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Twelve Months, Four Dogs, and Me

Written by Jon KatzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jon Katz


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: February 19, 2002
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-114-1
Published by : Villard Ballantine Group
A Dog Year Cover

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Sometimes, change comes on four legs.

In his popular and widely praised Running to the Mountain, Jon Katz wrote of the strength and support he found in the massive forms of his two yellow Labrador retrievers, Julius and Stanley. When the Labs were six and seven, a breeder who’d read his book contacted Katz to say she had a dog that was meant for him—a two-year-old border collie named Devon, well bred but high-strung and homeless. Katz already had a full canine complement—but, as he writes, “Change loves me. . . . It comes in all forms. . . . Sometimes, change comes on four legs.” Shortly thereafter he brought Devon home. A Dog Year shows how a man discovered much about himself through one dog (and then another), whose temperament seemed as different from his own as day from night. It is a story of trust and understanding, of life and death, of continuity and change. It is by turns insightful, hilarious, and deeply moving.


Chapter One
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.

From the Hardcover edition.
Jon Katz|Author Q&A

About Jon Katz

Jon Katz - A Dog Year

Photo © Maria Heinrich

Jon Katz has written nineteen books—seven novels and twelve works of nonfiction—including Soul of a Dog, Izzy & Lenore, Dog Days, A Good Dog, and The Dogs of Bedlam Farm. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Rolling Stone, Wired, and the AKC Gazette. He has worked for CBS News, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Katz is also a photographer and the author of a children’s book, Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm. He lives on Bedlam Farm in upstate New York with the artist Maria Heinrich; his dogs, Rose, Izzy, Lenore, and Frieda; and his barn cats, Mother and Minnie.

Author Q&A

A Talk with Jon Katz, author of A DOG YEAR

You have written an acclaimed mystery series, a memoir of a “midlife adventure,” an exploration of computer geeks. Why a book on your dogs? Why now?
My theory is that you don't select the books, they select you. Because of Running To The Mountain, a Border Collie breeder I'd been e-mailing decided I ought to have Devon, and so he came. That led to a much more intense and dramatic dog year then I imagined. I was visiting the owner of Battenkill Books in Cambridge, New York, and regaling her with tales of this mad new member of my family, and how it had turned my life upside down, and she said, “Well, those are great stories. Why don't you write them?” Of course, once she said it, it made sense, but it really hadn't occurred to me. My editor liked the idea as well, so there it was, right under our noses, so to speak. I think many people have the illusion that writers carefully consider their book ideas. Mine seem to sort of explode underneath me. I feel like I'm following life, not leading it. But as to subjects, I love changing subjects. The bigger the turn, the more challenging for me, as a human and a writer. When I say I love change, I'm not kidding.

Julius and Stanley, your wonderfully sweet yellow Labs, seemed like perfect dogs. Why upset the balance with a rescued Border Collie? And then a second one?
To be frank, upsetting the balance wasn't a good idea, and I can’t justify it. It was hard on all of us, me as well as the Labs. I don’t recommend it. Something in me is drawn to the “lost boys” of the world, human and canine. I believe they can be brought back from the edge if only somebody cares. But three dogs are a lot for a suburban middle-aged man, especially when two of them are border collies. Katz’s theory holds that when it comes to dog ownership, one Border Collie is equal to about five normal dogs. It turned out all right, although it was tough on Julius and Stanley, who probably deserved more attention and peace than they got. It turned out to be fascinating and powerful for me, but I can’t honestly look anybody in the eye and say it was justifiable or right. I’m not sure I would do it again, though even as I think that, I know I would.

You and Devon had some tremendous battles. Why didn't you just throw in the towel and send him back to Texas?
I was crazy about him from the first night on. I don’t think I ever could have taken him back to that airport and stuck him in a crate. We are both nuts in the same way, I fear. I’m not really into anthropomorphizing dogs, but this one has enormous personality, and I loved him dearly from the start. One reason it was such a brawl was that I knew quitting wasn’t an option. Some people think I won the brawl, but that’s a delusion, really. We fought to a draw, and I like to think we did because we both loved each other enough to hang in there. It took more patience and care than I thought I possessed, which was precisely why it was good for me.

Humor plays a big part in your writing. Why do you think that is?
I see myself as essentially ridiculous, to be honest. Life is sad sometimes but also hilarious, ironic and filled with strange twists and turns and if you take yourself seriously for a second–though, the people (and dogs) around me would never permit that–it would become unbearable. Especially, if you're a writer, I think, taking oneself seriously is an occupational hazard. Can’t do it. Life is absurd, and so am I. I tell myself that twice a day, and when I don’t, my wife, daughter and friends do it for me.

A DOG YEAR is quite pragmatic and honest. Was there a danger in being overly sentimental? How did you avoid this trap?
I swore when I started to write this book that I would try to avoid what I saw as a big trap for a book like this–sentimentality. Dogs aren’t humans, and no one should mistake one for the other. They are different, alien and ought to be treated that way. I decided to simply write about the dogs, concentrate truthfully on what happened. There are no heroes or villains in A DOG YEAR, just dogs and a human who happened to converge with one another at a key point in all of their lives. I see A DOG YEAR as a lifetime of dog experiences compressed into a year. But whatever emotion is in the book has to be self-evident. It doesn’t need to be described. Nobody saved anybody else’s life, although some lives sure changed a bit. I encounter too many people who over-sentimentalize the dog experience. It isn’t good for dogs to be treated like people. They need to be treated like dogs, which is to say, they need to be understood for what they are, not for what we project on them.

By the end of A DOG YEAR, you have achieved a new balance with two new dogs. Have things settled down or are they still in flux?
Devon is not a mellow personality and once or twice a week, he will remind me of that (as in last week when he jumped through a screened window and into a neighbor’s house in pursuit of a cat, who he chased up to their attic. Two broken lamps). But it’s astonishing how mellow we are most of the time, how much he has calmed down, how long and quietly he naps by the family, how sweet he has become with other people. With Border Collies, unlike Labs, things are always in flux. They never really totally settle down, are always eager for work and new experiences. But compared to A DOG YEAR, it feels almost placid to me. He is a good boy with a great sweet heart and I am immensely grateful he crashed into my life. We have more fun than I would have imagined a man could ever have with a dog. He keeps me moving.

But are things really calmer?
No, not by a long shot. Okay, I like to kid myself that we have placid days, but that’s a ridiculous idea when you think about it. Last week, I was knocked nearly insensate by a rampaging herd of sheep. The dogs have been chased by wild dogs, butted by goats, and they constantly pursue countless squirrels, mice, chipmunks and raccoons. There is no such thing as a totally calm day with two Border Collies, especially when one of them is Devon.

I notice that Homer appears to have a knack for sheep herding. Have you pursued this further?
Yes, very much so. I am deeply into sheepherding. Homer and I take weekly herding lessons, have been to weeklong training camps several times. I’ve taken dog training classes, and he and I graze a Pennsylvania herd of 140 sheep three or four times a week. I love it, and plan to continue. He has won several ribbons (or I should say we have–the first thing I've won in my life). I find herding deeply satisfying, difficult and even spiritual. I love doing it. I’ve never had a hobby before, and this one is the one for me.



“This gentle book is a great reminder—as if anybody needed one—of what animals can mean to people at particular times in life.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Moving, funny . . . This is a loveable mutt of a book.” —Chicago Tribune

“Part cautionary tale, part love story, A Dog Year reminds us that adopting a pet is a massive responsibility but one that rewards the owner with a richer, more meaningful life.” —Los Angeles Times

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