It’s a dog’s life: if you’re strong

Somewhere in Texas a border collie’s sheepherding career had “crashed and burned.” Meanwhile in suburban New Jersey a technical…

Somewhere in Texas a border collie’s sheepherding career had “crashed and burned.”

Meanwhile in suburban New Jersey a technical writer had collided with the dislocating realities of middle age.

“I wanted — needed — my life to change, and it certainly did. The dog named Devon landed in the middle of my mundane, commonplace middle-class drama like a heat-seeking missile,” recalls Jon Katz in his new memoir A Good Dog.

“Everything that happened after he entered my life was unexpected and surprising.”

Katz’s book reads like a contemporary American riff on German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s often-quoted line: “You must change your life.”

By our 50s, youthful visions and priorities no longer see us through the intensifying awareness of mortality and the speeding up of time. Middle age is when most of us, the lucky ones, discover just what lengths a Higher Power, a Creator or Fate will go to ensure change happens.

In Katz’s case, a collie with issues became the pry bar.

As soon as he arrived at Newark Airport, Devon got to work creating the havoc necessary to break Katz loose from his trap; the ensuring weeks were filled with chaos.

One especially memorable day, the dog trapped students and their driver inside a school bus. Katz had to pick up his 22.5-kilogram new friend and literally run through backyards to escape the police. He and Devon wound up hiding in a neighbour’s garage.

Clearly, something had to change and getting rid of the collie was no option.

“From the first, I loved that dog beyond words.”

A Good Dog is a writer’s attempt to find words for an ineffable bond.

“It’s healthy to remember, dealing with dogs and other animals, that we are largely ignorant. There were parts to this dog that I would never understand.”

One of the parts was the mysterious youthful trauma that deflected a smart dog out of the sheepherding career for which he was bred. Something hurtful had happened in Texas, and the new owner would have to rectify the damage without, of course, knowing what the youthful trauma was.

To start, Katz logically decided to take Devon into sheepdog obedience classes on a Pennsylvania farm.

This is where Devon began changing Katz’s life in earnest.

“Out in the pasture, he tore off after a ewe, grabbed her leg, and tried to pull her down…

“I tore off after him, grabbed him by the collar and screamed, ‘No!’ ‘Bad!’ and other useless things frustrated humans shout at their dogs.”

Yes, Katz had plenty of work to do … on himself.

As it transpired, the author may not have been able to discover just what it was that so scarred Devon’s psyche, but he did reach back into his own childhood to discover the source of some of his own traumas.

A strange, solitary child, obsessed with comic books and tropical fish, he frequently skipped school to roam the Providence, Rhode Island streets, and hung out with his basset hound Sam in a cemetery.

As an adult, though a loving father and husband, he remained a loner.

On Carolyn Wilki’s sheep farm Devon introduced the writer to the escape hatch from suburban angst.

Katz changed Devon’s name to Orson, in order the help the dog break free of youthful associations. Orson changed Katz’s residence.

“A little over two years after Orson arrived at Newark Airport, he and I were standing by a sprawling old farmhouse in the tiny hamlet of West Hebron, New York. This time I’d really done it. I’d bought a farm….

“It was one of those fliers you take if you are fortunate, crazy, and determined not to do what’s expected, which is to settle into the final leg of your life quietly and without compliant.”

If Katz had trouble relating to his middle-class neighbours in New Jersey, it may have had something to do with priorities – the suburban soccer-parent rituals weren’t for Katz, but what was? Who could speak his language?

By trying to communicate with a troubled dog, a troubled man learned to communicate with other people as well.

The narrative begins filling up with fascinating characters, folks who helped Katz on the farm, other dog lovers, veterinarians, a dog communicator, a shaman…

In fact, aggressively skeptical Katz began discovering the pleasures of a more open mind.

Then there were the sheep, the donkeys, the chickens, a cat — a host of new animal friends and teachers.

The daily life of the writer became rich indeed. Loneliness was gradually replaced by a more creative form of solitude.

Orson became a guide dog to Katz’s return to “Ecstatic Places.” These regions of a person’s psyche were so named by an environmental psychologist Louise Chawla.

At some point in childhood, we connect with a place in nature – a pond or a lake, a seashore or field, a vacant lot, or even a fish tank – where we find security and connectedness.

The memory of that remains in us and helps motivate us later in life.

“If disconnection from nature is a form of social suicide, and triggers alienation and loneliness, as some psychoanalysts argue, then experiences in nature when we are young can shape our imaginations and affect our lives forever.”

In a manicured New Jersey suburb Katz had slowly been committing social suicide.

Orson reconnected Katz to the essentials.

“I was standing outside myself and felt a curious sensation, as if I were suddenly immune from pain, impervious to loss. My leg did not ache. I was neither old nor young, only there, at this place, in this moment, alone in the woods but not lonely. I was surrounded by life itself. And accompanied by this dog.”

One of the purest functions of art is to open our senses to possibility… a very different thing than telling us what to think and feel, which is the purview of propaganda.

As Orson opens Katz’s life and mind, the storyteller, the artist, engages us in new possibilities.

What is the shared “language” of living things?

What is death and how permeable is the border between here and there? Or is there a border?

What does it mean to be other? Not just of another species, but even simply another person, possessor of another history?

What are we doing, psychologically, spiritually, and socially, when we make a moral decision?

The key word here is ‘possibilities,’ not ‘answers’.

“The world is filled with people of certainty, of strong opinions, who have a sure sense of what others ought to do….

“Animals have a way of teaching you that for all your books, vets, websites, shamans, and holistic practitioners, you are not in control.”

Be prepared; the story of Orson will break your heart, but then, to borrow Ernest Hemingway’s trope, Katz’s insightful art will make you stronger at the broken places.

A Good Dog: The story of Orson who changed my life, by Jon Katz, Villard, 226 pages, $29.95, hardcover