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In Praise of Dog Books

Last March, when the world went into quarantine, I began losing weight and reading about dogs. My partner, meanwhile, made sourdough, Caesar salad, and matzah ball soup. I was too busy to eat, though, learning about Togo—one of the lead dogs in the race to Nome, Alaska, where children began falling ill with diphtheria in the winter of 1925. Togo led his team across the frozen tundra, relay-racing to deliver a life-saving serum before it was too late. I’d stay up in the dark reading about him, then go to bed hungry, and dream of a dog that would come save me, from the pandemic and whatever in my brain was making me a different kind of sick.  

By the time I brought Moose home, in August, I had already lost too much weight, and I was familiar, already, with the extensive canon of dog literature, from Jack London’s Call of the Wild to J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace to Jack Grogan’s Marley and Me. Dogs often stand in, in these books, for us—as metaphors for our own mortality, our own grief. Their plots, as a consequence of the canine lifespan, are pre-set (the dog, we know, always dies at the end). For a long time, I didn’t really understand their appeal. But then the pandemic hit, I started reading dog books, and I adopted a six-month-old rescue puppy from Georgia, with big paws and floppy ears. In the car on the way to meet him for the first time, I felt nervous, wiggly. Is this why dogs wag when their people come home? I wondered, starry-eyed. Is this how the body prepares for love?

What’s wrong with me? I thought then, surprised by myself. I had begun thinking like the people in the dog books. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, because books about animals inevitably entail lots of questions about the ethics of representing animals, and whether it’s useful or possible to try to see them in relation to ourselves. Sometimes, authors take those debates head on, as Helen Macdonald does in her smash hit memoir H is for Hawk—a hawk book, not a dog book, but one that asks important questions about how we fit animals into narratives of our little human worlds. In it, Macdonald’s relationship with her goshawk, Mabel, deepens as she grieves her father’s death, and she struggles to disentangle her humanity from Mabel’s wildness. By the end of the memoir, well-medicated and reintegrated with her human support network, Macdonald declares: “I will never reduce my hawk to a hieroglyph, an historical figure or a misremembered villain. Of course I won’t…Because she is not human.” Macdonald affirms Mabel’s otherness, rejecting the impulse to reduce Mabel to a “hieroglyph,” to a two-dimensional, human-constructed version of herself. But still, after three hundred pages about how Macdonald’s apex predator facilitates her thoughtful meditations on death and mortality, it’s hard not to see that Mabel was integral to Macdonald’s healing process—that a refusal of anthropomorphism is not necessarily a refusal of codependency after all.


Moose the Dog


To be honest, I wonder if those who are so worried about reductive portraits of animals have ever lived with one. Perhaps their pets are simply better behaved, but when it comes to Moose, I assure you there is no risk of humanizing him, or reducing him to a flat, uncomplicated caricature of man’s best friend. “Domestic” is, it turns out, a loose term. When people ask me about him, I point them to the artist Cornelia Parker, who, with the help of the British Army, blew up a shed in 1991. Parker then recollected bits of the shed and hung them, mid-air, in the galley space, to recreate the moment of explosion, in a work called An Exploded View. “There,” I say, showing them a picture of the debris in suspension, “that’s what he’s like.”

Cornelia Parker, An Exploded View, 1991

Moose is, in short, an agent of chaos in my otherwise highly disciplined, carefully-curated little life. He is a beautiful dog, medium-sized and athletic, a warm reddish brown, with ghostly green eyes and silky fur. But, unlike me, he’s not interested in being beautiful; he does not have time to signify for other people’s benefit. He doesn’t deliberate over whether he should or should not eat the enchiladas he’s looted from the counter. Instead, he’s already off to the next thing—sniffing poop, chasing squirrels, or tearing something up. If he experiences aesthetics, it’s only as a kind of stylized destruction.

More likely, though, Moose doesn’t care about my human perception of him, being too consumed by an entirely different kind of joy. He could perhaps represent obedience, if he weren’t too busy stealing my bras, taking them outside and running around with them in full view of the neighbors. He might stand in for loyalty, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s a coward, terribly afraid of children, and would sooner flee than defend me against a five-year-old. He could signify mortality, as dogs so often do in books, except that I’ve decided he’s not allowed to die, ever, and so that’s that.

