Reviews | July 25, 2017

Putting on the Dog: Canine Characterization in Fiction and Nonfiction


Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Atheneum, 2000, 144 pp., $7.99 (paper).

My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley. NYRB Classics, 1999, 208 pp., $14 (paper).

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis. Coach House Books, 2015, 176 pp., $17.95 (paper).

Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello. Sarabande, 2017, 200 pp., $19.95 (hardcover).


I’m writing a collaborative novel in which dogs become hyperintelligent and reset the existing mammalian pecking order, good-naturedly overtaking and enslaving humans. I know dogs but haven’t lived with one since I was young, so it seemed important to review the literature. I wanted the dog characters I created to be vivid and accurate in their dogginess. Because the dogs in my novel are filled with determination and pluck, bursting with ideas about how to reshape the world to suit them, I wanted to read books with similarly self-possessed canines at their center.

What I found was that books with dogs as main characters are, in fact, not necessarily books about dogs, but books about humans’ relationship to dogs. Sometimes, dog characters are used as lenses to bring new clarity to the human characters; other times, the dogs are objects for humans to fight over; yet other times, dogs function primarily as symbols—of loyalty, of humbleness, of steadfastness, of violence. Dogs can also serve as lower-stakes stand-ins for people. You want a really dramatic moment in your book, one that will show that you mean business but not take away any of the important characters? Kill the dog. You want to demonstrate just how irredeemably evil a character is? Have him kill the dog.

Mostly, dog stories are about a human looking at a dog, rather than a shared gaze or a dog looking back at a human. A dog’s relationship to the world is profoundly different from a person’s, starting with their lower vantage point and continuing through their sensory capabilities, lack of opposable thumbs, strong sense of power structures, and relatively low intelligence. Dogs live with us and seem to enjoy doing so, but it’s hard to know exactly what their embodied experience feels like. I read for answers.

I was nervous to undertake this project because I’m tender-hearted toward animals, and if there’s one thing I know about dog books, it’s that you can never count on a dog to live. There’s a whole subgenre of educational dying-dog novels for children, which strikes me as a great cruelty. I can’t remember characters or situations in novels I read just last year, but Where the Red Fern Grows, the story of a little boy and of his two beloved redbone coonhounds that come to grief at the claws of a mountain lion (Dan the coonhound gets the worst of it; the boy’s mother carefully washes his exposed intestines with soapy water and uses a sewing needle to stitch up his abdomen, though of course sepsis takes him shortly afterward and Ann the coonhound dies of grief on his grave) will follow me as long as I have a memory. More dead dogs: Old Yeller, Sounder, Marly, Cujo, the Hound of the Baskervilles.

To save you, dear readers, from a similar unpleasant experience, I have offered a helpful note at the end of each section about whether or not the dog dies and, if it does, how that makes me feel. The books reviewed here, two works of fiction and two of nonfiction, push past the dead dog as heart-tugging plot element, offering nuanced explorations of the human-canine bond.


Shiloh, published in 1991, was children’s author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s sixty-fifth book and her most acclaimed. It won the Newberry Medal from the American Library Association, and it’s easy to see why, for the wonderfully rich storytelling voice, rendered in dialect, of the young protagonist, Marty. The novel is set in poor, rural West Virginia, and the lives of the people it depicts are not easy. Marty and his family worry about having enough to eat. They are good, hard-working people, but the economic devastation of the place touches them, too. When Marty finds a scared young beagle in the woods, a “shorthaired dog—white with brown and black spots—not making any kind of noise, just slinking along with his head down, watching me, tail between his legs like he’s hardly got the right to breathe,” he falls in love and wants to keep him. There are problems, though: the dog’s abusive owner Judd is a unreasonable ogre who won’t give him up, plus there’s no money to buy Shiloh from Judd, and even if there were, Marty’s family couldn’t afford to feed the dog.

Shiloh is a novel with a dog’s name as its title. One would assume, then, that the dog figures prominently in the plot. And he does. But the characterization of the dog is not particularly vivid. The most interesting thing about Shiloh is his name, which is the name of the place where Marty found him. As I read, I found myself forgetting Shiloh’s breed and flipping back to the cover, which shows a cowering dog with eyes averted and ears flagging, more reminiscent of a basset hound than a beagle in his general sagginess.

