Dogs make a pretty common companion to humans in literature. Some dogs become the focus of the story, as in Old Yeller or Shiloh. Other dogs saunter around the background, tagging along behind their owners, getting into mischief and commonly saving their humans from disaster.
Because I am a dog person and because I will be writing a dog into my new novel, I thought it would be appropriate to explore this fine creature in literature in a little more depth. So I’ve pulled from some of my own favorite resources to see just how dogs are written about. I’ll explore three aspects of dogs in literature – descriptions, interactions with humans, and loyalty/death.
Coats and Tails – Description of Dogs
I find it interesting the ways that dogs are presented not only by their physical traits but by what characters say of them and what human-like qualities they possess. From Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
“Enrique was rather houndish in appearance, although his tail was bushy. Pajarito was brown and curly, and these were the only two things you could see about him. Rudolph was a dog of whom passers-by said, ‘He is an American dog.’ Fluff was a Pug and Senor Alec Thompson seemed to be a kind of an Airedale. They walked in a squad behind the Pirate, very respectful toward him, and very solicitous for his happiness. When he sat down to rest from wheeling his barrow, they all tried to sit in his lap and have their ears scratched.”
Another great dog description that I love is from The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende Here we meet Barrabas for the first time –
The dog remained in the house. Soon afterward he was running everywhere, devouring drape fringes, Oriental rugs, and all the table legs. He rapidly recovered from his terrible condition and began to grow. After he had had a bath, he was found to be black, with a square head, long legs, and short hair. Nana suggested cutting off his tail to make him more refined, but Clara had a tantrum that degenerated into an asthma attack and no one ever mentioned it again. Barrabas kept his tail, which in time grew to be as long as a golf club and developed a life of its own that led to lamps and china being swept from tabletops. He was of unknown pedigree.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m a dog person or because these authors do such a great job with describing dogs, but every time I read something like the passages above, it makes me want to go find the nearest dog and cuddle it.
Constant Companions – Dog/Human Interaction
The interaction between dogs and humans adds a level of depth to characters. How a person interacts with a dog says a lot about who he or she is. Some people are cold or frightened of dogs. Others, like the Pirate from Tortilla Flat, see dogs as almost human.
“The dogs lived around and on top of him, and the Pirate liked this, for his dogs kept him warm on the coldest nights. If his feet were cold, he had only to put them against the warm belly of Senor Alec Thompson.”
“Then he opened the parcels and fed the dogs. For himself he took bread or a piece of meat out of each package, but he did not pick the best for himself.”
“‘It’s not fitting that dogs should be in the church. Leave the dogs at home.’ The Pirate looked disappointed. ‘They want to go,’ he cried. ‘How can I leave them? Where can I leave them?'”
In The House of Spirits, Allende shows the great dependency of dogs on their masters, and how characters win the all-important loyalty of their dogs by genuinely caring for them.
“The animal became her responsibility. She removed it from the cage, rocked it in her arms, and with a missionary’s care managed to get water down his parched, swollen throat…He slept by Clara’s side with his head on her feather pillow and a quilt up to his neck because he was very sensitive to cold, and later, when he was too big for the bed, he lay on the floor beside her, his horse’s hoof resting on the child’s hand.”
A Noble Creature – Death and the Ultimate Loyalty
Perhaps the most memorable yet hard to read moments are those that demonstrate just how loyal and true a dog can be to his or her master. Dogs who recognize their masters when no one else does and dogs who stand vigil for prodigal masters to return are common themes in literature.
Who can forget Argos in The Odyssey, waiting for his master Odysseus to return, greeting him as he made his way back? What a heartbreaking moment, when they recognize one another but cannot properly reunite. And so the dog, who has waited twenty years for his master return, sees him one last time and dies neglected on a pile of garbage.
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, dashed a tear from his eyes without Eumaeus seeing it, and said:
‘Eumaeus, what a noble hound that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks, or is he only one of those dogs that come begging about a table, and are kept merely for show?’
‘This dog,’ answered Eumaeus, ‘belonged to him who has died in a far country. If he were what he was when Odysseus left for Troy, he would soon show you what he could do. There was not a wild beast in the forest that could get away from him when he was once on its tracks. But now he has fallen on evil times, for his master is dead and gone, and the women take no care of him. Servants never do their work when their master’s hand is no longer over them, for Zeus takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him.’
So saying he 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 fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after twenty years.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski has a similar scene, with old Almondine nearing death.
“When she wasn’t sleeping already she lay in the shade and waited for sleep to return. In slumber everything was as it had once been, when they were whole and he ran beside her, pink and small-limbed and clumsy.
Old as she was, she still had questions to ask him, things to show him. She worried about him. She needed to find him, whole or changed, but know in any case, and she would taste the salt of his neck.
She stood broadside in the gravel and turned her head and asked her question. Asked if it had seen her boy. Her essence. Her soul. But if the traveler understood, it showed no sign.”
From rambunctious and needy puppies to loyal old dogs, literature has deepened our understanding and appreciation of dogs. Stories like Tortilla Flat and The House of Spirits show us how we should treat our canine companions. Stories of loyalty like The Odyssey give us a deeper appreciation for our furry friends.
If you’re so inclined, go find a dog to share a moment with. It will probably love you for all time. As for me, I’m off to give my mutts some much needed love and attention.
Is there a dog from literature that you love best? Please share with us in the comments below!