The Second Chance Dog

“The Second Chance Dog: A Love Story,” by Jon Katz. Ballantine Books. $25.
The Second Chance Dog
Usually a love triangle is a mix of lust and sometimes lament . . . later.

This one involving the author, Maria and Frieda threads its way through 266 pages of challenge and chutzpah, with Frieda, a Rottweiler-German shepherd piece of work, testing the resolve of the other two at every twist and turn.

Self-described as “broke and bewildered,” Katz, owner and living alone on Bedlam Farm in upstate New York, undergoes a divorce (after 35 years of marriage) and finds a new love interest in Maria, who is soon in midst of divorce, too (after nearly 20 years together). The troubled Maria, a fiber artist, has given up her art, lost her voice and is “seeking to find her lost creative soul.”

But Frieda, an almost year-long {Glens Falls, N.Y., area} animal-shelter inhabitant which is most likely facing euthanasia soon, is adopted by the needy Maria and the two connect emotionally, each “feeling safe and grounded with each other,” prompting a tendency to shut out all those around them. “Maria identifies with the outcast creatures of the world and sees herself in them,” Katz writes.

Here you have two needy people and a dog – all seeking a second chance in life – but approaching life a bit differently philosophically. For instance, Katz says, “Getting a dog is not a moral decision but a practical one. Not a way of making me feel good about my morality but about getting a dog that can live comfortably and safely in my life. It’s an increasingly minority view.” And a diametrically opposite approach via which Maria adopts Frieda.

Emotionally devastated with a farm to tend, continued writing projects and book tours, Katz offers Maria, who is restoring a neighbor’s barn, the use of one of his unused barns for a studio. And thus begins a bumpy path that takes the pair to a friendship, courtship and eventual marriage. The key, Katz says, is “to encourage people without taking on their problems or interfering with their lives.”

As their relationship and strength swirls like a pretzel, the ultra-protective Frieda remains the “elephant in room,” looming larger in Katz’s mind while Maria has no clue how to deal with the issue.

“The challenge for me, from the beginning,” Katz emphasizes, “was to find a way to talk to Frieda. I wanted to talk to her with my heart and soul, not just my mouth. Training is a spiritual experience for me, not about obedience but about communication and trust.

“Every dog I have lived with has made me a better human – more patient, less distracted, a better listener. And Frieda was no exception.

“Frieda was, I think, a dog at war with the world. And I was a person at war with the world. The one thing we really shared was a great love for Maria.”

But understanding Frieda means grasping her background. Input from staffers at the Glens Falls area shelter, the wife of the dog’s previous owner, a brief meeting with her breeder and a young woman named Gina who worked at an animal shelter and headed up a team trying to trap the elusive Frieda, which had been seen running loose for days on Adirondack Community College campus provides that.

A onetime guard dog that was never allowed in the house then dumped off in the Adirondacks to survive on her own by a displeased owner and Katz suddenly has a more profound understanding of her independence and distrust of humans. Add nearly a year in an animal shelter, her Rottweiler-German shepherd mix and you have all the ingredients for a psychological powder keg.

To better grasp Frieda’s character, he takes her on lead into the Adirondacks one day. “It was transformative, a powerful spiritual exercise that enabled me to understand her,” he writes.

The glacial healing process, construction of a trust framework and acceptance of other farm animals is a work in progress between the author and the anguished Frieda with a special personal target date.

Written in a friendly first-person perspective, “The Second Chance Dog” is a renewed celebration of life accented with plenty of soul, adventurous spirit and determined commitment.