Jul 13, 2023
Dogs in Fiction: Famous Dogs in Literature, From 'The Odyssey' to 'White Fang'
Every product was carefully curated by an Esquire editor. We may earn a commission from these links. From The Odyssey to White Fang to Cujo, literary canines have been around forever. But what do
Every product was carefully curated by an Esquire editor. We may earn a commission from these links.
From The Odyssey to White Fang to Cujo, literary canines have been around forever. But what do these stories of man's best friend reveal about ourselves?
Everyone has a favorite fictional dog—or they should have. John Waters famously said, “If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em!” That goes double for someone who can’t name the storybook hound of their heart.
After all, there are so many wonderful pooches to choose from. The long, noble lineage of fictional dogs goes all the way back to The Odyssey and Argos, he “of the steadfast heart.” In Homer’s epic, when Odysseus returns to Ithaca after his decade of wandering, he finds Argos neglected and flea-ridden, still pining for his master after all these years. In true dog fashion, however, “As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, Argos dropped his ears and wagged his tail.” If you’ve seen one of the many viral videos of dogs excitedly welcoming their owners home from their tours of service, you may recognize this scene and Odysseus’ tearful reaction. It seems that dogs—and our relationship with them—were no different in the 8th century BC.
Much has been made of changing attitudes towards dogs in recent years. In her 2021 book, Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined the Household, Andrea Laurent Simpson argues that a demographic shift in the 1970s led to a change of the “cultural definition of family,” which now includes four-legged members. This may be ground-breaking research for sociologists, but I would bet good money that the average dog-loving reader would meet the claim with a shrug.
In books, dogs have always been part of the multi-species pack, whether it’s composed of blood relatives, friends, or brothers-in-arms. They are often the beating heart of the group dynamic: both protector and protected, a talisman, a mascot, and a representation of simple virtues, free from the compromised complexity of human nature. We imbue them with the best of ourselves and see their mistreatment as exposure of the absolute worst. Authors can offer us the most difficult-to-love characters and, if given the right impetus, we’ll call them antiheroes and cheer them on through any number of violent cruelties. But if they dare harm one dog…
What does the long tale (tail?) of literary canines tell us about this unique bond? What does it tell us about ourselves? To celebrate International Dog Day, I wanted to look at how we represent and respond to dogs in our stories. From flea-bitten mutts to gallant hounds, who are the good boys and girls of our hearts, and how are they so wonderfully, devastatingly able to induce an empathy that demolishes the species barrier?
Recently, I asked my Twitter followers to name their favorite fictional dog. The response was startling in volume and fascinating in its variety. Some interpreted the question cinematically, and I received more than a few .gifs of Shadow limping home in the final moments of Disney’s Homeward Bound. Cue a rush of childhood memories and the blinking back of tears. Of the hundreds of literary dogs mentioned, there were recurring choices, but not necessarily the names you would expect. There was the occasional call for Timmy, the staunch four-legged member of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five. Tintin’s companion Snowy got a rare mention, as did Dorothy’s Toto. But on the whole, the response slanted towards the books we read as teenagers and young adults, when perhaps our hearts are most open.
Jack London is the patriarch of the genre. In White Fang (1906) and The Call of the Wild (1903), he comes closest to setting the absolute template for the co-dependency of man and beast in extremis. The book’s depictions of Indigenous people is very much of its time (AKA racist), but White Fang’s emotional journey, from savage, mistreated wolfdog to the devoted “Blessed Wolf,” is timeless. In The Call of the Wild, Buck endures the reverse, beginning the story as a pampered St. Bernard-Shepherd mix in Californian comfort. Wrenched from his home, he is starved, beaten, and taught the “law of club and fang.” It’s only the kindness of John Thornton that saves Buck from losing his good nature entirely, though his newfound ability to fight and kill stands the pair in good stead on several occasions. Today, it’s hard to condone the framing of Buck’s revenge against the Native men who harm his master. Instead, I like to consider the real climax of The Call of the Wild to be the sled-pull bet, when Thornton bets everything he has on Buck. That scene, in which the brave mountain of a dog pulls a half-ton sled free of the ice, is a tearjerker, a fist-pumper, and perhaps the quintessential depiction of canine loyalty. “As you love me Buck,” Thornton begs, and Buck does. Oh, he does.
