With “The Year of the Dog” in Mind: Dog Stories

Although I loved books about animals when I was a younger reader, in my teens I backed off.

I realised that books in which sad things happen to the four-legged and furred or feathered characters were even sadder than the books in which sad things happened to human characters.

So, I steered clear of those stories for the most part. But sometimes one slipped under my radar. Erika Ritter’s The Hidden Life of Humans was one of the first to slip into the mix of my adult reading.

When I spotted this Shutterstock graphic for the Year of the Dog, I thought of Jack and China, Hercules and Flush, Almondine and Murphy, and Pearl and Junket.

I’ve forgotten most (if not all) of the names of the human characters in those stories, but I remember the names of their loyal companions. (It’s also true that I was born in the year of the dog. This is going to be a busy year for me apparently, lots to learn and lots to consider.)

I haven’t read all the books in the collage above. I missed that Anne White book but I loved her Junket when I was a girl; I’ve read others by Paul Auster, but not Timbuktu; the Jim Kjelgaard books were on my school library shelves for as long as I can remember, but I only pulled them from the shelves to look at the pictures and never read them (probably because they were about boys); and the same was true for Lad: A Dog, which still sits on my shelf unread (maybe this year – it would be perfect, wouldn’t it).

The others I have read and can recommend, from Erika Ritter’s humourous The Hidden Life of Humans to the not-so-humourous David Wroblewski’s The Ballad of Edgar Sawtelle.

Sometimes the books revolve around the dogs, sometimes, as with Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, I cannot imagine the characters having endured their stories without their canine companions, but the focus is on the humans’ stories.

Even though I am spoiler-phobic, I have been known to ask a friend to outline an animal’s story in a novel (leaving aside the question of human characters), before I read on.

This was all the warning I needed to avoid Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, for instance, but, in the end, Stephanie at Bella’s Bookshelves and I decided to read it anyway (because it seemed to be winning all the CanLit awards and we were the last two Canadian readers to brave it).

Many of the books I enjoyed as a girl were mostly about the people, but I think, now, that the reason I enjoyed them (the characters and their stories) is because of their four-legged companions.

Laura Ingalls was an all-right sort, because she was not as incurably “good” as her sister Mary, but their love of Jack settled it for me. (There was no Birchbark House for me as a young reader,unfortunately, although I would have loved  Little Frog’s crow companion too: I was raised on settler narratives.)

When I thought about writing this post, I was inclined to begin with “I am actually a…person” and you can see where that was headed.

But I am disappointed in the tendency to make things about choosing, about taking sides. I am frustrated with the idea of living in an either/or world, of having absorbed the lesson of needing to declare an allegiance, silently creating a conflict where one need not exist.

Perhaps sometimes that is unavoidable.

Certainly, sometimes that *is* unavoidable.

But here, at least, I can insist on my right to inhabit a space which is not about either/or but, rather, about and/and.

Yes, I am a cat person and I am a dog person too. I am, furthermore, a squirrel person, possum person, racoon person, crow person, and and and…

And, you? Is there a story about a dog you would suggest for a “Year of the Dog” reading list?

PS I added the reading of “The Ghetto Dog” to the sidebar alongside thanks to Mel’s comment below.



  1. Wendy February 26, 2018 at 3:59 pm - Reply

    My two favs are Racing in the rain and Dog’s Babel that have been mentioned. I love all animals and currently we have dogs sharing our home. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever read a book narrated by a cat or a character with a cat. Thanks for the post

    • Buried In Print February 28, 2018 at 8:28 pm - Reply

      Oh, no, Wendy: don’t get me started on Cat narrators! What a purrfect idea for another post!

  2. Alley February 24, 2018 at 12:55 pm - Reply

    Getting confirmation that the animals in a book are going to make it out FINE (regardless of what might happen to the people) is VERY sensible. I read a book that features dog fighting which I DID NOT KNOW going into it and while the book was still good (and I knew the author had violence and such in his books) it was a, unhappy surprise

    • Buried In Print February 24, 2018 at 2:34 pm - Reply

      I know, right? I didn’t know about the dog fights in Salvage the Bones either, and that had me extremely anxious as soon as China came on the scene. But, in hindsight (and I know you’re a Ward fan), China was also what made some other parts of the story so powerful for me as a reader.

