A dog is a man’s best friend, or so the story goes. True or not, the saying’s stuck, and many of us would argue—and passionately so—that there is far more fact than fiction underlying that sentiment. And, as life is often imitated in art, that sentiment has been expressed in film, poetry, prose, music, and so on. Trouble is, most contemporary portrayals of dogs and human interaction with dogs tend to be farcical—cute and funny, and little more.
Sure, dogs are seen mostly in children’s television shows and movies, which (to some extent) explains why they’re often portrayed simply and comically. To see a talking animal (dog or otherwise) is, I admit, entertaining. And I don’t mean to suggest that our kids should be denied the pleasure of fantasy (as talking dogs surely are). Still, I’ve often wondered if children need such constant make-believe. Can’t we give them an honest portrayal of our four legged friends, bite and bark and all?
I say this, and yet I was that six-year-old boy who, after seeing Disney’s White Fang, hid behind a rocking chair and wept. A scene where the main character has to leave behind the wolf-dog he’s tamed and come to love was overwhelming for me. I had never been so affected by a film before, but to be affected so completely by something so removed wasn’t an experience I disliked. In fact, the richness of it was intoxicating. So began my love of stories and storytelling, and I’ve never forgotten that such love began with the story of a man and his dog.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen countless movies and read countless books, many of them about or at least involving a dog or two. As I’ve found, the stories of dogs that resonate deepest are the ones that are complex, the ones that don’t shy away from the miserable truths of life. Dogs sometimes bite, and all dogs die. Often, our hearts are broken. And yet, there is also joy in sharing their company.
The trick to portraying such a relationship is to find the balance between the hardships and the happiness. Novelist Dean Koontz, for example, has it all wrong. In his books, dogs are perfect creatures in whose dreams “the sacred nature of life may be clearly experienced.” Indeed, the dogs in his fiction are nearly divine (case in point, the plot twist in one of his novels has a Golden Retriever turn into an angel—apparently, that’s not such an unnatural progression in canine evolution).
Koontz writes novels for an adult audience, and yet his portrayal of dogs is no more complex than that of your typical Saturday morning cartoon. And while a film like Disney’s White Fang may have upset me considerably, it nevertheless whetted my appetite for a kind of fiction, a kind of art, a kind of representation that is true. Not a factual composition, but a faithful rendering that leads to a fuller and richer understanding of the cogs and wheels that make up our lives.
And all of this captured not through wisecracking, puppy-eyed, furry animals, but through a simple and at times difficult story of a man and his dog, whom he loves dearly.
As a good friend of mine once said: “Bwof!”
Rowing for Pleasure is a weekly opinions column written by Z S Roe. Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. If you like what you read here, please subscribe.