Discworld’s Gaspode was another big-hitter. This scrappy little mongrel appears in eight volumes of Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy series and has won hearts for his pragmatic approach to the dog-unfriendly streets of Ankh-Morpork. He shares his name with “The Famous Gaspode,” Discworld’s version of Greyfriars Bobby who, legend has it, howled at his master’s gravesite until he himself died. The present-day Gaspode suggests this mythic loyalty was in fact due to the gravestone trapping his namesake’s tail. It’s a snide, snarky depiction of streetdog smarts—undermined by a hesitant affection for his human gang—that I’m convinced influenced Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Rocket Raccoon in the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy. After all, when it comes to fantastical, anthropomorphic creatures, a raccoon is basically a dog, right?
For a lesser-known and far less cynical very-good-boy, meet Thor, the narrator and titular hero of Wayne Smith’s 1992 novella, Thor. Thor is happy living with his human “pack” until a visit from Uncle Ted disturbs his peace. Uncle Ted is something more than human, you see, and only Thor’s German Shepherd senses can discern the threat he poses. It’s a killer premise made even better by the use of Thor’s not-quite-human perspective on the world. The phone, for example, is a perpetual mystery. When it rings, the humans rush to it “like it were the last piece of meat in the world.” Smith shows us the workings of the canine mind through these askance observations, in ways that are both sentimental and wryly funny.
Few insights into a dog’s interior life are more moving than Dean Koontz’s Watchers. Koontz is famously a dog-lover—golden retrievers make several appearances in his fiction, often with a special ability to communicate with their humans. As the owner of golden retrievers himself, one wonders if Koontz is playing out a fantasy we surely all share. In Watchers, Einstein is a modified super-intelligent dog, one of a pair of creatures who escape from a sinister government lab. While Einstein bonds with Travis, a depressed military vet, the other dog, known as The Outsider, yearns only to kill. What ensues is an unapologetically pulpy story of maniacal science, monstrous hybrids, and Russian assassins, but it’s arguably Koontz’s best book, not only because of the sheer joy of the plotting, but because of the pathos he conjures from Einstein’s enhanced—but still limited—ability to express his feelings. At one point, faced with the prospect of losing Travis, Einstein resorts to a set of child’s letter blocks and spells out, “I WOULD DIE OF LONELY.”
It’s a moment of simple linguistic brilliance. Lonely, not loneliness: an error that conveys all the innocence and purity of emotion that we ascribe to our beloved companions. I can barely even think of Einstein’s nose shuffling those blocks without a lump in my throat.
Pathos seem to be at the heart of readers’ relationships with fictional dogs. Literature is full of dog-related tragedy, from Rudyard Kipling’s warning of the perils of “giving your heart to a dog to tear,” to the fate of Old Dan and Little Ann in Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows. When reading a story, the death of a dog can easily outweigh any human loss. For some, like me, even the thought of a dog in suffering or sadness can be almost too much to bear.
And when, like me, you spend your life reading terrible things… that can be a problem.
At the height of the pandemic, I wholly embraced cliché. In true late-millennial fashion, I started a podcast and bought a dog. Both proved to be life-changing decisions, in strangely interlinked ways. I tell people that the success of the podcast allowed me to quit my job, but this is just my way of excusing myself to people who consider working in your pajamas the height of indolence. In truth, I chose not to go back to the office because after nearly a year at home with Ted, my furious ball of fur and delight, I simply couldn’t and wouldn’t face leaving him. The happiest part of my day is the hour or two we spend walking. No amount of office gossip or free-beer Fridays could compensate.
What does my personal codependence have to do with dogs in fiction, you ask? Well, simply put, Ted has added a layer of difficulty to my attempts to conquer the freelance world. Quite aside from the endless interruption (I appreciate the irony of having just yelled at him to be quiet so that I can write about how much I love him), there is the constant threat of true despair.
Let me explain. My podcast, my writing, pretty much my entire creative life hinges on reading horror. My days are consumed by stories of monsters, murder, and cruelty. Generally it’s humans who suffer, which is fine. Now and then a particularly audacious author will stretch their writerly legs and threaten a (fictional) child. Also fine. A little more upsetting, sure, after all, I’m not a monster, but still okay. Sometimes a bit of (repeat, fictional!) child peril is the spice that elevates a book from middling to memorable.
However, sometimes a writer crosses the Rubicon entirely. Sometimes… they kill the dog.
