Except for the last ten years, when horses have become my animal companion of choice, I have had dogs since the dawn of my life, and have shed as many tears over the loss of dogs as of people. Pal, the rough collie my parents got when I was born, was my guardian. He stood watch over my crib and, when I started to crawl, dogged (you’ll excuse the expression) my every move. When I stuck my tongue in an electrical socket, it was Pal who pulled me away from the voltage that was coursing through my two-year-old body. Together we got thrown six feet across the room and slammed into a wall. That’s what I call bonding. When we moved from Iowa to New York, we had to leave Pal behind, because he was a farm dog who wouldn’t have been happy in the city, as my parents explained. On my knees, I looked out the back window of our packed-to-the-gunwales Studebaker and waved farewell to my Pal. I must have wept halfway across the country.
Pal was followed by Beauregard, who chased cars and almost always had a cast on his leg, which he chewed off as soon as the vet put it on, so he could go out and chase more cars, until the day one finally flattened him. Then came Sparky aka Fred, the Dog Star of my life, our family pet for 14 years. You might say that I grew up with four human brothers and one canine one and there were times when I considered Fred my favorite brother. I remember when my mother called me in my dorm freshman year to give me the news that Fred and lain down in the gutter outside our house and died.
When I got married and had sons, we had Rascal, Dobie, and George, whose untimely demises (due to various causes), I mourn to this day. I sometimes wonder whether the reason why I no longer have dogs is that I have grown too emotionally thin-skinned in late middle age to withstand any more such losses.
Dogs, if we are lucky, choose us to love. That love shines out of their eyes as ours shines into theirs. I look for dog books that understand that heart link.
It doesn’t get much better than Jack London’s Call of the Wild. After being kidnapped from his cushy home in northern California and sold into slavery as a sled dog, Buck withstands cruel masters and inept ones and finally finds the perfect musher in one John Thornton. The John Thornton chapters come as close as anything I have read to understanding the love between dog and human. The book is raw and often violent, but well worth the read.
As raw and violent as London is, the stories in Albert Payson Terhune’s Lad, A Dog, are sappy and cornball. Originally written for magazines, they are the prototype for the dog-as-super-hero model that became popularized with Lassie and Rin Tin Tin.
I almost did not read Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller, because I had seen the Disney movie first. I was a tough little kid but the graphic scenes of the cows getting rabies and Yeller undergoing the scary personality transformation brought about by hydrophobia traumatized me almost as much as seeing Miss Gulch turn into the Wicked Witch inside the tornado in the MGM Wizard of Oz. In the book, which follows the movie closely, we never see Yeller turn from Jekyll to Hyde. Travis shoots him before the symptoms are full-blown. But Yeller is a great dog. He wrassles bears and boars and wolves and is, as the theme song says, the “best dog-dog-dog in the land.”
No dog book round-up (no pound pun intended) would be complete without Because of Winn-Dixie. Kate DeCamillo’s story of how a dog rescued from a rampage in a Winn-Dixie grocery story changes the life of India Opal Bulini, has not a single false line. And the parrot named Gertrude is pretty swell, too.
For what it is worth, my husband and I have begun to talk about getting a dog. It would have to be a dog that liked horses and could run with us when we’re out riding the trials. If anyone has any suggestions as to what breed would take to this best, I’d love to hear them.
KATE KLIMO is the author of numerous books for young people, including the Dragon Keepers series, also with Random House. She lives in Upstate New York with her husband, Harry, three horses, and one grandcat.