When I was a child, one of my favorite books was The Incredible Journey, about the perilous adventures of two dogs—okay, and a cat—as they traverse 300 miles of harsh Canadian wilderness in search of their owners. The dogs, Luath, a Labrador retriever who is quilled in the face by a porcupine, can’t eat, and comes close to starving to death, and Bodger, the nearly blind bull terrier he guides to safety, were for me then, and are still, models of fortitude, bravery, cunning and loyalty. Much later my husband introduced me to Stickeen, the little dog who accompanied the naturalist John Muir across an Alaskan glacier, and inspired Muir to write a long magazine piece about what he saw as the emotional growth of the dog, from a wary fellow traveler to a deeply caring friend, which he told again in Stickeen, (1909) and again in Travels in Alaska which came out six years later. “Our storm battle for life brought him to light,” Muir wrote, “and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.”
Loyalty and fealty are common themes in books about heroic dogs, a literary tradition that must have started with Homer. In perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in The Odyssey, Odysseus returns home after his twenty year ordeal, finds his home overrun by dissolute suitors hoping to win the affections of his wife, Penelope, and his dog Argos, weak and sick and lying on a dung heap. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus endeavors to sneak into his own house and is unrecognized by all but one old friend—Argos. Not wanting to give himself away, Odysseus walks past the dog, pretending they are strangers. And then the dog, who has been patiently awaiting the arrival of his master for the better part of two decades, takes his last breath and dies. Talk about devotion.
Every time I read that story, it gets me. Dog stories are often sad stories, even though dogs are so often happy, and goofy, and full of joy. When I bring my labradoodle, Pransky, to the nursing home where we work as a therapy dog team, she is welcomed there precisely because she is the bearer of good tidings, is allergic to sadness, and sometimes gets in the kind of canine trouble that makes people laugh. I once came across a book that announced on the title page that nothing bad happened to the dogs in the book, and I was grateful. Such is the legacy of reading, and rereading Dodie Smith’s classic “The Hundred and One Dalmatians,” in which so many dogs are in danger and their humans don’t seem to be up to the task of saving them. But then Pongo and Missis, the dalmatians whose puppies have been stolen by the evil Cruella de Vil, embark on their own cross-country journey, outwit all the bad guys, and after more downs than ups, finally triumph. Heroes, as these dog stories make clear, come in all colors, sizes, and leg counts.
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