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A Need to Work Like a Dog

Recognition of the herder instinct enriches the life of many a pet--and owner too

June 23, 2002|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Consider this scenario: Your newly adopted dog has just chased your neighbors' cat across their lawn, through their screened window, shattered two lamps, raced up the stairs and held the cat hostage in their attic. You are enraged at the dog and liable for all damages.

Does it even occur to you that the dog might not be chasing the cat, but attempting to herd it? That he may not be misbehaving, but succumbing to age-old instinct? Probably not. Because you, like most people, may think herding is extinct--along with animals and people who want to do it. You'd be wrong.

The cat/dog mayhem described above actually happened to Jon Katz. He's a 6-foot, 230-pound urbanite best known until recently as a respected writer on new media, new technology and other 21st century subjects. He has written 11 books, numerous articles and is also known among friends as a devoted husband, father and spiritual leader of two placid yellow Labs, who dozed faithfully at Katz's feet for years as he sat writing to earn their living. For most of his adult life, he says, "my idea of excitement was to go to Yankee Stadium and have two hot dogs."

Then something "really bizarre" happened to Katz. He got a new dog. Its name was Devon--a ne'er-do-well, 2-year-old border collie who had failed at everything in life, including Freud's two biggies: love and work. Devon was bred to be a competitive show dog--a job he could not handle. He was, therefore, considered unfit by his first owner, for pats, treats, "good dog" compliments and other perks that would provide a pup with self-esteem. The rejected, dejected dog was shipped back to the breeder, who induced Katz to give him a home.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 564 words Type of Material: Correction
Shepherd dogs--The name and breed of a dog in a photo caption in Sunday's Southern California Living were incorrect. The photo, with a story about sheepherding dogs, was of Seth, a border collie, as he watched a herd of sheep.
*

It is unclear which of the two has helped the other more. Devon is happy and fulfilled because he has both love and work--herding sheep. Katz has a new life too, his writing focus and daily pursuits transformed. He has become what he describes as "an itinerant shepherd"--a guy who actually spends much time in a pasture, with 300 head of sheep, a wooden crook, and two young collies who assist him (or vice versa) with the herding.

"We have these amazing moments, the dogs and I," Katz says. Sometimes we go out at 3 or 4 in the morning to graze the sheep for a few hours. I lie down in the pasture and watch the meteor showers. We also help with the lambing, shearing, worming," he says.

The Pennsylvania sheep farm where he's a volunteer shepherd is about a 1 1/2-hour drive from his city house in New Jersey, which is exactly 12 miles from the center of Manhattan. "Sheepherding isn't dead, no matter what anyone tells you," Katz says.

Actually, nobody tells us anything about shepherds and flocks these days, except at church on Sunday mornings.

Katz's new book, "A Dog Year: Twelve Months, Four Dogs, and Me" (Villard Press), details one year from the day Devon arrived--by air--from the breeder. A year in which Man and Dog--each going through difficult times--found themselves through each other. And through herding sheep.

The book belongs to a small, relatively new genre of what might be called animal memoirs. These are books about people and their pets that do not dwell on either the person or the pet, but on the relationship between them; the intertwining of two individual lives, of two species.

It is unsentimental--a small joy ride of a story about a man trying to comprehend the needs of a certifiably nutty animal--a dog whose brilliance is exceeded only by his Machiavellian talent for mischief. It is a supremely satisfying tale because Katz understands that Man and Dog are totally unalike yet capable of affection and respect for each other. That's one definition of friendship.

When Devon appeared, Katz's own life was in turmoil. His only child, Emma, had just left for Yale. He was approaching middle age. His few close friends had drifted away. He was not happy writing about media and the Internet anymore. "I was doing a book on interactivity for Random House. I hated it. I was distressed every time I sat down at the computer.

"This new dog lands in my life like a bomb. A Tomahawk missile. And now, such a short time later, my whole life is all different. Now I write about dogs and their people. I shepherd three or four times a week. I have wonderful new friends. Devon did all that."

Chasing Provides a Clue

At first he seemed "crazy." Katz nicknamed him Helldog on his first day, when the cur bolted his crate in the airport and raced through the terminal, security police with guns drawn behind him. On arrival at Katz's house, the dog Houdini'd himself out of the yard, leaped onto the roof of an oncoming car and proudly held his ground like a truant kid hitching a ride by hanging onto the back of a bus.

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