Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What Is It About Dog Stories, Anyway?

My mother claims that I learned to read at age 3, so I could read a dog book--probably "Go Dog Go!" which was long a favorite of mine. I may have simply memorized, rather than read the book, but I certainly wanted to. The lure of reading was strong already, as I had two parents and two siblings who could read by then.
But dog stories--that was the real prize...I desperately wanted to be able to read those books whose pictures told me they revolved around my favorite life-forms: dogs. Not many years later, I was given a book called "Brave Tales of Real Dogs" (published in the 1940s, it was already an "old book" by the mid-1960s) and I read and re-read it so often I nearly did memorize that book.
Recently, I was sent a copy of Huck: The Remarkable True Story of How One Lost Puppy Taught (blah-blah-blah, I hate subtitles that take up a whole sentence). Anyway, it's a cute idea, but the book itself was no more than a plumped-up feature article posing as a book, and of course, bound like one. The cover photo will get you--it's a really cute puppy, after all--and the book begins well, and has a heartfelt message, but as a dog book, it was disappointing.
Marley and Me was a good example of what one looks for in a dog story (yes, it was a terrible movie, but let's move on, shall we?). It had warmth, humor, then the inevitable tears, but you were left somehow feeling better about the world. (Huck did leave you with a good feeling but it was short-lived, like the book.)
For writers, the dog story poses a unique challenge, because we have to get inside the head of a non-human creature. Whether we narrate the story from the dog's point of view (I tried this in my short story "Dodger Dog") or try to relate the tale from the master's POV and imply what the dog is thinking and feeling, as in "Marley," we still don't have the familiar props and tricks at our disposal. Sex scenes with our main character are pretty much out--as are drugs, booze, and cigarette smoking (or attempting to quit any of these). We have to show character through action--always a good idea for writers, but one we avoid like the plague, usually choosing to fall back on dialogue and inner monologue.
A few great dog stories I remember from my youth are: Beautiful Joe, which I see is back in print and even re-released (could be a movie in the works), the classics Old Yeller and Sounder and Where the Red Fern Grows (three dog stories that are really about people), The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams, Lad: A Dog, and of course, Lassie Come Home.
For those who love audio stories, check out my friend CM Mayo's fine audio story "written" by the irresistable pug Picadou: The Essential Francisco Sosa or, Picadou's Mexico City, available here from
Most of the dog stories mentioned, and many many more, are available in your library or bookstore...Bring one home to share with someone younger than you, or simply for your own "guilty pleasure". Happy reading--hasta pronto!