A dogged love for one canine clown
Author Jon Katz talks about the mischievous border collie that caused him to take stock of the rewards and responsibilities faced by dog owners.
The first meeting between Jon Katz and Devon was rocky, to say the least.
The border collie arrived at the airport scared and shaken. He bolted when his crate door was opened. Total bedlam ensued, and Mr. Katz wondered whether he really should have agreed to adopt this high-strung, stubborn animal who, amazingly enough, had been raised for obedience competition.
The episode was the harbinger of many tumultuous interactions occasionally confrontations between the two. But it was also the start of a watershed year for Mr. Katz, whose recent book, "A Dog Year," chronicles the 12 months during which he met Devon, put down his two longtime Labrador companions, and added Homer, a second (and calmer) border collie as the final member of his household.
It was Devon who led Katz to become certified as a dog trainer, to become a regular at a sheepherding ranch near his New Jersey home, and to shift the subject of his freelance writing from technology to dogs. "In the history of this story, I ask myself who really saved whom here," Katz says. "He changed my life. He gave me a different thing to write about, a ton of great friends, a wonderful hobby I never had. All kinds of exercise and fun.... I'm immensely grateful to him."
Garrulous and affable, with a self-deprecating humor, Katz never seems happier than when discussing dogs in general, and Devon and Homer in particular.
As his life increasingly revolves around border collies (he is also devoted to his wife and college-age daughter), Katz has become a strong advocate for dogs and a critic of the growing practice of buying a puppy on a whim, without thought to the training and time that should be involved.
"There's a real need [for dogs]," he says, noting that the number of people getting dogs has doubled since Sept. 11. "But people don't want to do the work. They don't want to train them, they don't want to work with them, they don't have time, they're too busy."
That lack of effort, combined with the growing number of animals, leads to serious problems, says Katz. "Bites are way up. Dogs destroy things. So even as everyone is getting a dog, every town in the country is passing antidog legislation. In my county in New Jersey, there isn't one place where you can legally take a dog off the leash."
It's not just a matter of devoting time. Many owners, he says, are reluctant to do simple things such as occasionally confine a dog that is getting into trouble, mistakenly seeing such acts as cruel.
As an example of how such measures can help, Katz recounts one of his many Devon stories, this one involving the refrigerator.
"He was not only opening the refrigerator, he was picking [out] the food, taking the whole container, taking it off to some corner of the house and eating it, and then hiding the container. With no mess," says Katz, shaking his head in amazement at the dog's ingenuity.
"I had this battle of wits with him, which I kept losing. I said, I've got to be smarter than he is. So I got a child lock and put duct tape around it. I closed [the door] and I put a chair next to the handle. And I came home very happily. And of course, the chair was knocked over, he had chewed through the duct tape, he had pried off the child lock, he had opened the refrigerator door and taken the food out. I can't get into my own refrigerator, and he says, 'What great fun! What's this dummy going to do next?' "
Eventually, Katz says, a dog trainer friend helped him realize that while the trick was cute, it wasn't something that should be tolerated. In fact, it indicated a deeper problem: Devon's need to be always occupied. He needed a place, she said, where he could be "off the clock."
Katz began putting the dog in a crate when he left the house, for short times at first, with a treat. "It was always a happy place. And it's a great thing for him, because he can relax," he says.
The antics Katz has encountered with Devon who used to leap onto the roofs of passing cars and who still delights in removing all of his owner's shoelaces (without harming the shoes) leads Katz to another point he says is crucial for successful dog ownership: choosing the right dog.
In his case, he and Devon are perfectly matched. "We're restless and weird in very similar ways," Katz observes. But border collies are one of the most abandoned breeds, in part because many owners are not so amused at such creative mischief. "I've had three border collies left in my yard with notes saying, 'I need help like Devon did,' " Katz says.
He suggests that prospective owners use a breeder who asks the tough questions needed to match people and pets. Or, if they go to a shelter, to make sure careful thought is given to breed and temperament.
Older dogs often make good pets for people with little time on their hands, Katz says, as does the "shelter mutt" that "great all-purpose everything dog, that nobody knows what it is." They tend to be durable and adaptable, and to deal well with apartments.
Even though not all dogs require as much attention as border collies, Katz is a firm believer that all dogs need to work. "It doesn't have to be sheepherding," he says. "I have this premise that the new work of dogs is actually becoming the emotional lives of Americans."
To back that up, Katz points to some of the trends over the past half century. "The number of dogs in America exploded when television became popular," he says, adding that for many Americans, computers and television have replaced town greens and other public places. "I think a lot of Americans are lonely."
In response, "they're turning more and more to dogs as a way of filling some of these gaps."
That, in itself, is not a bad thing, says Katz, though he is disturbed by a new element he's noticed: dogs marketed as a part of the American dream. "People come to see a dog as almost like a BMW, or something to aspire to. You don't have a complete life in the suburbs if you don't have a dog."
Still, Katz is a firm believer in the emotional support dogs can offer. He often brings Devon, who has been certified as a therapy dog, to nursing homes. And he points to one friend diagnosed with cancer who adores her canine companion.
"She has got this dog who just is crazy about her," he says. "[When] I met them, she was singing 'Reggie, the big-eared corgi' to the tune of 'Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,' and he was howling along. He cheers her up. If she's too mopey, you see the dog come over and nudge her and lick her. And to me, this dog is working."