I have a troubled dog. Orson, my border collie, came to me when he was 2. He had issues. So, we've been to trainers and behavioralists and tried any number of different training methods. We've herded sheep. Chased geese. Practiced positive reinforcement. I've used hand signals and whistles, a special voice, enticing food. I even changed his name because it carried so many unpleasant associations.
Along the way, he and I have grown as close as members of different species can be. No human has ever had a more vigilant and attentive companion, and I'd do anything for him (within reason).
Yet Orson still has serious problems. He limps, tenses, cringes, nips. When aroused, which is often, he can be aggressive around other animals and unpredictable around children. Orson defends gates and doors with almost frightening fury and determination and has crashed right through windows several times. He has also tried to herd school buses, lawn mowers, skateboarders.
A couple of months ago, a young woman who helps care for the gardens on my farm was working in the yard, Orson sitting placidly next to her. When she stood up suddenly, he jumped up and nipped at her, leaving a welt on her collarbone.
I give my dogs a lot, but I expect a lot in return and nothing matters more so than this: Hurt no person, hurt no one else's animals. As much as I love this dog, as much as he has done for me, I would put Orson down in a minute if he ever seriously harmed someone. So, I was upset by Orson's assault, even though Annie wasn't, particularly. I spent time working with them, having Annie walk Orson, give him food, brush him, and interact with him. After several weeks, she is once more completely at ease with him, and he with her. I hope, for his sake and mine, that such an incident never happens again. But it was a wake-up call, the most serious of several recent incidents. Orson's arousal and aggression problems seemed to be resurfacing. I needed to act before anybody got hurt.
Perhaps, I thought, the restoration of my farm—the to and fro of tractors, trucks, and strangers—had destabilized him. But it was also possible that there was some underlying physical problem.
So, I took him to my vet, who drew blood, tested his kidneys and thyroids, took X-rays, and did almost everything else we could think of. It cost hundreds of dollars and revealed nothing. Her conclusion surprised me.
"Look," she told me. "There's nothing conventional veterinary medicine can do for this dog. He's physically healthy. But he does have problems. I'd like you to take him to a holistic vet in Vermont who has helped with problems I can't fix."
This was not a suggestion I particularly relished. I had read enough "holistic" veterinary advice on the Web to make me leery of it. I don't doubt there are many useful alternative approaches to almost any form of medicine, human or animal, and Eastern veterinary approaches are in vogue among dog lovers now. But it's almost impossible—at least for me—to gauge the effectiveness of these alternatives, which many people first encounter online.
The Internet can become a quagmire for dog-lovers seeking counsel. The mailing lists and sites I visit occasionally are filled with all sorts of health information, much of it wrong. My friends who are vets say that among their biggest problems in recent years are well-meaning but intense animal lovers who discover home remedies and free advice online, often from people who call themselves "alternative" or "holistic" healers. Why, they demand, aren't vets using these treatments on their dogs?