by Albert Payson Terhune

I grew up on the LAD books, and read them to my #4 daughter, who took to them as enthusiastically as I did.

Albert Payson Terhune was born in 1872 and died in 1942. He was a prolific writer; it was said that he kept five typewriters filled with work, not counting the ones he had pounded into disrepair or past repair. He was best known and longest remembered for his dog stories, especially the ones about Lad.

Terhune’s father, clergyman Edward Payson Terhune, bought a little less than ten acres in northern New Jersey in the late 1860’s. Terhune’s mother, who wrote under the pen name of Marion Harland, named the land Sunnybank. In his dog stories, Albert Payson Terhune calls Sunnybank “The Place,” and his descriptions of it in the stories are so clear and detailed a reader could find it on a map and recognize it in pictures. It’s in “the northern New Jersey hinterlands,” on the bank of Pompton Lake, nine miles north of Paterson.

Albert Payson Terhune was “fervently interested” in dogs as a child, and retained that interest all his life. He collected stories about dogs performing comic or heroic deeds in history and in newspapers. According to Irving Litvag, in his biography of Terhune, MASTER OF SUNNYBANK, “Terhune never claimed that the real Lad had all, or even several, of these adventures…. But he did insist always…that he only described canine feats…that had actually been performed by a dog somewhere and recorded in newspapers or history books.”

The real Lad was bought by Terhune’s parents in 1902. Terhune was 30, and he and his second wife, Anice, lived at Sunnybank with Bert’s parents. Lad became Bert and Anice’s dog. They considered him a friend, and he was very reserved with everyone but them. This was true of both the fictional Lad and the real Lad. Like the real Lad, the dog of the Lad stories had favorite resting places: in a cool corner of the veranda, in the “cave” under the piano in the music room, on the “disreputable old fur rug” in front of the fire, and under a shade tree next to the drive.

There were some differences between the real Lad and the story Lad:
“Just where Lad came from,” biographer Litvag says, “Terhune never said. The dog apparently never was registered with the American Kennel Club…. In his stories, Terhune claimed for Lad a lofty heritage…. In other Lad stories, Terhune declared that Lad had the names of twelve champion ancestors in his pedigree and described how the big collie won two blue ribbons at the famous Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden, which was pure fiction.”

The only cup Lad ever won and the only show he ever entered was a Fourth of July dog show in Hawthorne, New Jersey, in 1916, when he was fourteen years old.

It was Lad’s reserve that turned him into a celebrity. Late in 1914, when Lad was 12, Terhune’s friend, Ray Long, editor of Red Book, came to visit. It had always bothered him that Lad wouldn’t make friends with him. Finally, on this visit, Lad came over and laid his head on Long’s knee. Flattered and gratified, Long suggested that Terhune, who was already prolific and well-known, write a story about Lad. He promised to buy it, and he did. The story was “His Mate,” which was published in the January 1915 issue of Red Book.

Readers wanted more Lad stories. They flooded Red Book with letters. Terhune was paid $200 for the first Lad story. Nine years later, he was paid as much as $2500 for one. He was able to quit his newspaper job and write full-time. LAD: A DOG is a collection of the first Lad stories, published in 1919. It has never been out of print. It is still in print today.

In 1962, Warner Brothers released a movie version of LAD: A DOG. Peter Breck and Peggy McKay played Lad’s owners. Their obnoxious neighbor was played by Carroll O’Connon, and his daughter was played by Angela Cartwright.

Lad died quietly in his sleep in 1918. He was buried under one of his favorite shady spots near the driveway. Thousands of people have been to see the grave, and the graves of the other collies made famous in Terhune’s dog stories: Bruce (The collie without a flaw), Gray Dawn, and Lad’s son, Wolf, who really was killed saving a mongrel from being run down by a train.

Nobody ever wrote exactly like Terhune; he’s as much a stylist as Ray Bradbury. Re-reading the Lad stories is like returning to a very specific and familiar world, like going back through the wardrobe into Narnia. The viewpoint is that of a narrator whose main interest is the activities and motivations of the dog, with side-trips into the human point of view only for the sake of dramatic tension or to fill in plot points. The writer’s voice is very much in evidence. Added to the accurate details about Sunnybank and the use of Terhune’s actual collies as characters, this strong authorial voice gives the stories a feeling of reality that is gripping, if it catches you just right.

Lad rules Sunnybank–The Place–under his two deities, known in the stories only as The Mistress and the Master. Irving Litvag describes Terhune’s style like this:

“…periodic inserts of nuggets of information, always given in a tone of positive, unarguable authority… occasional asides to the reader…the graphically described…fight…the characterization of himself (the Master) as a just, strict, well-intentioned but often rather bumbling man…the Mistress…was wise, calm, and patient…the loving descriptions of Sunnybank (The Place) …and the strong strain of sentimentality.”

He forgot to add the doting though standardized descriptions of the dogs (a true fan could name the dog by the descriptive “tag”: Wolf is Lad’s firey little son, Bruce is The Collie Without A Flaw, Lad was eight pounds of muscle and whalebone with absurdly tiny white forepaws). He also forgot Terhune’s insistence that collies were directly descended from wolves, much more closely than any other dogs.

Here is an example from “Lost!” Lad has fallen out of the open car during a traffic mishap in New York City:

“Now, a collie is like no other animal on earth. He is, at worst, more wolf than dog. And, at best, he has more of the wolf’s lightning-swift instinct than has any other breed of canine. For which reason Lad was not, then and there, smashed, flat and dead, under the fore wheels of a three-ton truck.”

Lad was often referred to in the stories as a hero-dog. The only part of any of the stories I’ve heard verified was that in 1912, when Anice was deathly ill with pneumonia, Lad remained on guard outside her door, refusing to eat, just as he did in the story, “Quiet!” The hero-dog character represented, in these stories, by Lad is described by Litvag:

“…a collie of noble, almost saintly character, yet who was fully capable in battle and expert at dispensing vengeance to a villainous enemy. The hero-collie was possessed of infinite intelligence and loyalty and was almost human in his ability to understand his beloved Master and Mistress, but also to reason out the consequences of his own actions.”

As Litvag says, “The big collie has become a literary figure so finely, so intensely stamped in …[readers’] memories that he has assumed the proportions of a close family friend or well-loved relative.”

About Terhune’s writing, he says:

“It certainly was not great literature. Neither Terhune himself nor probably anyone else ever tried to argue that it was. But the writing somehow possessed a magic. Readers everywhere, adults and children, found themselves fascinated by it and deeply moved.

“And whatever its other characteristics, the story most of all had Lad. Whether or not his was a valid portrayal of canine reasoning and emotions, whether or not he was a sentimentalized, idealized dog as Terhune’s critics would loudly complain, it is incontestable that Lad was a rarely effective fictional being.”