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Tough as Nails

“Nails” was the name of the very first APBT I ever saw. He was lent to me by Carson Morrow, at the time the Chief of the Border Patrol. I asked Chief Morrow how Nails got that name, and he told me that he was as tough as nails, for one thing. Apparently, he was the smallest dog that Chief Morrow had, so he had always been schooled on bigger dogs. “Most of the time, he didn’t get to see daylight for the first ten minutes,” was the comment the chief made about him. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, as I knew nothing about pit dogs at that time. I was eleven years old, and it was 1942.

Although I didn’t know anything about the APBT, I was an avid dog enthusiast, especially of Collies, and I had read all the Albert Payson Terhune fiction stories about Collies. I even read Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight before it became a movie (and, later, a television series). I have told before of how in Ajo, Arizona, I had finally achieved my life’s ambition to get a Collie, only to have it bullied by a larger German Shepherd that was owned by some neighborhood hoodlums. (Well, actually, they were friends, but they were hoodlums to me when they sicced their German Shepherd onto my Collie.)

I was frankly puzzled, as in the Terhune books, the Collies were fearsome fighters, canine heroes that absolutely could not be beaten by canine villains. Terhune even described how the Collies fought: they slashed, rather than grabbing hold. They were “everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.” That phrase was repeated over and over again in his books, which I adored, but in retrospect, they probably were not very good books. But they were wildly popular at the time. Eric Knight’s book was probably better fare, although I didn’t like it as much at the time.

Albert Payson Terhune “in conference” with his Collies at Sunnybank, New Jersey. His country home is now a museum.

I was also puzzled by “Nails.” The chief had called him a “Bulldog.” I was familiar with English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, and Toy Bulldogs, but Nails didn’t have the pushed-in nose that was so typical of those dogs. (You can see that it was about here that the seeds were being sown for my original research about the origins of the American Pit Bull Terrier.) I was also concerned that Nails was going to be killed by the German Shepherd. I am not sure how large Nails was, as I had not yet developed an eye for weights at that time, but he wasn’t any bigger than your average Cocker Spaniel. He probably weighed more than a Cocker Spaniel, but he couldn’t have been more than thirty-five pounds in weight—and the German Shepherd easily tallied eighty pounds, probably more, and he was a rough one!

This is Rodney Allen’s Little Monster. If you could imagine him as a brindle pattern of coloration, that is pretty much my recollection of Nails.

I have told the story before about how my father, a Border Patrolman at the time, had told the chief about my frustration over the depredations of the German Shepherd, whose name was “Bosco.” It was the owners’ fault, of course, as the boys had encouraged bullying, and the dog was a natural bully anyway. They had a flatbed jalopy truck that they took out on the desert to inspect the steel jawed traps they set. I have told about how when I was with them, they turned the dog loose to maul a coyote that was already mad with pain from the trap. Much to the boys’ protests, I chased away the dog with a heavy branch. Then, I dispatched the coyote for his own good. It was not a good death for him, but it was better than what little life he had left.

Although I was friends with the boys, there were occasional disputes. And they knew how to get my goat, for they knew how fond I was of that Collie. When they turned their dog loose on my Collie, she merely hollered in pain. It only happened a couple of times, but my wrath and frustration were such that my father had told the chief about it, not knowing that the chief was a keeper of game fowl and game dogs.

The chief showed me how to use a breaking stick and lent me a chain for keeping Nails. I simply couldn’t believe that I would some day be prying Nails from the throat of Bosco. I had noticed that Bosco was not like Terhune’s Collies. He didn’t slash when he fought, but grabbed hold of the other dog, and I was later to learn, that all serious canine fighters do that. (And so do wolves!)

The idea was not to provoke a fight, but merely wait for the boys to initiate it by setting their dog on “my” new smaller canine. In the meantime, we had Nails for about two weeks. The chief lived in Tucson, and he would be back in that time to pick up his dog. It was good that I knew that Nails was a temporary visitor, as I took to the dog quickly, very much against my own wishes. I couldn’t help noticing that he seemed to be smarter than my Collie—and Terhune had always emphasized the intelligence of Collies. I was surprised at the good nature of Nails, too. After all, he was not inclined to jump Queenie (my Collie), being completely tolerant and friendly with her, and he was happy to have human companionship.

He was solid brindle, a little high stationed, and looked very much like Sorrells’ Goober, for those of you who have seen his picture in my books. Of course, Goober was to come later, but he is on my top-ten list of great dogs. One difference was that Nails had natural ears, even if they were small and soft. Truth to tell, it was difficult for me to think that this dog was any good at fighting. It just seemed to me that it would be a miracle if Nails could beat that big bully dog, and I didn’t want to get the chief’s dog killed. The chief assured me to not worry about “that little gentleman,” and he gave me a breaking stick and showed me how to use it.