In this novel, Shiloh is not a subject possessing volition, but an object, something fought for and passed between Marty and Judd. At one point, Marty hides Shiloh from Judd for several weeks by building a fenced enclosure with old chicken wire. He visits irregularly with food, and Shiloh is always both grateful and quiet during his long absences. Marty worries that Shiloh will dig to escape or bark to reveal himself, but Shiloh does neither. He’s so perfectly obedient that he’s practically inert.

The narrative possibilities for the little boy and his family are similarly hampered by their extreme goodness. Judd Travers is a wonderful antagonist, big, brash, and shouty, (in the past, he might have even shot a dog!), but he spends most of the novel off the page. Instead the novel is dominated by Marty’s internal struggle, which finds him lying to everyone he loves in order to protect Shiloh. Marty does one brave and reckless act when he steals Shiloh but then sinks into a pit of self-questioning, which helps to drive home the edifying lessons of this book for young people—lying to your family comes at a cost, sometimes you must set aside your own desires for the good of the group, don’t steal even if your intentions are good—but also renders the plot relatively static for a while. Things finally heat up at the end, when Marty and Judd are locked in a battle of wills and the only way Marty is able to triumph and save Shiloh is through some light blackmail.

Marty the kid identifies strongly with Shiloh the dog, sensing in him a similar lack of agency. He tells his father, “‘I figure a dog’s the same as a kid. You don’t treat a kid right, he’ll run off first chance he gets, too.’” At one point, after Marty pleads with his father to contact the police about Judd, his dad demurs: “Tyler County hasn’t hardly got the money to investigate reports of children being kicked, Dad says, much less dogs.” It makes sense, then, that Shiloh doesn’t get a more thorough characterization. This is a story for young readers about the terrible cycle of child abuse (Judd, we learn, was abused, too), with a dog at its heart because that is the only subject position less powerful than a child’s.

When trouble does come, it is because mild-mannered Shiloh is attacked in his cage by a roaming German shepherd, which easily rips through the shaky chicken wire. Though I understand how and why the book works, I also can’t help but feel as though it would be improved if Shiloh had some of the same gumption as that shepherd. Shiloh is so abject that, sadly, it is hard for me to root for him.

Spoiler alert: Though it’s touch-and-go for a while after the German shepherd attack, Shiloh receives good veterinary care and lives to appear in three sequels. The pressing issue of how the family will afford Shiloh’s food and care is never quite addressed, though it would be spoilsport-y of me indeed to point this out, considering the rush of good feeling at the end of the book.


If you want to see a truly glorious dog-as-character, look no further than My Dog Tulip (1956), a work of nonfiction by the writer and editor J. R. Ackerley. He describes his dog Tulip, a German shepherd (or Alsatian, in the text), with an almost romantic regard, crafting a sort of blazon to Tulip, itemizing her “pretty” (his go-to adjective where she is concerned) attributes:


These dark markings symmetrically divide up her face into zones of pale pastel colors, like a mosaic, or a stained-glass window; her skull, bisected by [a thread of black fur], is two primrose pools, the center of her face light gray, the bridge of her nose above the long, black lips fawn, her cheeks white, and upon each a patte de mouche has been tastefully set. A delicate white ruff, frilling out from the lobes of her ears, frames this strange, clownish face, with its heavily leaded features, and covers the whole of her throat and chest with a snowy shirt front.


This sizeable paragraph is the shortest of three in a row rhapsodizing on Tulip’s physical charms. We readers can glean the following information: Yes, Tulip is objectively beautiful. The dog is especially beautiful to Ackerley, which allows him to describe her in lovely, imagery-rich prose. And he has gazed on Tulip long and minutely.

Ackerley’s attention to Tulip is of a different quality than that of Marty’s to Shiloh. Marty can’t quite find the language to describe his overwhelming love for Shiloh; Ackerley, on the other hand, draws Tulip exquisitely clearly through a technique of ultra-personification. He is not writing about a possession or an inferior being, but an exalted one, with a capacity for highly nuanced thought. In the first section, “The Two Tulips,” Ackerley goes through a series of vets who treat Tulip aggressively or unfeelingly before he finds Miss Canvey, a vet who also delves into dog psychology, whom Ackerley regards “with the veneration with which we behold a saint.” Miss Canvey’s diagnosis of Tulip’s bad behavior toward everyone but Ackerley is as follows: “‘Well, she’s in love with you, that’s obvious. And so life’s full of worries for her. She has to protect you. . . . It’s you she’s thinking of.’” Readers are suspended in a marvelous limbo where we are not sure if Ackerley the fond lover is exaggerating the charms of the beloved or if we’re getting the straight scoop and Tulip truly is extraordinary.

