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

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

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 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.