30 September

Change: My Sheepherding Days Are Over

by Jon Katz

Maria and I were recording our podcast yesterday, we were talking about the death of Red and our getting a new dog, a Lab Puppy, in November. Maria turned to me – I could see the light bulb going off in her very busy head – and she said:

“I didn’t really think about it, but your sheepherding days are over, aren’t they?” she said, ” that’s a big change, isn’t it?”

It is a big change, one of the biggest in the last 15 or 20 years.

I had thought about it, and I was aware of it, I just hadn’t quite processed it so succinctly. The end of my herding days happened gradually and over time.

Herding sheep changed my life.

Being a shepherd sparked my flight from the other world. It led to the break-up of a 35-year-old marriage; triggered a movie about my life, at least a half-dozen books, countless TV interviews, stories, critiques, and comments.

I sensed it was over when Red got sick and long before he died. I knew I would not – could not – replace him. So I’m not a shepherd anymore.

Fate can’t herd the sheep, and I didn’t have the stomach to get another border collie, wonderful breed that it is. There would never be another Red.

I didn’t want to subject another border collie to the stress of trying to live up to Red, I was afraid of how I would handle that. It wouldn’t be fair.

Fate taught me that. There is only one Red, and there will not be another, and I’m content to leave it that way.

So I decided on a compromise. I’d get a different kind of dog, a Lab, the other breed I live, but continue, even expand the therapy work that became such an important part of my relationship with Red, and of my own identity.

I resolved to find an ethical, experienced, first-class breeder, and I did in Lenore Severni of  Stonewall Farm Labradors.

And such a huge part of my work at the Mansion and Bishop Maginn High School.

I got into sheep herding nearly two decades ago, I thought it might focus my troubled border collie Orson and help him heal from his anxiety and hyper-arousal. I guess I was the one who really needed help, as it turned out.

Orson led me out to the Raspberry Ridge Farm in Pennsylvania where I took sheepherding lessons for a couple of years. I learned how to herd sheep with a border collie, but the impact on my life was much wider and deeper than that.

I trained Rose in Pennsylvania, and working with border collies and sheep got deeply into my blood, it led me back to nature,  it was the launching point of my move to the country, where I brought sheep with me. I became a shepherd, one of the proudest titles I ever had.

Sheepherding became an integral part of my writing, my life with dogs, my identity. It was very important to me, an iconic and ancient kind of work with dogs that moved me and inspired me.

I loved doing this work and did it just about every day for the next 20 years.

When Rose died and I got Red, this work brought me to a new spiritual and meaningful level. I was not able to train Fate to do this work, but Red needed very little training and we worked seamlessly, almost mystically together.

Red’s herding was a major part of our Open Houses, people so loved to see him work, and I loved to show him off. They came from all over the country to watch him work.

Red was a very special kind of dog, and he also led me further along a new path I had been exploring with Izzy and Lenore: hospice, and then work with the elderly.

This work led me to the Mansion where my interest in dog therapy work deepened,  as did my desire to write about the lives of the residents.  Dogs opened the elderly up in a way few things can.

This work slowly matched and then surpassed my love of sheepherding.

And began to alter my identity.

My work with Red and my life with Maria changed me, and I also changed myself. I was different.

Sometimes I didn’t recognize the new me or comprehend the old one.

I still loved to work with Red and the sheep, but as Red aged, and faltered,  he was less able to work the sheep the way he once did, but his skill as a therapy dog only deepened.

I evolved along with him. Neither one of us were quitters.

As is so often the case with me, I was never at ease with the official border collie crowds and organizations.  I hate to generalize, but it was not a good mix. In that world of trials and intensity – dogs and people – I found much snobbery, self-righteousness, and judgment.

I’ve never met a group of more than three people that I could abide, or that could abide me. I no longer try.

I trialed with Rose two or three times, won my blue ribbon, and walked away from that world.  I had no interest in those ribbons, or in most of the people wanting to win one. Nobody seemed to be having much fun, especially the sheep. I never even learned how to whistle.

I know too many people with “herding dog” bumper stickers on their cars who couldn’t get a sheep to cross the road with their dogs. It is a new status symbol. To me, it was a spiritual connection between humans and animals that is many centuries old.

It is in all of our bones, I think. It was sure in mine.

So the focus of my life has changed, and Maria saw it clearly and put it into context.  I understood the change, but not its importance in my life.

I got the sheep for me and my dogs, but the sheep are hers now, the yarn their purpose and justification. Along with Red, I have moved on, something I have always had to do and known how to do.

