Heavy Petting

A Good Dog in Trouble

My beloved Orson kept biting people. What should I do?

When I got Orson in 2000, we were both in bad shape. The 2-year-old border collie was excitable and aggressive. I was living (unhappily) in northern New Jersey, writing (unhappily) about media and technology. I had few interests outside my family, and I had few friends.

Five years later, almost everything about my life was different. I was writing (happily) about dogs, animals, and rural life, living (happily) on a 110-acre farm in upstate New York. Orson had become my beloved sidekick. We were always together, day and night. His arrival had sparked the best and most important change in my life.

But he was still troubled. I’d tried every tactic from sheepherding to acupuncture to calm him, and I’d had considerable success—I thought. But in the spring and summer of 2005, for reasons that weren’t clear, he suddenly became aggressive and bit three people. The following is adapted from A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life, published this week.

I had four choices.

I could build a more secure kennel for Orson behind the house, away from traffic and visitors.

I could find a more isolated and peaceful home for him, where fewer people visited to alarm him.

I could take Orson to a veterinary school like Cornell’s for more sophisticated testing—MRIs, brain scans, further blood work—to make certain that no medical issue (a tumor, for example) was causing his violent behavior.

I could take him to my vet and have him killed.

The next morning before dawn, Orson and I rode up on the ATV to see Sirius, the Dog Star. I brought a piece of toast for breakfast. I sat munching on it, tossing Orson bits and scratching him under his chin.

Dogs, dogs. One day he’s biting somebody’s neck, the next morning he’s sitting on the hilltop with me, gentle as a kitten.

“What are we going to do with you, my friend?” I asked.

I considered the first option. My contractor friend Anthony could easily build a kennel with high fences and posts behind my farmhouse. Orson would have space to run, a vantage point from which to watch the sheep and the house, but no one could get near him.

Orson, I knew, would hate it. He always wanted to be near me, to be part of the action. A social creature, he loved stimulation. Penned in the back, he would be barking and pacing all the time. I would hate it, too. I loved being with Orson; I didn’t bring him into my life in order to keep him in isolation.

“Nobody could get into it, and he couldn’t get out,” Anthony told me. “But it wouldn’t be a kennel, it would be a prison. Just so you know.”

This was not why I had this dog, or any dog.    

What about option two? What if I could locate a remote farm where there would be space to run, woods to explore, and someone happy to take in a dog like this? But I would miss him always. More importantly, I’d be trying to slip off the hook.

Obviously, it’s sometimes appropriate to give a dog away— I’d done it myself. But I would feel, and be, irresponsible if I passed a problem dog along. If Orson bit another kid or adult, perhaps more seriously, a few inches higher, injured someone’s face or eyes—could I live with that? I was choking on my own statistics, those I’d spouted in my writings and talks: Nearly 5 million people bitten by dogs each year. Hundreds of thousands, most of them children, hurt seriously enough to go to a hospital. Dogs that have bitten are likely to bite again.

To me, dogs that harm people violate the fundamental contract between humans and canines. They cause lawsuits, insurance problems, restrictions on all dogs, plus lots of human pain and suffering. Keeping a violent animal is antithetical to everything I believe about a life with dogs. Passing one along to someone else was no better. I could not give Orson away and then simply hope for the best. Orson was not more important than a child’s safety. At least, I didn’t want him to be.

The third option was perhaps the most feasible. Go to Cornell, spend $5,000 or $6,000—I’d checked—for the elaborate workups necessary to determine if any hidden physical factor was causing this aggressive behavior. One vet had suggested Orson, when aroused, might be experiencing something akin to seizures.

Such tests might or might not find something, however. They would be frightening, possibly painful for him, draining for me. I’d already exhausted the possibilities of conventional veterinary care and much of alternative medicine as well. My kitchen counters were stacked with Chinese herbs. Orson had had veterinary chiropractic and acupuncture.

I’d trained Orson faithfully in the heat and cold and wet, employing truckloads of treats, spending thousands of hours repeating grounding and calming commands. We’d even won a ribbon in my early attempts to teach him to herd sheep.

What was the outer limit of what was appropriate to do for a dog? How much money and time was too much to spend? Living in this hamlet upstate, I’d seen the grinding poverty people struggled with. A family up the road lived in a trailer with gaping holes covered by tar paper. Hunters desperately asked to hunt on my property—not for sport, but to feed their families. I knew of dogs that got shot when their owners couldn’t afford veterinary care. Where was the balance between the care and money I lavished on Orson and the needs of human beings? I didn’t know, but I felt I was approaching the line, perhaps had already crossed it.

No, it didn’t seem right to subject this dog to more tests, to spend thousands of dollars seeking answers we might never find.

That left the fourth choice: Putting to death a dog that I loved dearly, that I’d written about, that was known and loved by so many people, that had changed my life. I owed him so much.

