Requiem for Riley

The best of all possible puppies teaches a lesson one family won’t forget

LAST SUMMER, a swarm of dogs and people descended for the Fourth of July weekend on a family lake cabin in Cass County, half an hour north of Brainerd. Of the dogs, the newest and youngest was Riley, a 6-month-old female puggle.

A puggle is a designer mutt bred to answer the question, What do you get if you cross a pug with a beagle? The result was this 10-to-20-pound creature; short-haired, light brown, rather bulldoggy of face, fearless of disposition, and charming even by puppy standards.

Riley had recently distinguished herself as valedictorian (yes, really) of her puppy-training class in Chicago, where she lived with my daughter Megan and her boyfriend, Joel. Not only could Riley sit, roll over, and sometimes come when called, she could differentiate between “shake” and “high-five.”

For hours at a time, she played a tireless game of “let’s chase around and chew on each other’s faces” with Lola, my daughter Erica’s American bulldog-boxer mix, who looked remarkably like Riley but outweighed the puppy by 40 pounds.

In spirit and in deportment, Riley put to shame my keeshond, Roxie, an ill-mannered brute whose chief enthusiasms include rolling in manure and barking wildly for no good reason, and my in-laws’ toy phantom poodle, Spooky. Although Megan and Joel needed no confirmation that theirs was the best of all possible puppies, they got plenty. They were too polite to draw comparisons out loud, but significant looks passed between them whenever Roxie or Spooky disgraced herself in some way, as one or the other contrived to do every 15 minutes or so.

For all her virtues, Riley, like most puppies, would eat anything. Anything. No puppy ever had more doting or attentive foster parents, and Joel spent much of the long weekend following her around the yard, grabbing her muzzle to extract twigs, leaves, acorns, weeds, bark, flowers, feathers, shoelaces, and what have you. He barely registered that one of the items pulled from her jaws on the afternoon of Monday, July 3, was a piece of mushroom.

About a dozen of the fungi had sprung up in the lawn after some rain the previous week, not in a noteworthy cluster but one here, one there. Small, white, and innocuous-looking, none of them was much more than an inch high and a half inch wide at the cap. Nobody paid them any mind. The only remarkable mushrooms in the vicinity were some enormous, menacing, orange ones that grew out of a tree stump too high for either dogs or small children to reach. We assumed those were dangerous, but our neighbors recognized them as a gourmet delicacy and asked to harvest and eat them if we didn’t intend to. As for the little white specimens in the grass, they looked even less sinister than most of the common lawn mushrooms I had ignored all my life, though I was aware, in a background-knowledge sort of way, that such things as toadstools existed and should not be consumed.

Megan, Joel, and Riley left the cabin Monday night and drove to our house in suburban Minneapolis, planning to head back to Chicago the next morning. But the puppy got sick. She kept them up all night with vomiting and diarrhea. By morning she could barely stand.

At the crack of dawn they took her to an emergency veterinary clinic. Her liver enzymes were sky high, suggesting that she had been poisoned. The vets called the Minnesota Poison Control hotline at Hennepin County Medical Center and described Riley’s symptoms. Then they asked about mushrooms. Joel remembered. The vets said Riley had a textbook case of amanita poisoning.


MAYBE YOU FEEL that your plate of anxieties is already overloaded, what with terrorism, global warming, secondhand smoke and all. But in case you are in the market for one more thing to fear, here is what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website has to say about a certain family of innocuous-looking mushrooms that evidently can appear not only in dark, mossy forests but right in your front yard:

“Several mushroom species, including the Death Cap or Destroying Angel (Amanita phalloides, A. virosa)…produce a family of cyclic octapeptides called amanitins…. Symptoms appear at the end of [a 6- to 48-hour] latent period in the form of sudden, severe seizures of abdominal pain, persistent vomiting, and watery diarrhea, extreme thirst, and lack of urine production. If this early phase is survived…followed by a rapid and severe loss of strength, prostration, and pain-caused restlessness. Death in 50 to 90 percent of the cases from progressive and irreversible liver, kidney, cardiac, and skeletal muscle damage may follow within 48 hours (large dose)….”

That is to say, a “large dose” of Death Cap mushroom will kill up to 90 percent of the humans who mess with it, if admitted 60 or more hours after ingesting it. Riley was a 10-pound puppy. She developed seizures, went blind, and seemed to be hallucinating. The vets induced a semi-coma and hooked her up with a catheter and an intravenous line, warning Megan and Joel that treatment would be expensive and the outcome dubious. She might not last 24 hours. Even if she lived she likely would suffer permanent liver damage. Maybe brain damage, too.

This was the best of all possible puppies, however, and by Wednesday afternoon, with the vet bill standing at $2,500, Megan and Joel agreed to a last-ditch attempt at CPR that pushed the cost above $3,000. They bought themselves a few more hours of agony before Riley died.

That, as they say, is life. We are all here conditionally, dogs and people alike. Grief, pain, and death can befall us in preposterous ways, as if dropping from a clear sky. We accept defeat and cut our losses or we fight, and when we fight we sometimes lose. A lawn mushroom? A goddamned lawn mushroom? “She’s just a baby,” Megan cried, stunned by the viciousness of it.

Well, after all, it was just a dog, yes? As for the daughter, if she’s old enough to live on her own, she’s old enough to know that God doesn’t spare the innocent. But the thing is, she had seen that principle demonstrated before, as had we all. The knowledge doesn’t help much. It is one thing to understand that life can be capricious and cruel. It is another to watch your dog die in agony for the crime of being too unsophisticated to stick to eating grass.

The best thing to do under the circumstances, of course, was the one that sounded most callous when we all urged it upon Megan and Joel: get another puppy, and the sooner the better. A puggle named Madden now lives in Chicago with very attentive parents.

I don’t ignore lawn mushrooms anymore. The list of threats lying in wait for dogs and daughters is far too long for me to imagine I can really protect either from coming to grief. We are all here only until some unexpected thing happens. But there is comfort in refusing to let the same damn thing get you twice.

Jack Gordon, a frequent contributor to Minnesota Monthly, most recently wrote about jury duty and lives in Eden Prairi