Who is in the photo to the right?
That’s me, John Burley. I’m an emergency department physician and an author of psychological suspense thrillers. I’m pictured here with my eight-year-old male Great Dane, Sterling.
What’s the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?
Coffee is essential on Monday mornings. Sterling and I like to frequent our local establishment, The Ugly Mug. This picture was taken on a Monday, which means it was a Double-Down Monday at The Ugly Mug. With every cup of coffee purchased, customers get to roll the store’s dice. If you roll doubles, you receive a free cup of coffee on your next visit. I did not roll doubles, unfortunately, but the excitement really got my heart racing. (Or maybe it was the caffeine.)
Sterling never pays for the coffee, so he doesn’t care if we roll doubles or not.
Sterling and I are drinking a Peruvian blend. He takes his with a shot of espresso. It gives him extra speed when he’s chasing deer through the woods of our property. One of these days, he hopes, he might actually catch one.
Any treats for you or Sterling on this occasion?
A peanut butter bone for both of us. It keeps our teeth strong and shiny.
How were you and your dog united?
Sterling was about six months old when we adopted him from a rescue organization. I don’t know what happened to him during the first few months of his life, but I do know that it wasn’t good. When I first met him, he cringed when I tried to pet him. He refused to get into our truck. Even to this day, he’s leery of strangers—particularly, men in hats. We’re working on that, but if you decide to join us for a cup of coffee it’s best to leave your hat at home.
How did your dog get his name? Any aliases?
Sterling already had his name when we adopted him. He was confused and freaked out enough, we thought, and so we left the name as it was. He had a small dusting of silver on his muzzle at the time, so the name suited him. In his old age, that silver has turned gray and has become much more pronounced. He’s self-conscious about it, but I tell him it makes him look wise and distinguished.
As for aliases, my wife and I sometimes call him ‘Big Ster.’ When my daughter was a toddler and first learning to talk, she called him ‘Steesels,’ and that’s also stuck.
So much for not confusing him.
Has Sterling inspired any dogs in your published work?
Oh, yes. The dog from my debut novel, The Absence of Mercy, is a 180-pound harlequin Great Dane named Alexander the Great. His character was inspired not only by Sterling, but also by a female harlequin Great Dane that was part of my family when I was growing up. I think anyone who brings a Great Dane into their family has a good chance of getting hooked.
Does your dog do more to help or hinder your writing?
Sterling has a real talent for character development—particular when writing chapters about bad guys. He incorporates his own fears into the writing. You’ll notice, for example, that many of the bad guys in my books are wearing hats.
Cat, postman, squirrel . . . ?
Deer. We live back in the woods, and there’s a family of deer who’ve chosen to basically reside on the property. They consider the garden in front of our house to be their own private salad bowl. Sterling stands out on the front porch and barks at them while they munch. If we forget to close the porch’s gate, he tears off into the garden, and then deer and dog embark on a frantic chase through the woods. Sterling comes back twenty minutes later, breathless and covered with poison ivy.
Ball, squeaky-toy, stick . . . ?
Again, deer. They run faster and farther than you can ever throw a stick.
Does Sterling have a favorite place to go for outings?
There’s a state park not too far from where we live. Dirt trails twist through a forest of towering redwoods. It’s a great place to go walking—one of Sterling’s favorites, and one of mine, as well. If I’m having trouble figuring out where the plot of a story I’m working on needs to go next, the answer usually lies somewhere in those woods.
Who are your dog’s best pet-pals?
In addition to Sterling, we have an English Bulldog named Zoe. She has a pretty sedentary lifestyle. Sometimes she doesn’t move for days. She bosses Sterling around, though, which is odd because she’s only a quarter of his size. I don’t know if they’re exactly pals—more like an old married couple who’ve grown so accustomed to each other that they can’t live apart—but Zoe is the only other animal Sterling can tolerate.
What is your dog’s best quality?
Sterling is extremely loyal and affectionate with my family. He’s ferociously protective of us, as well—something that can be embarrassing when we encounter other people or animals in public. Strangers often approach us, wanting to pet him.
“It’s better if you don’t,” I warn them. “He can be aggressive.”
“Oh, I’m really good with animals,” they say, thinking they can win him over.
It goes the same way every time: Sterling lunges. I have to restrain him with the leash. The person appears shocked and more than a little rattled by the experience. And I always feel the need to apologize.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “We rescued him from a bad situation when he was six months old. Whatever happened to him left its mark. The breed isn’t usually like this.”
If your dog could change one thing about Californians, what would it be?
As the companion of an ER physician, Sterling is worried about infant deaths related to accidental smothering that can occur when babies sleep in the same bed as their parents. Such cases present to the ER on almost a monthly basis. Infants either die or sustain severe anoxic brain injury when one of their parents rolls on top of them during sleep. It’s incredibly tragic, but 100% preventable. Children less than two should never sleep in the same bed as their parents. It’s just too risky.
If Sterling could answer only one question in English, what would you ask him?
If you get to heaven before I do, will you save me a spot?
If Hollywood made a movie about your life in which Sterling could speak, who should voice him?
Steve Buscemi. He’s edgy and nervous—a guy you don’t want to turn your back on. If he doesn’t like you, he’ll let you know. I think that suits Sterling’s personality pretty well.
John Burley worked as a paramedic and firefighter before attending medical school in Chicago and completing an emergency medicine residency at University of Maryland Medical Center and Shock Trauma in Baltimore. His debut novel, The Absence of Mercy, received the National Black Ribbon Award, which recognizes a novelist who brings a fresh voice to suspense writing.
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