An excerpt from Jon Katz's A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life.

Pets and people.
Sept. 26 2006 7:33 AM

A Good Dog in Trouble

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

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"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.

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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.