Moose Reading

But mapping Moose symbolically is not where the joy of his dogginess lies. As theorist Donna Haraway puts it, “dogs are not surrogates for theory; they are not here just to think with. They are here to live with.” The Companion Species Manifesto, Haraway’s treatise on dogs, emphasizes the need to bear witness to their particularities, as well as our histories and relationships with them. Dog books, though they may philosophize, also perform this function (or at least, the very best ones do). Their pleasure is in the way they catalogue the minute experiences of loving and living with dogs—the idiosyncrasies that exist underneath the grand representational burdens literary dogs bear.

Take, for example, Sigrid Nunez’s exquisite 2018 novel The Friend. Nunez’s narrator’s relationship with her Great Dane Apollo is tied up in her grief over the suicide of Apollo’s former owner. But it’s also enacted in quotidian acts of care, of close attention to Apollo’s physical and emotional health. When the narrator describes watching “the peaceful rise and fall of his flank” as Apollo sleeps, I recognize myself, having just brought Moose home, exhausted from spending all day long not eating enough and cleaning up his pee. He would curl up on the floor to sleep, and I would lay next to him, patting his soft tummy, unable to look away. I would think how incredible it is that animals let us be close to them like this, how wonderful and insane it felt that he was mine. Nunez’s narrator wonders to herself: “What are we, Apollo and I, if not two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other?”—a perhaps perfect description of what it means to live with a dog, and so to exist in a relationship of genuine mutual love that does not eclipse difference, but instead thrives on crossing and recrossing the distance in between.

I think, when I watch Moose run and play, of another dog writer—the late and great Mary Oliver, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and wildly popular 20th and 21st century poet. I swallow her poems like oysters, and I love, in particular, the ones about Percy the dog. My favorite is “Percy, Waiting for Ricky”:

…there are days I wish

there was less in my head to examine…

not to speak of the busy heart. How

would it be to be Percy, I wonder, not

thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward.

For Oliver, Percy doesn’t stand in for some human problem, but instead offers up a different way of being, one unburdened by the impulses to analyze and overthink. Percy is not a symbol of or solutions to Oliver’s own anxieties; instead, what Haraway would call his “significant otherness” simply offers her a vision of something different, something more.

Oliver sees in Percy the possibility for a different kind of embodiment—a way beyond “examining,” “weighing,” and evaluating the body, as humans so often do. All the human beings I know, in fact, have complicated relationships to their bodies—everyone feels or is too thin, too fat, too round in places and not in others, limited or broken, unfit or otherwise imperfect. Dogs, meanwhile, operate outside our sick culture, modeling for us something else—something I long for that’s still out of reach. While I teach Moose sit and down and shake, trying fruitlessly to rein him in, he shows me what it looks like to be spilling over with love for your body—something I had never before thought possible, had never truly glimpsed.

Moose, in other words, does not “represent” something to me. His particular animal-ness does, though, tend to me in a way, by allowing me to border and greet a different possibility. I am in treatment now for my eating disorder, and he sleeps at my feet during the Zoom calls, where my doctors and a nutritionist tell me that if I don’t get well, my hair might get brittle and fall out, or my heart muscles could wither away (and I can’t have that happen, because I need to walk the dog). When I talk with my therapist, I tell her, with admiration and envy, how much Moose enjoys sprinting, leaping, chewing, snuggling and being pet. I wonder across our difference at Moose’s lack of inhibition, the way he finds absolute pleasures in running, in kibbles, in sunshine and afternoon naps. Could there be a different way for me, I ask her through the computer screen while Moose snores, beyond this strict and hungry life?

Like so many others who sought companion animals during this obscenely lonely year, I wanted a dog to save me, to lead me through a familiar narrative arc from isolation and sickness to health. But I didn’t realize at the time that Moose had his own agenda, that he would too be busy enjoying himself to pull me behind. He doesn’t stop to wait—he is instead bounding beyond me and my human worries, running forward, toward something disgusting that he would like to roll in. I, in the meantime, run behind him, reading my dog books and trying to catch up. When I open the door and he wags with his entire self, so happy that neither of us has to be alone with our solitude any longer, I tell myself to stop thinking so much, to stop trying to make it all mean something. I’ll just keep doing as Moose does: preparing my body for love.

Moose and Author
Moose and Author


Katherine Churchill is a PhD Student in the English department at the University of Virginia. 

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