  3. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis February 23, 2018 at 9:48 am - Reply

    At different times in my life, I would have said I was on one side or the other and I still lean to dogs, but own a cat so . . .

    I should have a lot of titles for you, but those I thought of: The Dogs of Babel (wonderful – stick it out, it’s not what you might think at first); A Dog’s Purpose (a real mascara-runner but I loved it; its sequel A Dog’s Journey is almost as good), The Art of Racing in the Rain (better than wonderful) have all been mentioned already. I note them only to emphasize their worthiness of consideration. 😉


    • Buried In Print February 24, 2018 at 2:31 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Debbie. I enjoyed reading both reviews – and there are a lot of other dog books discussed at the first link – and their commemorative side too (the picture as well). Just reading the comments on each is also another call-to-tissues. I’m starting to think it’s unavoidable with this kind of story!

  4. Rebecca Foster February 23, 2018 at 6:08 am - Reply

    Although I’ve featured lots of cat books on my blog, I’m really an all-round animal lover and specifically a dog lover. We had dogs while I was growing up. It’s just that my husband and I adopted a cat several years ago and I’m gradually becoming more of a cat lady too 🙂

    So is it specifically animal abuse you can’t read about, or would you avoid something that had any animal death in it? Because, alas, in most dog books the dog dies. That just seems an inevitability when we have a lifespan 7-8 times longer than that of our beloved pets.

    My two favourite dog books are memoirs: Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby and Dog Years by Mark Doty. I also love Gail Caldwell and Abigail Thomas’ memoirs, though dogs are less of a central theme. Nick Trout and Jon Katz’s animal books are okay, too. I find novels featuring dogs a bit hit or miss. You picture Edgar Sawtelle in your collage, which I liked well enough (though more for the Hamlet plot rehash than for the dogs, really), and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is another popular one in which the dog is the narrator. One novel I did love recently was The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst — but beware, it features dogs in peril.

    Here’s my whole “dogs” shelf on Goodreads in case you need any more ideas: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/5875398-rebecca-foster?shelf=dogs.

    • Buried In Print February 24, 2018 at 2:24 pm - Reply

      Since I’ve been following your reading, I’ve seen cats all over the place, so I just assumed that was always the case. GoodReads is being wonky these days, so I can see your shelf but, perhaps fortunately, I can’t see the total number of books on your “cats” and “dogs” shelves (although I can search through them – lots of good ideas there for sure)! The only one you specifically mentioned which I already had on my TBR was one of Abigail Thomas’ books (I didn’t make a note of why, but it seems to have been long after your reading of it that I added it so I must have picked up the idea elsewhere, but they all look really good. I am especially intrigued by the idea of Eileen Battersby, whose book I didn’t know at all. She has several books which immediately and wholly appeal to me – I feel a new reading project coming on! Is she very well known over there? She seems just my cup of tea!

      In general, my reading tends towards the dark and sad; about half my reading is CanLit and it can be a very grim and bleak place! So there are times where I just veer away from any kind of animal story at all (for, as you mention, their deaths figure prominently). And sometimes the warnings, as with Fifteen Dogs, are so frequent and vehement that I really do feel I should steer clear entirely (in the end, it was worth it). But, mostly, I just want to know…so I can prepare, that’s all. With the Wroblewski, I loved it all, every bit. But, I think it was the dog that made me cry, although maybe memory is misleading me there.

      • Rebecca Foster February 24, 2018 at 4:11 pm - Reply

        Abigail Thomas’ A Three-Dog Life is excellent, and one of the books that really got me hooked on memoir in about 2007.

        Eileen Battersby is the literary editor of the Irish Times, so she’s known more for her criticism than for her published work, but Ordinary Dogs is wonderful, and I’m intrigued enough to want to find her novel someday too.