Ackerley is certainly buying what Miss Canvey is selling, and he devotes himself to the task of providing Tulip a full life. Both Shiloh and My Dog Tulip are about what humans can learn from dogs, but while Shiloh’s lessons have to do with working hard to get what you want (the dog), My Dog Tulip’s are about self-sacrifice to benefit the dog. Ackerley asks not what dogs can do for us—in terms of emotional support, unconditional love, lessons about grieving and loss, entertainment—but what we can do for dogs.

The very structure of the book is Tulip-centric. Six relatively free-standing sections (“The Two Tulips” “Liquids and Solids,” “Trial and Error,” “Journey’s End,” “Fruits of Labor,” and “The Turn of the Screw”), each speak to a particular Tulip-topic. “Liquids and Solids,” for example, is about her urine and feces. Ackerley divides Tulip’s urination into two categories, necessary and social. During the latter, Tulip’s face is “business-like, as though she were signing a check.” The four latter sections detail Tulip’s sexual and reproductive life, which Ackerley treats just as seriously as her excrement. Tulip, he believes, should have the full complement of life experiences. He wants Tulip to copulate and reproduce, not to sell her puppies for profit but so she doesn’t miss out on a portion of the experience of doghood.

The other people in the book, too, all come to Ackerley through their relationship to Tulip—vets, owners of possible “husbands” for her, a cousin with a country house where Tulip can stay. We never see Ackerley’s social life, though he was part of a vibrant (male, gay) literary circle that included E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and W. H. Auden. We also never meet Tulip’s previous owner, Freddie Doyle, a ne’er-do-well sailor and lover of Ackerley’s who gave Ackerley Tulip when he was sent to prison for thieving. Tulip’s origin story is both a curious omission and a logical one, for Ackerley is telling us a great romance, which has no room for a love triangle.

Spoiler alert: Tulip dies, but it’s only after a long, full life of love given and received. It arrives in the book’s appendix, as a sort of afterthought, and barely stings.


Fifteen Dogs, the Canadian writer André Alexis’s ninth book, begins with a deus ex machina: Hermes and Apollo are hanging out in a bar (as gods can do in the world of this novel) when they commence arguing about whether dogs would be happier or more miserable than humans if they had human capacity for thought. Apollo wagers on unhappiness, while Hermes says he’s willing to take the bet, so long as they determine relative happiness at the moment just before death and so long as only one dog must be happy for him to win. They agree to these terms and bewitch a vet’s kennel filled with fifteen dogs, who soon free themselves and embark on an adventure.

Fifteen Dogs is told in a rambling omniscient point of view that dips into the minds of dogs, gods, and men alike, and the dog sections are especially satisfying, because they offer a convincing and vivid depiction of how the mind of a dog might process the world. The narrator shows the primacy not of sight, as is true for human characters, but smell. Thus, when the pack goes to a lake where they will make their home, their first impressions of it are not about the shapes of trees or the glints of light on the water, but of odors:


There was, first, the lake itself: sour, vegetal, fishy. Then there was the smell of geese, ducks, and other birds. More enticing still, there was the smell of bird shit, which was like a kind of hard salad sautéed in goose fat. Finally, there were more evanescent whiffs: cooked pork, tomatoes, grease from cow’s meat, corn, bread, sweetness, and milk.


Human readers get what we need from the description: We can picture a lake, the waterfowl floating on it, the humans beside it grilling up hamburgers, maybe, and then, as well, we are put into the consciousness of dogs, whose first and best sense is smell.

Alexis offers a “Dramatis Canes” at the beginning of the book, with all fifteen dogs identified by name, breed, and occasionally distinguishing traits, which is especially useful in the early pages, before the pack is winnowed by humans, accidents, and treachery within its ranks. The circumstances of the gods’ bet almost guarantee that the book will contain dog death, and, indeed, within the first few pages, we learn of the unhappy deaths of the elderly Labradoodle Agatha, the mutt Ronaldinho, “who deplores the condescension of humans,” and the nervous Whippet-Weinmaraner Lydia.

