Recently, as I was lounging about on the couch after work, watching Hulu and doodling nonsense on my iPad, a preview came up for a new, Disney+ exclusive movie, Togo, the untold story about the dog who led the longest stretch of the Great Race of Mercy. A huge dog enthusiast, I perked up, my mind reeling with the books I’ve read about Seppala, his dogs, and their journey. Then, I slinked down into the cushions. I probably would never see it, as my husband forbids movies about dogs to enter our home.
His reasoning? He hates when dogs die and they always die. Honestly, though, he’s not wrong. When I think back to the multitude of dog books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched, it was hard to come up with one where the dog lived. I mean, I read Where the Red Fern Grows in fifth grade and Stone Fox shortly after that, talk about a couple of tearjerkers that wrecked my innocent mind. There’s also Marley and Me, The Stray, and A Dog’s Purpose. In The Call of the Wild, the main dog lives, but for all the others, it’s a borderline bloodbath.
Not too long ago, I was at a book exchange and I found a book about a boy getting through the Depression with his dog. I picked up the book and looked to the last page because I didn’t want to be tricked into another heart-wrenching story. Yes, the dog died and the boy was reminiscing over their time together and the lessons the dog taught him. I put it back down.
Why is it that dogs always die in stories? For being man’s best friend, we sure like to kill them off. Over the last few months, I’ve covered topics involving tropes, animal companions, and effective character deaths. This topic of dead dogs, I think, goes into each of them. Maybe if we explore these topics, we’ll find out why dogs always die and if it’s always necessary.
The Trope of Dead Dogs
With no disrespect for our furry friends, this trope is kind of a low-hanging fruit, much like the damsel in distress or manic pixie dream girl. It’s occurred so often that it’s become familiar and expected, even if we don’t like it. However, much like other tropes, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The death of a beloved pet is something many people have experienced, so writers can accurately and painfully describe the devastation and, in turn, readers can feel and empathize with. There’s a reason so many stories involving dogs are based on true events. Listing them off in my head, there are more true dog stories than fictional, and it’s because dogs touch our lives and hearts in such a way that many people can’t.
There’s also the factor of effective motivation, that burning fuel that lights a character into action (John Wick, anyone?) that makes dog deaths so common, but I’ll touch more on that later.
Faithful Canine Companions
It’s debated how long dogs and humans have lived together, but most experts agree it’s been several thousand years. Their vast, genetic diversity (the most diverse on the planet) is evidence of this. Dogs have been specially trained in almost any kind of task you can think of–herding, draft work, military and police work, hunting, retrieving, therapy, bomb and drug detection, performing in movies, guarding homes and flocks, search and rescue, guiding the blind, seizure alerts, alerting the deaf, sniffing out cancer, ratting, sports, and even just sitting and looking pretty. Looking at all of this, it’s no wonder dogs often come up in stories–they’re an integral part of the human experience.
Dogs have distinct personalities. Even within breeds, dogs are individuals with unique traits. Not every German Shepherd is bold and protective, not every Siberian Husky likes to pull sleds. Some dogs love attention and will jump onto laps for pets and others, like my precious corgi, shy away from human touch. Many are crazy about chasing balls and others act indignant if asked to fetch, like, “You seriously want me to debase myself for that?” All these differing and endearing traits make for compelling characters that readers adore and cheer for. Even if we don’t relate to these qualities personally, we can all probably think of a special dog these characters remind us of, and that’s what draws an audience in.
I think its these unique qualities that make dogs feel so human. Most dog owners I’ve ever known will tell you their pets are part of their families, hence the terms “dog mom” and “fur babies.” Even the farmers in my family, who don’t let their dogs inside, share a special bond with their collies.
Yet, there seems to be a quality to dogs that make them beyond human, something about their quiet, gentle gaze or unwavering loyalty. A dog will be there for a person when no one else is. I have a friend who, in her sixties, has never married or had children. Her dog was her family, her beacon of hope in life. She took him grocery shopping, to the opera, and on all her adventures. When he passed, she felt much like Robert Neville in I Am Legend, heartbroken and alone.
Why Dog Deaths Matter
It’s exactly that friendship, that loyalty that make dog deaths so moving and thus so common in stories. A good character arc starts with effective motivation and what else is a better motivator than the death of a loved one? The love for a dog rivals that of a parent or spouse, creating a perfect springboard for grief and growth, even if it’s not the highlight of the story. In Bloodwalker, a secondary character’s dogs are massacred in a scene so grim that it blasts the character into helping solve the mystery, to get vengeance for her dogs.
Yet, so many dog deaths happen at the end of the story, not the beginning. It’s still effective, though, and shows the journey of the character experienced through the life of the dog. In Marley and Me, the family, particularly John Grogan, reflect on the lessons learned from the dog–lessons of love and patience taught through chewed furniture, thunderstorms, and comfort after a miscarriage. In The Stray, the main character is so awed by his dog’s willingness to sacrifice itself for the him and a group of boys that he carries the dog’s body off a mountain and begins writing a screenplay about how the dog changed his and his family’s life.
Like the deaths of other characters, an effective dog death will leave an impact on the audience. It’s not something that passes by unnoticed. It will move the characters, making them act or reflect and will force the audience to examine their own relationship with their pets, often bringing them to tears.
I must say, I had a little trouble writing this one, since I found myself thinking of my beloved corgi so frequently. Dogs and other pets have a deep impact on our lives, making them good prospects for characters and topics of stories. They lead a legacy of love, playfulness, and friendship that’s unmatched by any other and when they’re gone, that absence cuts like a gorge. I won’t lie and say I enjoy dog deaths in stories–it hits too hard–and I’ll probably avoid any dog story unless I know beforehand that the dog will be okay. Still, I can see why this plot line happens so often. It’s one that’s full of empathy and emotion, something everyone can understand on a deep, personal level. Most writers I talk to say their goal is to leave an impact on readers and make them find more joy or value in their journey and reminding us of the fleeting lives of dogs is one, fail-safe way to do that.