        • Buried In Print February 25, 2018 at 12:13 pm - Reply

          It was definitely the combo of writing slants that caught my interest with Battersby; I’m disappointed that her non-fiction isn’t available in our library system, but I will add it to the ILL list.

  5. The Reading Life February 22, 2018 at 9:12 pm - Reply

    As a life long cat person, the most moving work of fiction I have read in many years is “The Ghetto Dog” – A Short Story Set in The Lodz Ghetto by Isaiah Spiegel – 1945- translated from Yiddish by Bernard Gurney

    I know you have read it but for others Laureen Becall has an exquisite reading of it on YouTube

    I enjoyed your post a lot.

  6. iliana February 22, 2018 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    Oh I have a book for you to add to your “dog” list…. Barefoot Dogs by Alejandro Ruiz-Camacho. Read it last year and enjoyed the short stories because they are all interconnected and explore the lives of several family members who leave Mexico to escape violence.

    • Buried In Print February 22, 2018 at 6:08 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Iliana! And because I know how hard it is for you to find short story collections to connect with, I’m doubly intrigued by this one. I’m pleased to find that it’s in our library system, too, so just a “hold” away!

  7. Naomi February 22, 2018 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    I agree… why does it have to be one or the other when it can be both, or all?

    I was going to mention good old Jack, but you already have! How about A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, and an old favourite of mine The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford?

    • Buried In Print February 22, 2018 at 6:06 pm - Reply

      Yes, yes, yes! I remembered The Incredible Journey when I was returning the others to their shelf and then forgot to add it in. I just love that one! When I went to add A Dog’s Purpose, I saw that it was already on my list, and with your name beside it too. I’m afraid to look, now, and see how long ago that was. bites nails Clearly I could have done a better job with that dog story. I wonder if I was too busy reading cat stories? 🙂

      • Naomi February 23, 2018 at 12:28 pm - Reply

        A Dog’s Purpose comes with a HUGE tear-jerker warning. Be prepared. I read it out loud to the kids a few years ago, and it was rough going. I had to keep stopping to collect myself.

        • Buried In Print February 24, 2018 at 2:05 pm - Reply

          Oh, riiiiiight. Now I remember! Aiyiyi. eyes TBR list with fresh anxiety

  8. annelogan17 February 22, 2018 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    I know what you mean about not caring as much about what happens to adult characters in novels. It’s sort of like ‘ oh well, they’ve lived a good life, and probably screwed some of it up anyway’, but with animals (and children!) they seem so innocent! So much life left to live, etc.

    • Buried In Print February 22, 2018 at 6:03 pm - Reply

      The imbalance of power – so often with the animals (sometimes, as you say, too, children), they are in positions of powerlessness, with the humans busy demonstrating their power-over-ness. I’m always sympathetic to the under-dog. (Okay, you can blame Nina for that one. She started it.)

      • Niranjana February 23, 2018 at 12:32 am - Reply

        Please don’t send me to the doghouse, BIP?!

        • Buried In Print February 24, 2018 at 2:02 pm - Reply

          I would NEVER. But tread carefully, I suspect some of BIP’s readers can be quite catty.

  9. Niranjana February 22, 2018 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    So interesting! Talking about taking sides, I have to say that one of my “pet” peeves in a novel is when the author uses kindness to dogs as a proxy for the character being a good person. I’m always like, no, there are plenty of people who were lovely to animals and horrible to humans–just look at history!

    • Buried In Print February 22, 2018 at 1:47 pm - Reply

      Heheh. Pet! But, yes, you raise a good point; it’s lazy writing. On both scores. I also don’t appreciate the shortcut to my heartstrings, when an author makes a character be violent with an animal as a shortcut to my distrusting them, for, as you say, there’s no guarantee that showing compassion in one aspect of life translates into showing it in another.

  10. A Life in Books February 22, 2018 at 3:46 am - Reply

    I have a sinking feeling when dogs appear in novels. So often they meet sorry ends. That said, I’d recommend Sarah Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, although the first page is tough.

    • Buried In Print February 22, 2018 at 8:48 am - Reply

      Thank you for the warning about the first page: that’s just the sort of thing that would have put me off immediately! scribbles on TBR

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