The balance works so well, Katz wonders for a long time why he responded to a friend’s request that he consider adopting a border collie. The friend holds nothing back:
this dog is a challenge; high-strung, demanding. It will take a great deal of time and effort to ‘master’ him.
When Devon arrives at the airport, he lives up to his reputation, escaping from the shipping crate and leading Katz, baggage handlers, and security personnel on a crazy race through the terminal until the author finally caught him.
“He was a split personality, fiercely proud and willful, but at the same time lonely and defeated, with a sense of anxious despair about him. His eyes were sometimes deep and mournful wells.”
Not long after Devon arrives, Katz notices that Stanley, one of the labs, is moving slower and slower. A trip to the veterinarian clinic does not bring good news, and Katz is faced with the most difficult decision a pet owner has to make. In making that decision, these thoughts are raised:
“What would I want? What would Stanley want? What would be best for him? For him to end his life as happily as he’d lived it. For him not to be crippled by hip dysplasia, or felled by a stroke, heart attack, or seizure. For him not to end his days struggling to take a walk, chase a ball, keep up with the new pack that had abruptly formed in my house and life.”
The reasoning is so courageous, pet owners might want to highlight that passage in the book to read the next time their vet says there is not hope. They might also want to follow Katz’s formula for saying goodbye. What he does for Stanley’s last trip to the beloved mountain cabin is perhaps the most poignant moment in the book.
At a point when the author has finally gained some measure of control over Devon, except for the refrigerator
(which he ends up padlocking), his friend asks if Katz would like to adopt another border collie. This one is younger than Devon and not nearly the challenge. So Homer joins the pack and bonds so closely with Julius that he seems to mourn him as much as Katz when the dreadful decision again has to be made.
A Dog Year suffers just a bit from a disjointed time-line when the author suddenly goes back to an earlier memory in the midst of a current anecdote. This is especially confusing with current editorial styles that ask authors not to use past perfect tense in their work.
The balance also seems to be off just a bit. The book is heavily weighted toward the labs and the “helldog,” as Katz referrs to Devon, with Homer making a late arrival in the narrative.
Despite those minor flaws, this is a book that will appeal to a wide audience. The author has a wonderful way of making the dogs real characters without sinking into sentimentality or personifying them, but the reader is free to make those connections. (I once had a child as willful and stubborn as Devon.)
One doesn’t have to be a dog-lover to appreciate this story. Through the challenge of Devon, and the loss of his beloved labs, Katz learns much about life, death, and the human condition. “Once in a great while,” he writes, “the right person is fortunate enough to get the right dog, to have time to take care of it, to connect with it in a profound way.” Much like his other non-fiction, Running to The Mountain and Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho, this book intimately involves the reader in the truth as Katz finds it.