The pathos of so many tender furry precious souls getting ripped from their bodies, often with great violence, is offset by the human-like character position of the dogs. The dogs, due to their intelligence, behave much as humans would in a novel, fighting for what they want by brute strength or cunning or some mix of the two. They are co-conspirators in their fate, so, when it arrives and it is unpleasant, readers are not confronted with the deaths as injustices dealt to innocents. Instead Fifteen Dogs feels at times much more like a novel of political intrigue, as when, for example, the physically weak but wily beagle Benjy lures the pack leader and other stronger dogs to eat poisoned meat.

Readers also know that the plot is necessarily a manipulated one, that the gods are watching and may step in to rearrange the actors in more pleasing configurations whenever they like, as when Hermes appears to the poet-dog Prince to warn him that the pack leader, Atticus, intends to kill him. Prince flees, and his story is not picked up again until near the end of the novel.

Yes, there is a poet-dog, and his facility with language is what invokes Atticus’s ire. Interestingly, the bone of contention (my apologies) is language. Early in the action, just as the dogs are honing their language skills, Prince presents the pack with a poem, one of many embedded in the text, and the dogs have very different reactions. Some, like Atticus and his ilk, think Prince’s “play with language [is] a constant affront to clarity” and that, even more strongly, it is “as if Prince were intent on destroying their spirit.” These dogs are intent on protecting a heritage that seems at risk of being lost due to their new intelligence, which is brought into focus by Prince’s language innovations. Atticus warns, “No one can silence the words inside, but you can ignore them. We can go back to the old way of being. This new thinking leads away from the pack, but a dog is no dog if he does not belong.” Other dogs in the group, “far from feeling that Prince had abused their tongue [think] he’d brought something unexpected and wonderful to it.”

Fifteen Dogs is subtitled “An Apologue,” which situates it in a tradition with Aesop’s fables and Orwell’s Animal Farm. Apologues are usually short tales that use animal characters to convey lessons about human behavior, and the subtitle invites readers to question what the moral teachings might be here. We are all at the mercy of the gods, maybe, or at least of forces beyond our control. That much can be established. But, beyond that, there is the suggestion that art has an indelible, mystical quality of endurance and meaning-giving. For the poet-dog Prince, as he lies dying, knows “somewhere, within some other being, his beautiful language existed as a possibility, perhaps as a seed. It would flower again. He was certain of it and the certainty was wonderful.”

Spoiler alert: The dogs die, every last one. I only cried when the last one died, but they were good tears, a reaction to the marvelous unfolding beauty of the story Alexis tells.


The last title I’ll consider here, Elena Pasarello’s second essay collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses, strays a bit from the subject of dogs in particular to all sorts of animals that have gotten close enough to humans that we’ve named them: Koko the gorilla, Osama the crocodile, Jeoffrey the cat, Arabella the spider, Harriet the tortoise, Ganda the rhino.

The book is a beautiful object, modeled on a medieval bestiary. Each essay has a richly ornamented introductory page which presents the essay’s title (frequently an animal name), the animal’s genus and species, a silhouette of the animal peeking onto the page, and a year (the essays are arranged chronologically and the dates span about 40,000 years, from a wooly mammoth to Cecil the lion, who was shot by a dentist from Minnesota who paid $50,000 for the privilege in 2015).

Pasarello has an affinity for turning pop-song lines into book titles, as with her first book, Let Me Clear My Throat. This title, which recalls one of Prince’s odder lyrics, helps prepare readers for the contents. Note that she didn’t call the collection “When Doves Cry,” the title of the song in which the lyric appears. “When Doves Cry” would be too interested in animal personification, too easy on one hand and too inaccurate a description of the book’s project on the other. What makes the poses of the animals in Pasarello’s collection “curious,” then? I would suggest it is how uncanny these animal lives are—both deeply foreign to human experience and also bone-familiar.

In an essay about Ganda the rhinoceros, subject of a famous and anatomically inaccurate woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, Pasarello tackles head-on my fundamental questions about rendering animal consciousness on the page. She writes of the “barrier that a natural animal body presents to human understanding,” one that is even evident in a later, more lifelike portrait of a rhino by the painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Moreover, she suggests, even if we could touch the rhino, “the space between the flesh of our palms and the other side of her dark body would be vast and absolute.”

