A little girl wanders into the woods and is lost. A border collie finds her and covers her with its body to protect her against predators. An English boxer blocks a husband from leaving the house because his wife is suffering a ruptured aneurism in the kitchen. A stray discovers an abandoned baby and carries the infant to her warm litter.
The stuff of fiction, you say? Actually, this is the stuff of reality. Dogs perform such selfless, reasoning-based tasks that they seem, at times, capable of human thought. Perhaps this consanguinity is less surprising if we consider that canines and humans share a history dating back 31,000 years. As writers and readers, we can draw upon the PANTheon (sorry) of historical tradition and ancient folklore to enhance our enjoyment of fiction.
Dogs can be stars, of course, such as Lassie from Lassie or Buck from Call of the Wild, but most of the time dogs function in fiction by playing supporting roles. Let’s take a look at five ways that dogs can enrich stories.
1. Integrity Barometer
We’ve seen those films and read those books. We’re unsure of a character’s nature until the dog steps forward and unveils the truth. Remember Toto in The Wizard of Oz? Toto sets the story in motion when he bites hateful Miss Gulch and later, in Oz, leads us (literally) to the truth behind the curtain—a bombastic octogenarian rather than an all-powerful wizard. In both cases, Toto strips away the artifice to the true character beneath.
There is something about a dog that allows it to rip through superficiality to the very meat of the matter. Feature your fictional dog welcoming a stranger, and your reader will trust that person without question.
2. Intimate Confidant(e)
The beauty of dog as confidant(e) is that it provides us with a unique tool to deepen characterization—sort of like soliloquy without the awkward empty stage. Have you ever noticed that it’s impossible to lie to a dog? Ergo, if a character discloses thoughts to a canine, we can be pretty sure that character is revealing her true inner self. Think of the movie The Artist. Jean Dujardin shares his most starkly honest moments with supporting dog Uggie, who then mirrors Dujardin’s alternating joy and despair.
On the other hand, if a character does lie to a dog, we can be pretty sure he is lying to himself. And that can be deeply interesting, too
3. Supernatural Detective
Reading or watching Susan Hill’s Woman in Black, we feel tense—the white knuckle kind—and Spider the dog tells us we have good reason. In fiction, dogs sense paranormal phenomena before humans even have a clue. When dogs bark at apparently thin air, it sends chills down readers’ spines and sharpens nail-biting anticipation. I used Akira the chow/golden retriever in this way in Moonlight Dancer. His unnatural behavior indicated that all was not as it appeared, and thus foreshadowed the lurking apparition.
4. Foreshadowing Agent
I often have my students write about the role of Candy’s dog in Of Mice and Men. Candy’s dog works on multiple levels—as a reminder of faithfulness and as a harbinger of our debt to love. Ultimately, through Candy’s dog’s death (no, not a spoiler; this happens early on), his memory guides our hero George to his destiny.
Foreshadowing needn’t be dark, though. Consider the story To Dance with the White Dog. A white stray befriends grief-stricken Sam Peek, and this presages Sam’s journey to make peace with loss, as Sam believes the stray is the embodiment of his dead wife. Additionally, the dog’s white color symbolizes both death and purity.
5. Moral Leader
Children and adolescents become nobler when they obey canine instructions. Who can forget Nana from Peter Pan? Ironic, I know, but dogs teach obedience. In turn, the human learns patience. In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, it is only when young Edgar masters the patience to teach the dogs that he understands the meaning of patience within himself.
Even as adults, we can benefit from canine values. Consider the protagonist of Pam Houston’s “How to Talk to a Hunter,” from his short story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness. At times the protagonist “you” rejects her reasoning, noble self. The dog’s howls represent a mournful and metaphorical echo of conscience. Dog-as-conscience underscores the character’s lapse in judgment, proving that cowboys are indeed her weakness.
So, these are just five ways that dogs can function in fiction to deepen characterization and enrich storytelling. Remember, a dog in fiction is not just a pretty face. S/he is a working dog!
Who is your favorite fictional dog? How does he or she impact the story? Please leave a comment!