I was afraid even to talk to my vet about the prospect of euthanizing Orson. I imagined her shock and outrage and pictured her throwing me out of her office, forcing me to find a less ethical vet who would do it for the money, no questions asked.

I could even hear her words: “We don’t kill animals like Orson. He’s wonderful. He’s healthy. How dare you even ask?”

After Orson and I rode back down to the house, I called her and asked if I could visit. She seemed puzzled when I showed up solo, without a dog, but waved me back into her small office. We talked for an hour about Orson. She already knew about his arousal and nipping. Now I told her about the latest incidents, the bites, the blood and torn shirts. She understood what I was feeling, she said. She’d had to put down an aggressive dog of her own.

We went over, in detail, all the possibilities. Orson might well have a medical condition, she said. She told me what I might expect if I went to specialists or veterinary behaviorists. But conventional care hadn’t found the problem yet, and holistic treatments hadn’t eliminated it. Sending him to another home was a possibility, but she agreed that I might be passing a serious problem along to others.

She wasn’t telling me what to do, but she said her practice did not believe in circulating dogs that harmed humans. Violent dogs ought to be put down, she agreed, and if I sincerely believed Orson was one, and would hurt other people, she would help me. “In the final analysis,” Mary said, “you know your dogs best. Only you can really judge. I will support your decision.” That nearly brought me to tears. My vet was telling me she trusted me; it meant a lot.

I went home to think. I called Lesley, my local animal communicator and shaman. This was not her terrain, but she had become a friend, one I felt knew Orson’s spirit, so I wanted to tell her what was happening. She had no advice. Some things belonged in the spirit realm, some in the human domain, and she respected those differences. Orson’s attacks sounded awful, she said—I was right to take them seriously. So even the shaman was out of ideas.

Everyone around me—especially my wife—grasped that this was my decision. She’d rarely seen the aggression in Orson that was causing all this trouble, just the sweet dog who slept at the foot of the bed and slurped our faces each morning. Put Orson down? “Could you really do that?” she wondered.

The truth was, I wasn’t really soliciting options, and the people who knew me well weren’t offering any.

So, there we were. Four choices, none of them good.

In trouble, I turn inward, trying to reason through what must be done. But I’ve also come to rely on the thinking and writings of a few people who’ve inspired or guided me. They never quite tell me what to do, but always help me figure it out. I call them my secret board of directors.

It’s a very distinguished membership, including the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Abraham Lincoln, and philosopher Hannah Arendt. I especially cherished her Responsibility and Judgment, a series of essays about right and wrong and how each of us decides which is which. I’ve often turned to it when I faced rough choices and it has never failed me.

So, I settled on the porch with Orson and read one of Arendt’s chapters on moral conduct. It was a warm late afternoon, and the hawks were circling slowly over the meadow in front of the farmhouse. Orson was dozing near me, Rose sitting by the fence, eyeing the sheep. Clementine was on the lawn on her back, snoring contentedly. It was terribly discouraging to have made it through these five-plus decades, to struggle to reach this place with Orson’s great help and inspiration, to be living on this beautiful farm, sitting on the porch on a lazy summer day—and be contemplating this awful act.

I felt old, weary, and sad.

So, I read. Moral conduct, Arendt wrote, depends mostly on the discussions we have with ourselves. We must not contradict ourselves by making exceptions in our own favor. We must not place ourselves in positions in which we would have to despise ourselves.

“It certainly is not a matter of concern with the other but with the self,” she’d written. “The standard is neither the love of some neighbor nor self-love, but self-respect.”

It did not matter what other people, or other dog lovers, would do or would think of whatever I decided. It mattered what I thought of myself; the respect I needed to seek was my own. The world is filled with people of certainty, who have a sure sense of what others ought to do. Nowhere were they more numerous than in the vast network of people and institutions that constituted the dog culture. Yet if life with dogs had taught me anything, it was to be less, not more, certain. Animals have ways of teaching you that for all your books, vet, Web sites, and holistic practitioners, you are not in control. Animals live by their own lights.

There was a preacher I’d met a few miles south of here, years ago, who walked the hills and valleys looking to save souls. I was fond of him, admired his energy and faith. He’d never saved a single soul, he told me, but never missed a day of trying. He used to stop by my little mountaintop cabin once or twice a year, and although he didn’t get far with my soul, I usually gave him a cup of tea. We talked for a few minutes while he gathered himself for the rest of his arduous day.

I thought of him that afternoon and wished he would come along. At some point during every visit, he used to say that the devil was the world’s best theologian, because he knew right and wrong better than anyone. I would have liked to meet somebody that sure. Instead, I was the sole judge, legislator, and theologian of my world.

What pushed me through my lethargy was a passage Arendt cited from Immanuel Kant: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.”

Orson and I had been under the starry heavens all summer and now, I had to listen to the moral law within me.