For me, life changed even more after 2016 when I began working with the group I call the Army Of Good. My idea was to do good rather than fight about it for years.  I’m afraid events have borne me out, this work seems more critical than ever.

The idea is deeply rooted now in me, and in many others around the country. It is already more important to me than herding sheep with a dog.

That work has become my focus, and our therapy work was a natural and elemental part of that work. One supplemented the other.

I can’t think of a more unlikely thing for me to have ended up doing than standing in a wet and chilly pasture at dawn with a dog and a flock of sheep.

Yet I can’t think of anything that ever felt more natural.

When Red died, a piece of my soul went off with him.

He led me to the work I am now doing and made much of it possible. People who didn’t want to deal with me always wanted to deal with Red. He was a passport, ambassador and guide to me. I never met anyone who didn’t love Red, I know a lot of people who don’t love me.

I was welcome wherever he went.

I don’t want to herd sheep with any other dog, my heart wouldn’t be in it. But I do very much want to continue the work he and I began doing, thus the hopefully sweet and calm Yellow Lab Zinnia, who comes to us with warm expectations, but not the pressure of having to be Red.

I don’t want that, not for her, not for me. She deserves the right to be her own wonderful self, and I relish a new experience with her, I am no looking to replicate an old one.

I respect life and death, and I respect change.  How else can we grow? You can follow it or try to fight it. If you do, you will lose.

Red’s death was sad, of course, but it also gives me the opportunity to learn, especially at an age when so many people calcify and turn to stone.

Change is good for me. I fully expect Zinnia to take me to new heights, new places, new levels of creativity (in my writing and photography) and fulfillment. I suspect that will be her message.

Dogs, from Bud to Rose to Frieda to Red,  have always brought change to me and led me to new places. I can’t wait to see what Zinnia has in mind for me.

This move is bittersweet for me, as change often is.

Every single morning of my life, I believe I will miss taking a dog out to work with the sheep, asking for an outrun, watching these remarkable creatures run and shift and outthink the flock. It is a beautiful way to feel human.

Herding brought me back to nature, showed me how important the human-animal connection is, and how necessary.

It is a big deal to lose so vital a part of my identity. But you know what?

When I go sit in Sue Silverstein’s art class and meet the wonderful children there from all over the world,  Zinnia dozing on the red mat Sue Silverstein has already purchased for he, I  will feel the very same thing: this is where I belong.

I have so many wonderful memories of Rose and me walking up in the hills with our flock, walking into town to mow the lawn of the Methodist Church, battling winds and blizzards to get the sheep into the barn and the lambs with their mothers.

Life is my master, not me, everything has its place, and if I can’t grow, then I can’t live my life.

Don’t ask me about my health. Ask me how I live my life.

Herding sheep was one of the best things I have ever done in my life, and my challenge now is to do more best things than I have ever done in my life.

I’m game.

So this very wonderful and important chapter in my life has ended, as I’m sure some of you have already noticed.

I’m taking a couple of breaths and ready to take the leap into the next one. Like the others, this is a leap of faith. I can hardly wait to see where it goes.

And wherever it goes, I went out to the pasture this morning and said goodbye to a cherished part of my life.


  1. Thank you, Jon, for once again touching something in me. You and I are the same age and this year, my husband and I moved to a house twice as big, more space, of course (and cleaning) and I’m going to enjoy every day in it. You’re right. How do we grow if we don’t change? The Army of Good has changed my focus as well. The positive force is so strong!

  2. I totally agree. I am 76 and have had to give up certain activities in my life due to changes in my body, like international folk dance. However, my priorities have also changed. Now my work with international students has grown and I value that highly. continue to change and grow.

  3. My…Oh My…Isn’t it so very true…That there is a time for everything under the Sun. Nature at its best !!!

    Blessings !!!

  4. I have read all of your books Jon and will miss your shepherding work with the dogs but I understand it all. It’s like playing the same old record on the record player, after awhile it loses all meaning. Thank you for sharing your life with us, your readers. I look forward to reading about your new adventures! God bless the two of you! ❤️❤️??

  5. This touched me deeply and brought me to tears. How I perceive you has taken a big turn around since I first began following your blog…from thinking you were a very arrogant person to seeing you as a very caring person. I am beginning to see changes in my own outlook on life and the world. Thank you.

  6. It’s been wonderful to see your evolvement over the years. You are bringing so much to so many. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The voyage of the best ship is a zig-zag line of a hundred tacks.” Never stop changing; you’re making the world a better place.

  7. Wonderful article on facing life’s changes, they come to all of us in one way or another. Will you still keep the sheep?
    Holidays are coming, can you tell me how many residents are a the Mansion?

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