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:
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.
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:
“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.
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?