived with a schnauzer that had belonged to the bride. The groom was covered in bandages. It seemed that every time he tried to touch his wife, the dog bit him.
Why, someone asked, didn't they get rid of the dog? The bride was incredulous. I love my husband, but this dog has been with me for years.
Carolyn prescribed an elaborate new regimen in which all food came from the husband's hand, and only when the dog was calm and well behaved. Any growling or biting meant the dog didn't eat. The couple stayed at Raspberry Ridge for a week, and when they drove away, the dog was dozing lov­ingly in the husband's lap, marriage saved.
Often, I was appointed dog bait for a weekend: I ap­proached an aggressive dog with a bag of meatballs to see how close I could get before the dog went off. Meatballs and other smelly stuff were a centerpiece of Raspberry Ridge dog training. When an aggressive dog was on hand, all of us armed ourselves with meatballs and began approaching the dog from a distance, tossing meatballs, getting a bit closer each time. The dog would begin by barking, but as meatballs began to rain from the sky, he'd calm down and likely rethink his hostility to people.
Staying at Carolyn's bed-and-breakfast with Devon and Homer was an adventure. Sometimes, when I took the dogs out, I would hear Carolyn or somebody scream "Run!" and realize an aggressive dog-in-rehab was outside. We'd dive back inside, slamming the door as some ferocious-sounding creature thudded against it. These were exotic experiences for me, but useful for Devon, who became more comfortable on a farm and seemed rattled by fewer things.
The true heart of Carolyn's farm was her kitchen, where sausages and pungent dog treats lay scattered over the coun­ters, along with collars, magazines and books, trial application forms, checks from her students (Carolyn, not big on details, often left them lying around for months), leashes, and dog toys.
Pots of coffee were always brewing, and dog people could be found sitting around her big wooden table at all hours. Devon and I were always welcome there, and he grew to love going around the table from person to person, collecting pats and treats. Troubled dogs were familiar at that table, and ap­preciated. If we couldn't bring our dogs many places, we could always bring them here. If Devon wasn't always suc­cessful, he was always accepted.
So was I. Here, I could be me. I came to cherish more rural pleasures. I began staying at the farm overnight, com­bining our lessons with taking the sheep out to graze. I helped with lambing in the spring, tossed hay to the flock in the winter. I met and befriended a donkey named Carol.
I also started accompanying Carolyn to the Scottish faires held around the region on weekends. She got paid peanuts for these appearances, but she loved showing people the art of herding, keeping it alive.
We would pile several dogs and half a dozen sheep into her pickup, along with hay and water and some temporary fencing, and drive off to herding demos. Suburbanites loved to see Dave push the sheep around parks and fields; between acts, Carolyn and I, like old-fashioned carnies on the circuit, could lounge in lawn chairs BS-ing about dogs.
While faires were child's play for Dave, the awed crowds responded as if they were at the Olympics. I understood: there is something profoundly beautiful and moving in seeing dogs do this traditional work. Devon could not herd in these situations-too dangerous-but he very much appreciated coming along, and was much hugged and admired. Even within the safer confines of Raspberry Ridge, his herding progress was uneven, to say the least. We had many frustrat­ing and uncomfortable days, along with our triumphant moments.
Devon still wasn't reliable enough to herd the sheep, but if I put him on a leash, the sheep would move ahead of us any­way. We could take them out to pasture, then take up posi­tions between the herd and the road.
It was often freezing, or sticky-hot and buggy, but if we went very early in the morning when the pasture was often shrouded in dew and mist, we could sit side by side for hours, Devon as calm as I ever saw him, listening to the sheep crunch away at the grass.
But when it was time to herd back to the barn and I re­leased him, he would bore straight into the middle of the flock, all training forgotten, scattering sheep in every direc­tion.
Homer was more of a herding dog, calmer, able to slip in behind the sheep and move them. He had more protective instincts, too; he could locate a newborn lamb off in the woods, help gather the flock in the midst of a blizzard.
But he also had problems. Homer was small, not especially hardy for a border collie, so he had trouble getting out in front of the sheep to turn the herd. He tended to use his mouth instead, and when he got excited, he'd grip a sheep by the legs-a major transgression. And he was easily intimi­dated. It was his misfortune to grow up as the Helldog's little brother.


Excerpted from A Good Dog by Jon Katz Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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