The mystery and unknowability of her animal subjects pushes Pasarello into innovative essay forms. The essay about Sackerson, the baited bear whom Macbeth compared himself to during a particularly self-pitying moment, is written in early modern English, rich in iambs. At the end of the piece, the crowd watching Sackerson’s torture speaks as one: “Yes. I am jealous of his natural acts. And so I’ll hit his nature with a stick.” In Pasarello’s imagining of them, they hurt the bear because they cannot be him, with his animal instincts and concern only for the present. An essay about Jeoffrey the cat, subject of a famous poem by the eighteenth-century poet and mental asylum resident Christopher Smart, attempts to recreate the poem’s left-hand lines, which are believed to have been lost. The lines Passarello creates meld to the existing ones, sometimes complicating and sometimes clarifying the existing text.

There is a dog here, or a wolf, or a wolf-dog: the Wolf of Gubbio, who terrorized thirteenth-century Umbrian villagers until St. Francis of Assisi arrived to save them. Passarello presents the wolf’s story in the style of a parable. Francis is able to befriend the wolf by boldly going out to him, past the safety of the village gates, and declaring “‘Brother! I know your hunger.’” The wolf transforms in that moment, “heeling by the man’s side” and allowing Francis to hold his paw. They return to the village as friends. By showing the wolf empathy, Francis makes him a dog. The lesson of the parable is about the complicated nature of humanity. We humans, the narrative voice instructs us, will always struggle between good and evil, the “beasts of [our] hunger and the saints of [our] righteousness will never leave [our] bod[ies] to walk the highway together,” as the wolf and Francis do.

The most emotionally affecting essay for me was “Lancelot,” which paired an examination of John Berger’s essay “Why Look at Animals” with a personal story about a trip to the circus, where Passarello encountered a magical beast, a unicorn named Lancelot, a poster of whom she treasured for years afterward. Passarello outlines Berger’s argument that humans have suffered a fundamental injury in our loss of closeness to the animal world. We have shrunken animals down, fenced them off, mediated them, turned them into cartoon versions of themselves to sell things, and lost a way of knowing ourselves in the process. This idea is reflected in the form of Lancelot, with his white mane, “gleaming and very possibly permed,” and glittery pink horn. When Passarello first sees him at the circus, in all his glowing artifice, “the emotion . . . wasn’t about his realness; it was about sitting (relatively) near something that represented offsite magic.” Only much later does she discover the nauseating truth: Lancelot is a goat who underwent surgery to cut away one horn and move the other to his forehead. For her, a child of the ’80s, far removed from a Berger-ian encounter eye-to-eye with a lion, this is all the nature she gets: “my relationship with animals best resembles this cream-rinsed, mutant goat with a watery-eye—this survivor of backwoods surgery with a pastel-bedazzled wang sprouting from his brain.” This essay collection, maybe, is a way of stepping closer to the animal.

In other essays, Pasarello extends her imaginative empathy to animals, giving voice to a tortoise, Harriet, who is captured by Darwin and then pines for him for years afterward, and Koko the gorilla, who has her own voice already, through the more than a thousand words of sign language in her vocabulary. Pasarello ventriloquizes for Koko using Koko’s limited language, and what Koko has to say is surprising: She has no message for humanity from the Realm of the Animals. Instead, she tells a filthy joke. Animals: they’re just like us.

Spoiler alert: Of the seventeen animal subjects in Animals Strike Curious Poses, I can say with certainty that only one, Koko, is still alive. It is hard to mourn a wooly mammoth who expired 40,000 years ago, but more recent losses, like Arabella the spider, who learned to spin webs gravity-free on SkyLab III and nearly survived reentry, or Harriet the tortoise, who knew Darwin and just died in 2006, sting more.


Of all of the books I’ve read on dogs, fiction and non-, Passarello’s has been most helpful because it is also most equivocal. That’s what I leave with. There’s no best way to bring an animal to life on the page. However an author goes about it, a “vast and absolute” chasm remains. That doesn’t mean, though, that it isn’t a project worth undertaking.

Part two of my dog research plan is a campaign to befriend Nutmeg, the tawny-coated barker next door. I’m making progress, but she’s proving tougher to crack than the titles above. Recently, I saw over the fence that the entire time she barked at me, she wagged her tail, too. Her words, which had always before sounded to me like “I hate you” or “I will bite you” were instead more like “I see you there, and here I am, too.” I wait for her to jump the fence again and dash into our yard, so I can look her in the eye, hold out my hand, and greet her like a person.

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