Stephen King is a notorious culprit. For an author whose fiction is often as much about the heart as it is the horror, he’s surprisingly open to making the family pet collateral damage in whatever cosmic battle of good and evil is taking place that week. Cujo is King’s most famous dog; the poor mutt has become shorthand for a kind of monstrous hellhound. Those who have read Cujo will know that this is only half the story. Yes, Cujo becomes a rabid demon, but before that he is just Brett Cambers’ best friend. As King points out, with agonizing empathy: “He had always tried to be a good dog. He had tried to do all the things his MAN and his WOMAN, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them, if that had been required.” Cujo is more victim than monster. He is Jack London’s Buck fallen prey to the worst luck in the world. Now that I have my own dog, I may never be able to read the book ever again.
Even my favorite novel, It, is a grueling challenge for me these days, thanks to not one but two scenes involving dogs, both of which are too heart-breaking to inflict on the unwary reader. If you know, you know. Let’s mourn Mr. Chips together.
It’s perhaps to correct this cruelty that King recently wrote Fairy Tale. Setting aside all of the novel’s quests, gladiatorial combat, and eldritch entities, it’s the story of a boy and his dog. In fact, the entire plot is driven by the desire to save the dog’s life. Still, there is sadness in the diminishing body of the dog, Radar. As King writes, all too knowingly: “It’s hard when a good dog gets old.” Too true.
No fictional dog has gladdened and saddened my heart in such equal measure as the ironically-named Lucky in Bethany Clift’s Last One at the Party. In this brilliant combination of genres, best described as Bridget Jones’ Diary meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, we follow a lonely thirty-something, the last person alive in a pandemic ravaged UK. Her aimless spiral is only arrested by a meeting with Lucky, an equally lonesome golden retriever. Their journey together through the detritus of civilization is the ultimate illustration of the power of a good dog. Companion, friend, and protector, sometimes a reason to get out of bed when there is nothing else to live for: Lucky is without doubt the hero of the story. Yet like all good dogs, his lifespan is so cruelly short.
Reading Last One at the Party in the furnace heat of the pandemic, I should surely have been disturbed by the parallels to our real-world crisis. But I’m hardened to anything a story can throw at me in terms of human death and destruction. No, what made it such a profound reading experience for me was the snuffling bundle at the foot of my bed. Ted was three months old at the time, and I already loved him beyond measure. During the final pages of the book, when it’s made clear what a good, faithful boy Lucky has been for all of his short life, all I could think about was my puppy growing old before my eyes.
In response to my Twitter request for favorite dogs, some people sent pictures of their own companions who had passed, or who were steadily approaching the end of their lives. These tributes felt like howls into the digital void, at the loss of best friends and loved ones that the world is only just now recognizing as worthy of true grief. There lies the true mad paradox of the dog lover: we invest everything in a creature that we know will one day leave a hole in our hearts.
Perhaps that’s why we read books that confront the inevitable tragedy of our friends’ foreshortened lives. We are told that pets are good for children because they offer an understanding of mortality, as if the death of a dog you have known and loved for every remembered day of your life is in some way merely a learning moment to help navigate a later sadness. I call bullshit. I don’t think we ever get over the loss of a good dog. Not truly. Neither when we are eight years old or eighty. And I think we need to reaffirm our capacity to cope with their passing. Perhaps that’s where literary dogs do their greatest work: in preparing us and keeping us prepared for one of the purest loves and most shattering losses of our real lives.
It hurts. In books and in life, it hurts like hell. But there is such happiness along the way.
It seems odd to end an essay about literature by referencing a scientist. Nonetheless, Neil deGrasse Tyson perfectly reconciles the beauty and tragedy of the dog paradox. In a much-shared clip, Tyson speaks about a dog’s irrepressible joy at the mere fact of being alive. He lays out the math: that each day of a dog’s life is the rough equivalent of a human week, and that the dog makes every day count. For Tyson, it’s “a reminder of how he should live each day of his life.”
Cheesy, sure, but perhaps that’s the answer. I’ve written over two thousand words on the sadness and virtue and wonder of fictional dogs. Perhaps I should put the books down and go throw a ball for my best friend.
Neil McRobert is a writer, researcher and podcaster, with a specialism in horror and other darkly speculative topics; he is the host and producer of the Talking Scared podcast.
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