By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Novelists and short-story writers have created some classic narratives about man’s best friend, the dog. But what are the very best stories and novels about dogs? Where should we begin in assessing the classic, canonical literature that features dogs?
From Homer’s Odyssey onwards – where the hero’s faithful hound remembered him upon his return to Ithaca – the annals of literature are full of famous literary dogs. Here are ten of the best works of fiction to feature our four-legged friends.
1. Mark Twain, ‘A Dog’s Tale’.
My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me, I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised and envious, as wondering how she got so much education …
This 1903 tale is one of several stories on this list which are told from the dog’s perspective. The dog in question is sold to a new owner and is sad to leave her mother behind, but the family she goes to live with are kind to her. One day, a fire breaks out in the nursery of the house – and the dog comes to the rescue …
2. Eleanor Atkinson, Greyfriars Bobby.
Bobby slipped out, dry as his own delectable bone, from under the tomb of Mistress Jean Grant, and nearly wagged his tail off with pleasure. Mistress Jeanie was set in a proud flutter when the Grand Leddy rang at the lodge kitchen and asked if she and Bobby could have their tea there with the old couple by the cozy grate fire …
Perhaps the most famous novel ever written about a dog, Greyfriars Bobby (1912) is a Scottish tale about the faithfulness of dogs towards their owners. Written from the perspective of the Skye terrier which gives the novel its title, the novel also features Auld Jock, Bobby’s owner, who has a close bond with his pet terrier.
When (spoiler alert) Jock dies, Bobby refuses to leave his master’s side, even when Jock is buried. Bobby ends up guarding Jock’s grave, by day and night, thus neatly symbolising the two main features associated with dogs: fidelity and vigilance.
3. O. Henry, ‘Memoirs of a Yellow Dog’.
But you needn’t look for any stuck-up literature in my piece, such as Bearoo, the bear, and Snakoo, the snake, and Tammanoo, the tiger, talk in the jungle books. A yellow dog that’s spent most of his life in a cheap New York flat, sleeping in a corner on an old sateen underskirt (the one she spilled port wine on at the Lady Longshoremen’s banquet), mustn’t be expectcd to perform any tricks with the art of speech …
In this 1903 story from one of America’s greatest writers of the short story, the yellow dog of the story’s title recounts his life, his owners, and his love for his master (and his dislike for his master’s wife). Man and dog really do have a stronger bond in this story than man and wife – but we won’t spoil the ending …
4. Rudyard Kipling, ‘Garm – a Hostage’.
First published in 1899, this short story from the writer who also gave us the poem ‘The Power of the Dog’ – tells of a man whose friend gives him a bull-terrier as a ‘hostage’. However, ‘Garm’ – the name the narrator gives to his newly acquired dog – misses his original owner, who visits his beloved terrier on a regular basis. This is another tale tinged with sadness, but shot through with the strong bond between a man and his dog.
5. Jack London, The Call of the Wild.
London (1876-1916) was the first writer to become a millionaire from his writing, and although he wrote a vast number of different books including an early dystopian novel (The Iron Heel) and a novel set in the days of early man (Before Adam), he is best-known for his two short novels set in the Yukon Territory in Canada during the Gold Rush, The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906).
The first of these is probably the most famous and widely read, and focuses on a dog which is stolen from its home in California and made to work as a sled-dog in the snowy wilds of Alaska. As the novel’s title suggests, The Call of the Wild is about the canine protagonist’s transition from a life among civilisation to the relative freedom he finds among the wilderness of the Yukon.
6. Virginia Woolf, Flush: A Biography.
Although it’s subtitled A Biography, this short 1933 book is as much fiction as non-fiction. However, its subject was real enough: the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet dog. The cocker spaniel, Flush, is acquired by Barrett Browning and taken from the countryside to London, where he lives among the London literati before travelling out with the Brownings to Italy.
This is Woolf’s funniest book, and although it’s wildly different from The Waves or Mrs Dalloway, it shows off her distinctive modernist style.
7. Franz Kafka, ‘Investigations of a Dog’.
Kafka is a master of the weird, the unusual, the not-quite-right, his stories and novels haunting us long after we have finished reading them. And although he’s well-known for longer works like The Castle and The Trial, he was also a master of the short story form, including the long short story (witness his masterpiece, ‘The Metamorphosis’).
This 1922 story is another tale narrated by a dog, telling us about its experiences. But Kafka’s canine narrator is a philosophical creature, who is interested in the deeper meaning behind his existence and who seeks rational explanations for the things which have befallen him.
8. Richard Adams, The Plague Dogs.
Everyone knows of Watership Down, Adams’ bestselling 1972 novel about a group of rabbits, but his 1977 novel The Plague Dogs is not as well-known. The novel focuses on Rowf and Snitter, two dogs which escape from a government research station in the Lake District in northern England.
They survive among the wilds of Cumbria, which Adams describes with great power and skill, but there’s a price on their backs – especially as it’s feared they may be carrying a deadly strain of plague which they acquired at the research station …
9. Philip K. Dick, ‘Roog’.
This story was written in 1951, and is an early work by the prolific science-fiction author – and a patron saint of the counterculture – Philip K. Dick (1928-82), best-known for writing the novel that inspired the film Blade Runner as well as other classic novels and stories such as ‘The Minority Report’ (also made into a film) and for the alternative-history novel, The Man in the High Castle.
This is another story told from the point of view of a dog. Boris believes the garbage-men who come to collect the trash from his owner’s house are aliens invading from another planet. He calls the strange creatures ‘Roogs’, but his attempts to warn his owners about the alien invasion are futile.
But Dick leaves enough doubt in our minds that the dog may, after all, be right, and the ‘garbage-men’ may not be all they seem – as usual with Dick’s fiction, our understanding of reality and everything we take for granted is given a good shake.
10. Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Perhaps no pick of the best novels and stories about dogs could be without this more recent example, this 2003 mystery novel loosely inspired by the Sherlock Holmes adventures and featuring a teenage protagonist, Christopher, who goes in search of the neighbour’s missing dog.
Although people tend to assume that Christopher has Asperger’s, Haddon has refuted this, and the book makes no reference to it. Instead, as Haddon has said in a blog post, the novel is about being an outsider.