The Subtle Power of Dog stories

Every time I read a book or watch a movie that’s a “dog story,” I am 90% more likely to cry.

Can you relate?

Maybe it’s that the dog almost invariably dies. Or maybe it’s that the dog reminds me of my dog. Or maybe it’s a combination of these, along with a little anthropology thrown in.

Let’s take a look at some classic dog stories:

Lassie Come Home

Old Yeller

Where the Red Fern Grows


My Dog Skip

Now, what do these all have in common? Obviously a dog, yes. And interestingly, each of the humans in these stories is a boy. But what every single one of these books and movies boils down to is a coming-of-age tale.

Throughout each of these stories, the boy or must grow, learn, and mature—ultimately discovering and actualizing his potential and responsibility.

In Lassie Come Home, Joe must accept the changes his family faces, and learn to sacrifice his own comfort for their benefit.

In Old Yeller, Travis must take responsibility for protecting his family in his father’s absence, setting aside his annoyance with his younger brother.

In Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy finds the courage to face daunting challenges and dangers alongside his two faithful hounds—and eventually, to let go.

In Shiloh, Marty overcomes prejudice towards his unstable neighbor, and learns to respect him in spite of their vast differences.

In My Dog Skip, Will must learn to discern between good influences and harmful ones, and to find confidence in his own identity.

There is much more to say about each of these stories, but what I want to call attention to is this:

The animals don’t change.

“Of course they don’t,” you say. “What’s so remarkable about that?”

What’s remarkable is that each of these titles points explicitly to the animal in the story. An animal whose character does not change—whose character is constant. And yet the core of each story is about the changes the boy must undergo in order to become a man. What’s up with that?

This is because the animal is an agent of change—but in an inverse way.

Through constancy and loyalty, the dog helps the human find himself.

Think about the animals you had growing up. Now think about the people in your life who have always been there for you, no matter what. What do these two have in common?

Through their unchanging roles in your life, you have learned things about yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t. Their steadiness has provided a backdrop against which you have interpreted the whirlwinds both within you and without.

My beagle just turned twelve in April. I grew up with her, and she has been a fixture in my life through childhood, the tumultuous adolescent years, the death of my father, and my adjustment to adult life. Throughout everything, she has always howled at bunnies, cried for joy when I came home, mumbled her complaints and musings from her “growlery” corner, and thumped her hind foot when I scratched her back. She also always let me cry into her fur and floppy ears on the worst days. She is snoring peacefully as I write this.

Many of you can say the same of your pets. Now while my little beagle has never saved my life like they do in the movies and books (if your pet has saved anyone’s life, please do tell!), she has expanded my understanding of love, loyalty, forgiveness, and patience. I hope she has many more years. But they always die in the stories, and I know they do in real life. All the same, this little hound has been a powerful instrument of growth—and laughter—and it’s stories like these that help capture that power.

It’s stories like these that remind us to pat, to play, to scratch, and to walk these friends of ours while we still can. Considering what they give us, it’s the least we can do.

What are your takeaways from dog stories? Do they make you cry?

If you grew up with pets, what are some ways in which you feel they helped forge your identity?

What are some of your best pet memories?

9 Comments on “The Subtle Power of Dog stories

    • Oh no! Thanks for pinging me– I’m not seeing it anywhere… not even in the spam section, which it shouldn’t have gone to anyway. I definitely want to see what you wrote though!

      • WP has really been testing me recently…

        From what I remember, I wrote that the family dogs were usually my father’s dogs than mine so I never bonded with any as much as I wanted to.

        The best memory was when we got a puppy and I hoped to change things up and be more to it than my father. And then I left town for school and would only come home for holidays… Ha!

        I always marvel at how stable the dogs are. As you say – they don’t change throughout the movie/book. When a human being has a bad day, they often take it out on others. A dog doesn’t. They just go about their normal life. It’s rather admirable. A great reminder to us.

      • Yes, I remember when I left home for college and the feeling of sadness over leaving my dog! My parents were excited for me, but knowing that my dog wouldn’t understand why I was gone was so hard to swallow. Ever since my brother moved away and my father died, though, she has struggled with separation anxiety. I think she is worried that her remaining people will leave her too. Such faithful little critters that understand loss and the fear of losing…

  1. My dogs, each of them through a longer life than yours, have blessed me in ways that are not always readily apparent. The last two dogs who passed out of their lives, and thus out of mine, were so beloved that the pain of their leaving was like the deepest sort of bruise. I could not touch the depth of it. I believe my husband felt the same sorrow, though his means of expressing it were more internalized. Even now, he is not ready for another dog. Yes, the dog stories elicit tears, lots of them. I am in a state of wonder about our relationships with our pets for the way they endear us and, so, how we can willingly lavish them with more attention than we extend to family and friends!

    I do think, however, that the animals change along with us, Shiloh. Strays, wary and skittish, can become loyal and affectionate; they learn from their owners. Because their memories are short, they can heal from neglect, abandonment, and other forms of abuse. We can do that for them and are the better for it. Isn’t it remarkable how much they teach us without a word of wisdom, a college degree, a fancy honorific, fame or fortune! How fortunate we are to know them.

    • Wow, this is powerful, thank you for sharing. And yes, I think you do have a point: animals are capable of changing. It is interesting that you mention their shorter memories– it seems that a contrast between humans changing versus animals changing lies in the fact that animals often grow because they forget trauma… whereas humans can make a conscious decision to change in spite of trauma. And yes, it truly is humbling to think how much they can do with none of the effort required of us to do the same things.

  2. Communicating about them brings them close, as if their spirits sit on either side of me, alert, ready for the next adventure–or just the ear tickle and belly rub I cannot any longer provide.
    Your beagle is a winsome, handsome fella. Our dogs were hounds, as well. Your Skip has eyes like our Orejas did. Large, soulful, telling.

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