It happened when I was being interviewed by a radio station about my newly released book The Wisdom of Dogs. Since this little book deals with such a variety of topics, including information on dog behavior, dog history, philosophy, and humor, it is not surprising that the subject matters discussed in this interview meandered a bit. However things took an unexpected turn when, out of the blue, the host of the radio show asked me who I would consider to be the best dog fiction writer ever. I don't think I have ever been asked that question before, nor can I remember thinking about it seriously, however I knew what my answer would be immediately—Albert Payson Terhune.
It may well be the case that many of you will not know who I am talking about, however Albert Payson Terhune was the most famous and the most productive writer of dog stories in his time, and perhaps was the highest-paid writer of dog stories who ever lived. He didn't start out writing about dogs, but rather was a reporter for the Evening World newspaper in New York City from 1894 to 1914. He was a physically big man who wrote avidly about sports, and was fond of boxing. In order to learn more about the people who became world champions in the ring he actually boxed exhibition matches with legendary fighters including Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Jim Jefferies.
Terhune had already published 19 books before his first book containing dog stories appeared. It was Lad, a Dog (1919). The book was written at Sunnybank, his farm/estate on the shore of Pompton Lake in New Jersey. It was at Sunnybank that, for the rest of his life, he wrote, bred prize-winning Rough Collies, and spent his free time fishing and hunting. His Sunnybank Kennels ultimately became the most well recognized collie kennel in the United States and many of today's breeders of Rough Collies proudly trace their lines back to Sunnybank dogs. Before his death in 1942 Terhune had written 49 additional books, nearly all of them novels in which dogs played conspicuous parts. The dogs were all Collies with names like Lad, Bruce, Treve, and Wolf (the names of dogs that Terhune actually owned). Many of his stories were turned into movies, perhaps the best known being Lad: a Dog (1962).
I first encountered Terhune's books when I was still in elementary school. I was entranced by the way that he wrote about elegant Collies. The books were not fantasies but seemed to be about real people and real dogs in situations which felt as if they could actually happen. The dogs that he wrote about were not four-footed humans in fur coats who could talk or even fully understand human language, they were clearly dogs. But oh, what dogs...They had personality and intelligence; they could make plans for themselves and carry them out, however there was an ever present background influence of their genetic heritage as well. You can sense a bit of that in this excerpt from True Dog Stories (1936), where he was writing about his dog Treve:
He was a golden collie of rare beauty. But he had a queer twist of character. Some of his near ancestors had been savage brutes. Others of them had been gentle. Treve seemed to combine the two sets of traits. It was his life ambition to be as mean and fierce and treacherous as possible. But he never could achieve this. For at heart he had a sweetness and docility that I have not seen excelled.
He had also an elfin sense of humor that took unexpected turns. He was forever inventing and playing some game of his own. For instance, as a puppy, he would hunt eagerly and hungrily in the straw for a bone. If I joined in the hunt and found the bone for him, he was utterly crestfallen. Hastily he would bury it again and go on with his eager search.
I read every book of his that I could find on our public library shelves, and then prowled used book stores to find affordable copies of his books that I could keep for myself. Now that I am in the seventh decade of my life I still have those books on my shelf. The ones that I have there are:
...but my collection of his work is certainly not complete.
Born in 1872, Terhune was very much a man of his era. With a father who was a Reverend, and a mother who wrote home management books, he had many views that today might be considered to be less tolerant and more politically incorrect than we are used to. Yet despite his set of faults and flaws he cared for dogs, and understood them. He spent his lifetime instilling that love of dogs in other people, including me. Because of him, for many years I dreamed about Collies, and I am sure that it is because of Terhune that sometimes, even in this late stage of my life, I still do. Perhaps his love of dogs comes out most clearly when he wrote:
I wonder if it is heretical to believe that when at last my tired feet shall tread the Other Shore, a madly welcoming swirl of exultant collies—the splendid Sunnybank dogs that have been my chums here—will bound forward, circling and barking around me, to lead me Home!
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission