By Jeff Hodges

Riley is one of those dogs you keep on a tight leash. She attacks skateboarders and sanitation workers, stops deliverymen dead in their tracks, runs deer, and once treed a fisher cat, a cousin of the wolverine. It’s a good thing she only weighs six and half pounds.

My hometown had no leash laws and no neutered males. Dogfights were ubiquitous and bloody, and the streets had undertones of gang violence, with each alpha dog holding their turf against all comers. The exception was an amiable basset hound we called the Bum. The Bum lived on the outskirts of town and spent his days roaming from house to house, accepting handouts with quiet gravitas. I remember my mother once saying, when the autumn light was fading, “Throw the Bum in the car and we’ll give him a ride home. He shouldn’t be walking down the highway in the dark.”

ONLY WITH ADULT SUPERVISION. Photo courtesy of Jeff Hodges.

I was a devotee of Albert Payson Terhune, the author of Lad A Dog, Lad of Sunnybank, The Heart of a Dog, Wolf, and countless other books extolling his idealized life at Sunnybank Kennels in northern New Jersey. I was naive enough for Terhune’s racist vilifications of the Jackson Whites to elude me, and I named my collie Wolfie in tribute to his world.

I was determined to breed Wolfie with another purebred collie so I could raise a litter of Terhune clones with valiant hearts and enviable confirmations. When Wolfie came into heat we would ferry her to suitable mates, but to no avail; she would fight and bite and send every suitor into sulky retreat. It turned out she had her heart set on King, a German Shepherd down the street who sired her litter of nine puppies.

When Wolfie came into heat, every male dog in town showed up. Camped out on the lawn, lurking by the back door, brawling in the driveway, they made life a living hell for the two weeks she was in estrus. The worst of it was the avidity with which they would mount every family member who carried her scent. My mother and sister carried spray bottles filled with water and ammonia; I fought them off with fists and feet. I was banned from sandlot football because my amorous retinue would enter the game to tackle or defend me on every play.

When I was thirteen I went to work for a woman who raised show dogs. Her kennel consisted of a dozen German Shepherds with bloodlines as long as European royalty. I discovered that Terhune had omitted some earthy details from his books—like cleaning dog runs, breaking up fights, and restraining a female while being inseminated with a plastic syringe.

German Shepherds are prone to a disease called hip dysplasia, which in those days was pretty much of a death sentence. When we had to put a dog down, the vet would arrive with a needle loaded with pentobarbital and my boss would tearfully enfold the unfortunate recipient in her arms until it expired.

We’d haul the corpse to the unmarked graveyard and then undertake the ghoulish task of finding a spot that didn’t already contain skeletal remains. After we decided on a promising location, I’d start digging. It takes a deep hole to bury a Shepherd and it was infuriating when I’d unearth a previously interred inhabitant a couple of feet down. While I fumed, my boss would offer a forensic speculation like, “I think that’s Mimsel. She jumped off the roof at Gracie Mansion!” 

Riley’s great-aunt Billie died in a fight with a Dalmatian over a potato chip. Riley wears a studded leather harness similar to those worn on Christopher Street 40 years ago, and it’s more than a fashion accessory; it’s a lifeline for yanking her from the jaws of death. It isn’t much use in the countryside, though, where she runs unleashed—always on the lookout for bears, bobcats, and coyotes to add to her list of vanquished foes.

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