As the chief had instructed me, I kept Nails on a leash when we went for walks, and the boys next door hooted at that, as most dogs ran loose in those days. In our walks around town and out on the desert, I got to know Nails well enough that I couldn’t help liking him . . . a lot. He was smart. He was comical, and he was game for anything. I could turn him loose out on the desert, and I threw sticks for him and my Collie. I don’t think he ever retrieved before, but he caught on quickly. I amused myself by throwing bigger and bigger sticks for him. Queenie would only retrieve small ones, as I expected, but it soon became apparent that Nails would retrieve a telephone pole if I could find a way to throw one. I had been glad that the boys hadn’t set their dog on Nails, as I was worried about him. But now I was heartened that he might have a chance.

DNK’s Champion Rocco is an almost exact replica of Nails, except that Nails was much smaller.

I guess I was on good terms with the fellows in question, as they were not, for some reason, inclined to unleash Bosco on him. They were curious about Nails and wanted to know what kind of dog he was. When they heard “Bulldog,” they shook their heads. They had one of those back in Texas before they came out to Arizona, and he didn’t have a head like Nails.

I had discovered that I could let Nails run loose inside our yard, as the house was surrounded by a fence. I had him loose when Clifford entered the yard with Bosco. It was time, apparently, for Nails to get his drubbing. Clifford may have been angry that I had just demonstrated that I could throw the football farther than him. That didn’t make sense in view of the fact that I was a year younger than Clifford and much shorter. All the more reason to be angry, I suppose. In any case, Nails was to pay for my transgressions. Clifford made the hissing noise that they utilized to direct Bosco to attack, and he jumped on Nails, completely obliterating him from sight.

Now I was really worried that I was going to get the chief’s dog killed! The only source of calm for me to draw upon was that the chief had assured me that the boys would learn a lesson in humility when they set their dog on “that little gentleman.” The chief may not have been worried, but I was. But the memory of his steadfast confidence helped give me a kind of calm. It was needed, as I couldn’t even see Nails, and he was certainly being outclassed in size and noise.

I later figured out that Bosco had missed getting hold of Nails when he jumped on him. Perhaps the much smaller dog side stepped him, but the upshot of it all was that Bosco came down on Nails without a hold . . . but Nails saw to it that he had one. It wasn’t much of a hold, just a pinch in the middle of the giant’s chest, but it was taking its toll. Whereas Bosco had been letting out horrendous growling and barks at his frustration at not being able to reach his tiny opponent, he soon began to cry, just a bit. It was a whimper at first, but then it grew into a terrified shriek. He tore loose from the tiny hold that Nails had on him and ran for home, jumping the fence between our property and his.

Well, Bosco may have had enough, but Nails was just getting started. He was in hot pursuit. He was too small to make the leap over the fence, but that wasn’t a problem: he simply rammed right through the fence and nailed Bosco again on his own back porch! This time he had the ear, and Bosco was making the kinds of noises I had heard dogs make when they had been hit by cars. I actually felt sorry for the dog, and I was surprised that I had that capacity for that particular animal.

I had to run around the fence, picking up the breaking stick on my way, and ran for the neighbors’ backyard, with the owners of Bosco in hot pursuit. On my way there, I was able to observe the tactics of Nails. Being so much larger, Bosco was able to pull loose from the ear hold, and he had decided to make a fight of it. Nails feinted for another ear hold, but then dived back deep into the stifle. I thought that Bosco had hollered before, but now he reached his zenith in that respect. Not being experienced with a breaking stick or Bulldogs, it took me an inordinate amount of time to get Nails loose. Bosco was trying to bite Nails off from him, but could only reach my arm, which received a couple of his desperate bites. My arm bled, but in the excitement of it all, I barely felt it. By contrast, I found that Nails was unscathed, but his gaze was locked onto Bosco, as if he had unfinished business. I had never seen a dog as terrified as Bosco. No wonder the chief hadn’t worried about Nails!

The boys were too ashamed of the whole shebang to even complain much. The Bosco threat was over. The dog never even looked in our direction again, let alone thinking about jumping my Collie. I found out from other sources that the dog was also now worthless for worrying helpless animals caught in traps. Nails had done a good deed that had many ramifications.

I never saw Nails again after the chief took him away, but I haven’t forgotten him. No, he didn’t make me an instant convert to the breed, as I still had to indulge my love for Collies. But it wasn’t much longer before I was to begin my search for members of the breed that I had begun to suspect contained the true noble canines.

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