Dogs and literature

My dog Orion will be fifteen years old on 21 July. He shares a birthday with Ernest Hemingway. I’ve mentioned this to him, but he doesn’t seem to care.

I have spent a long time with Orion. He has travelled around the world with me. But this isn’t unusual. Dogs and humanity have been together for 30,000 years or so. We’ve grown up together. We’ve evolved together. The great apes might be our closest living relatives, but you can’t choose your relatives. You can choose your friends, and we chose dogs.

A dog and his caveman.

Dogs have always been part of our culture. We’ve included them in our art as long as art has existed. We painted pictures of ourselves with our dogs on cave walls. We carved images of them in pottery. We included them in our stories, both oral and written. One of the most touching instances of a dog in literature comes from Homer, when Odysseus comes home after wandering the Mediterranean for two decades. His wife didn’t recognise him. His servants didn’t recognise him. But his dog, Argos, recognised him.

As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master. When Odysseus saw the dog on the other side of the yard, he dashed a tear from his eyes… [H]e entered the well-built mansion, and made straight for the riotous pretenders in the hall. But Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had seen his master once more after twenty years.

This proves to me that Homer had a dog. Only a dog lover could have written something like that. He understood.

One can often find dogs in great literature, but it is difficult to find great literature about dogs. I would describe literature about dogs as something written about them, and especially their relationship with us. If a story is about people, but simply uses a dog as a narrator or supporting character, I don’t consider it a dog book.

Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain.

The problem with writing dog literature is that a book needs conflict, but we as a species have no conflict with dogs. A man can have conflict with another person, with himself, with nature, with society… but not with a dog. A dog is the most loyal, loving creature in the known universe. Sometimes a conflict is manufactured, like with poor Cujo, in Stephen King’s novel of the same name. He had to get rabies to become a threat. The St. Bernard had to be fundamentally damaged – by a disease that came from outside him – to cause him to come into conflict with humans.

More recently we had The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, which was a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with dogs. It made Oprah’s Book Club, but I wasn’t a huge fan of it.

Often books about dogs are lacking something. They may be very popular, but as works of literature they are weak. Here I’m thinking of the “Lassie” type of books, which force-feed excitement and continually resort to clichés in an attempt to manipulate emotions.

More to my liking was Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. This combined my three great loves: dogs, racing and literature. It was a fine book. How could you possibly beat a story about a racer and his dog named Enzo? I don’t remember what the race car driver’s name was. It wasn’t important. The only thing that was important is that he was Enzo’s master, and he loved him.

Orion, telling the call of the wild to leave a message.

My favourite story about dogs is Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. That is real canine literature. The part I enjoyed the most was when Buck breaks the sled out of the frozen ground, and how delighted and proud Thornton was of him. That was a perfect illustration of the relationship between dog and man. When Buck returns to the wild alone, you know that this book is truly a tragedy. Man and dog are supposed to be together.

Kurt Vonnegut never wrote a dog book, but he often put dogs in his books. Sadly, a fall while walking his dog ultimately led to his death. I’m sure Vonnegut didn’t take it personally. He liked dogs. One of my favourite mentions of canines in literature is in his book Slaughterhouse-Five.

And I let the dog out, or I let him in, and we talk some. I let him know I like him, and he lets me know he likes me. He doesn’t mind the smell of mustard gas and roses.
‘You’re all right, Sandy,’ I’ll say to the dog. ‘You know that, Sandy? You’re O.K.’

It’s so simple and elegant, and so real. He managed to capture that authentic relationship between a person and a dog.

So to celebrate Orion’s fifteenth birthday I’m looking for some excellent dog literature. What’s your favourite? Let me know!

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