In January 2002, my husband and I drove to Forest Lake to look at a litter of puppies. Our older dog had died in October, and Boscoe, our 7-year-old border collie, had grown too quiet. A border collie puppy, Doug thought, would be just the thing.
In the parking lot of the Humane Society, I noticed a black-and-white pup sitting by a dog-walker in the snow. Its legs were speckled and slightly bowed. It wore a red collar and a solemn expression.
When I slammed the Jeep door, the pup looked right at me, and I was a goner.
Inside, we took the border collie puppies one by one to the playroom, but compared with the serious speckle-legged pup, they seemed — ordinary. They rolled over one another and wagged their tails shamelessly.
The speckled pup was not playful. He just watched me with his impassive brown eyes as I came and went.
Doug, with barely a sigh, gave up his dream of a second border collie.
The next weekend, we returned to pick up the speckled pup. (The poor little guy had to be neutered first.) On our way out the door, the pup marched up to a cage and swiped it, hard, with his paw. Bam! I’m outta here, sucka!
We named him Riley. His job was to rile up our too-quiet home, and he did it well for 16 years, until arthritis made his life unbearable.
This is not a sad story. When your dog dies, as Riley did last month, you cry, and then you talk. The stories make you remember when your dog was not old and hobbling, but full in his prime. Sometimes, the more difficult the dog, the better the stories. And Riley was as difficult as they come.
He had been with a family before us, but they had returned him. The Humane Society file was cryptic: “Aggressive children, jealous older dog.” Who knows what happened there? But that previous home might explain his standoffish behavior, his impassive expression, his many overwhelming fears.
Riley was afraid of most things — vacuum cleaners, small children, noisy trucks, thunderstorms, inline skates and bicycles. He didn’t like loud music. He hated being in the car. When we went Up North, he stood, quivering, the whole five hours to Lutsen.
He was not easily affectionate. As a puppy, he didn’t know how to do the play bow. (Boscoe taught him.) He didn’t fetch, didn’t romp. (Boscoe to the rescue.) At mealtime, he disappeared under the table and waited quietly for his kibble.
But outside, Riley found joy: Racing through the woods, plowing through new snow, terrifying squirrels. He’d chase them across the yard and straight up the side of our ash tree. He could run up the tree higher than my husband’s head, and my husband is a very tall man. Riley’s dream, I think, was to murder a squirrel in its bed.
In the house, Riley kept us under surveillance from one room away; he’d lie under the dining room table and watch us, unblinking, as we read in the living room. He wanted us nearby, but not too near; he needed his space.
He also needed us. All dogs need a home, of course, but Riley needed people who were tolerant of his anxieties, people who didn’t push him to be the kind of dog he wasn’t.
Over time, he relaxed. He started joining us in the living room and eventually hopped up on the couch. Sometimes he’d put his head on my knee, and when he did I felt woozy with love. How far this fearful dog had come.
The morning he died I knelt by his bed while waiting for the arrival of the women I thought of as the Veterinarians of Death.
Riley lifted his head and settled it on my knee. I scratched his ears. After a minute or two, he moved away. We are hungry for meaning, for signs: Maybe he was telling me it was time to part. Or maybe he was just being Riley — weird, standoffish and inscrutable to the end.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.