Stories with dogs? Yes please. I never read a book that wasn’t elevated by the presence of a dog.
Here are three novels with dogs and one memoir starring a dog that will stick in your mind long after you’ve forgotten the details of the storyline. In three out of the four books, the dog enters within the first or second sentence. In the fourth, we meet the dog later but his role is no less significant. Not novels about dogs, as such. But books with memorable dog characters.
Dog or no dog, these are great reads. Enjoy.
1. The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
The “black as liquorice” poodles in The Broken Shore are front and center from page one. The dogs infuse this crime novel with their presence, evocative as the rugged south eastern Australian coastline that troubled Detective Joe Cashin inhabits.
From the “furry scimitars” of their tails their “extravagant leaps, ears floating”, the dogs are drawn in such detail and with such affection that it comes as no surprise to learn writer Peter Temple always had a black poodle or two by his side in real life.
For all the intricate storyline, what I remember most about the book are moments like these:
The dogs came out. He told them to sit. Stomachs full of water, they did so slowly and with disdain, appeared to be arthritic. Given permission to eat, they looked at the food without interest, looked at each other, at him. Why have we been brought here to see this inedible stuff?
When he reached the watercourse, a trickle between pools, the dogs appeared, panting. They went straight in, found the deepest places, drank, walked around, drank walked around, the water eddied weakly around their thin, strong legs, they bit it, raised pointed chins, beards draining water. Poodles liked puddles, didn’t like deep water, didn’t like the sea much. They were paddlers.
This scene is another favorite, thanks to the dogs as supporting characters:
‘Cop?’ she said. She had dirty grey hair around a face cut from a hard wood with a blunt tool.
‘The uniform and that?’
‘Plainclothes,’ he said. He produced the Victoria Police badge with the emblem that looked like a fox. She took off her smudged glasses to study it.
‘Them police dogs?’ she said.
He looked back. Two woolly black heads in the same window.
‘They work with the police,’ he said.
But if you’re reading The Broken Shore before christening your new pup and hoping to find some names of dogs in literature, you’re out of luck. Throughout the entire novel Cashin never once calls the poodles by name.
2. Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
If you’re looking for moving stories about a dog, look no further. The stray dog that wins over washed up photographer and NYC-escapee Rebecca Winter in Still Life with Bread Crumbs gets two whole chapters all to himself. This dog in literature is portrayed very much as a character in his own right, with a distinctive voice.
The dog had cycled through several houses in the four years since he’d been born on a shed near the county line, the result of a liaison between a mother mostly coonhound and Labrador and a father part golden retriever and part German shepherd. The result was the kind of scruffy shaggy sand-colored dog with aggressive eyebrows and curling tail that occasionally appears in movies or sitcoms as comic relief but that people in the country usually keep for some specific and unsentimental task.
Another poignant scene:
“Jack!” a voice called from below, and the dog’s ears rose into sharp triangles. “Jack, come. Come.” That’s what he was called, at least for now. He took his time going down a deer trail, raising his leg against a spindly pine where a fox had done the same thing the day before. He raised his nose to the sky, thought he smelled an open can of cat food. This one bought cat food as often as she bought dog food, but he didn’t care as long as there was food, and the heat in the house worked.
It made sense that the woman who lived there thought he was her dog, given her mental state; it made sense that he was agnostic about the whole thing, given his history. Maybe he was home, maybe not. It would depend on how inconsistent meals became, how often he got kicked, whether the door was locked on too many cold nights, or whether he got to curl up on one corner of the couch, the one with a pillow that smelled of coconut oil and perspiration. He didn’t ask much because he’d been accustomed to getting very little, and he’d learned not to commit until he was clear on the conditions.
Here is the moment when Rebecca and the dog meet:
The dog was on the back steps, his head between his paws. When she saw him her eyes narrowed. The shooting had stopped, and it was silent all around her except for the slapping sound of his long tail against the siding.
“This is not where you live,” she said.
“Go home,” she said.
He sat and looked attentive.
“I don’t care for dogs,” she said.
He cocked his head as though he was thinking either, no problem, neither have any of the other people I’ve lived with, or, liar. He settled on the second, stepped forward and sniffed her hand, then licked it and lay down at her feet.
“You can’t come in the house,” she said, opening the door, thinking of all the leftover turkey in the refrigerator.
The dog ends up playing such a significant role in the book that study guides for the book pose questions about him.
3. Tracks by Robyn Davidson
“I arrived in the Alice at five a.m. with a dog, six dollars and a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes.”
Not a bad first sentence for a book.
And as far as stories with dogs go, Diggity is up there as a beloved and tragic figure.
Tracks is an epic account by Robyn Davidson of her solo trek across 1700 miles of Australian outback in 1977. Diggity’s sudden death after eating a poison bait intended for dingoes is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the book:
And that night I received the most profound and cruel lesson of all. That death is sudden and final and comes from nowhere. It had waited for my moment of supreme complacency and then it had struck. Late that night, Diggity took a poison bait.
4. Flood by Andrew Vachss
The dog is a hell of a lot better than a burglar alarm. The cops wouldn’t rush into this neighborhood in the middle of the night anyway, and with Pansy on the job the burglar would still be there when anyone showed up. She’s a Neapolitan mastiff — about 140 pounds of concentrated hatred for all humanity except me.
From the novel Flood, the first in the Burke series by Andrew Vachss. Pansy has a recurring role.