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A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life    by Jon Katz order for
Good Dog
by Jon Katz
Order:  USA  Can
Villard, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

One need not be a dog lover to appreciate Jon Katz's story of Orson, whose life began as Devon, and who appeared in the author's previous A Dog Year. Devon first came to Katz's attention via email from a breeder who had 'one available border collie bright, dominant, a dog with issues, two-years old, very smart and in need of a home'. Earlier in Texas, Devon was a show dog, and something happened to cause his ultimate erratic behavior - so that just the sound of a hand clap would send him into a tizzy.

At the Katz's New Jersey residence, Devon gained a reputation for 'attempting to herd' objects such as school buses, biting the tires, and frightening the driver and children aboard. As Katz puts it, 'he was a proud working dog'. To avoid trouble, the author scooped up his canine and hid in various yards and garages until the coast was clear of law enforcement officers. He told Devon, 'You can't go herding school buses, you just can't. That was not a sheep!' Katz writes that he didn't relish telling his wife Paula (a news reporter for The Washington Post) that he and Devon had been arrested for molesting a school bus!

Katz needed a change to continue writing his book-in-progress, as well as a different environment for Devon who he tells us 'spoke to my heart'. Devon was instinctive, dominant, explosive like all border collies, and he needed to work - 'I didn't realize for some time that I was the work he would find'. Katz's authority issues plagued him into adult life. It seemed that Devon had similar issues with commands and obedience from herding classes and exercises as a show dog. Traumatic times with Devon occurred as he broke through a wired-glass window, when a UPS agent came onto the front porch. The beautiful black and white canine was also proficient in opening a refrigerator, and ham vanished from a sandwich - said sandwich left intact!

A trainer recommended a change of name, so Devon became Orson (Katz admired Orson Welles). The real change occurred when Jon Katz bought Bedlam Farm, forty-plus acres in West Hebron, upper state New York. In an area where farming was dying out, Katz found the stately old farmhouse surrounded by 'soft green pastures bounded by rolling hills, ponds, and lakes - and it felt I'd somehow come home'. Winters arrived with 'screeching winds', making hilly, steep roads slick. Sweeping farmland and wooded valleys rolled all the way to the Vermont border. With the move came other animals besides Orson and Katz's labs - Winston the rooster 'marched straight up the slope like Pickett at Gettysburg', and sat on the ground next to Orson, who looked back in amazement. Somehow 'an inexplicable friendship was born, as they napped together on sunny afternoons'. Then came sheep, donkeys, chickens, goats, and a memorable cat named Mother, who kept the rat population down.

Those were the peaceful times, but Orson was to show his troubled side many times over, slipping out of his leash to run to whatever he felt he had to herd. Katz was introduced to alternative medicine - a holistic veterinarian in Manchester, Vermont whose approach was tender and soft-spoken, while she applied acupuncture, and recommended herbal medication. The holistic vet suggested that a photo of Orson be passed along to a 'shamanic soul retriever', a woman with a solid reputation for helping animals, 'who'd studied the ancient Chinese notion that when animals are damaged, parts of their souls break off and can, under certain circumstances, be retrieved and returned to them'. Also interested in Orson's case was a horse communicator from Virginia who conversed with all of Bedlam Farm's animals.

Another border collie puppy named Rose joined the farm family. Rose differed from Orson, as she immediately began herding the sheep in the manner natural to one of her breed. Only six-months old, her herding precision was unusual in one so young. Orson was possessive of his owner, but it didn't rattle Rose in the least. Before settling each night, Rose would round up each bone, toy, and rawhide remnant to deposit in her crate. She didn't have an interest in being 'scratched nor cuddled'. Naturally and instinctively, she would follow Katz's 'Go get 'em, girl,' as she disappeared into the woods, returning with the 'whole gang - sheep, ram, and donkey'. She had found her place at Bedlam Farm - 'In an open forest, Rose was the fence'.

Jon Katz writes philosophically and prophetically, 'Lifetime dogs intersect with our lives with particular impact ... dogs we love in especially powerful, sometimes inexplicable, ways. While we may cherish other pets, we may never feel that particular kind of connection with any of the rest. For lack of a better term, they are dogs we fall in love with, and for whom we often invent complex emotional histories. You could argue that until the end of one's life with dogs, it isn't possible to say which was your once-in-a-lifetime dog. In my experience, though, people do usually know, if they're fortunate enough to have one.' Orson was once such dog, who luxuriated in attention and returned affection, especially from females whose lap he would climb into no matter how big he was. But the day would come when Katz would be forced to face one of the most heart-wrenching decisions of his life.

A Good Dog is more than a story of Orson, who was 'more than a dog ... a soul mate'. Jon Katz also writes of his wife Paula Span, and daughter Emma, of townsfolk, and carpenters befriended in the farmhouse reconstruction. He speaks emotionally and lovingly of the times he and Orson climbed the hill to settle in Adirondack chairs to watch the sky, and the night-time brilliance of the stars and the constellation of Canis Major, The Dog Star ... 'I, a child / Try to reach the stars ... Sirius is so near. / I run to the nearest hill / My reach is always too short / Wait till I am a grown man! / Now, I am old and bent with years / No more running to the hill and mountain top - / Yet, a warm, steady, life-giving glow / Reaches me from Sirius ... the unattainable. / I collect / White iridescent and evanescent starbeams / For my trip home to Sirius the dog star' (from Boris Levinson's Dream).

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