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A Dog’s Life: Dogs in Literature

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 7th November 2013

From Shauna Waterman, Market Research Intern

Milo (Angie's dog) enjoys a good read prior to 'A Dog's Life?'...

Milo (Angie's dog) enjoys a good read prior to 'A Dog's Life?'...

Our latest Short Course for Serious Readers, ‘A Dog’s Life?’ got me thinking about dogs in literature, those characters we forget that stand by our literary heroes side or hold their own in amazing adventures. Loyalty and unconditional love are amongst the important reasons why humans love dogs. At our Short Course for Serious Readers, we will read a wide variety of poetry and prose exploring the uncomplicated nature of the human-dog relationship. When I asked Angela Macmillan (who will be running the Short Course) what texts she will be looking at, she mentioned Homer, Thomas Hardy and the American poet Mark Doty.

Of course Homer’s epic poem Odyssey would be perfect to look at. After leaving behind his “noble hound” Argos, Odysseus tries to re-enter his house after Suitors are trying to take over and marry his wife. Odysseus returns disguised as an old beggar to find a neglected Argos who instantly recognises his owner. Unable to give himself away, Odysseus passes by Argos and sheds a tear for his companion before Argos, happy to have seen his master once more, “passed into the darkness of death”. This story reminded me about the dogs I had in my life, Shane (an Alsatian) and Seamus (a mongrel). They had a great relationship with my parents, especially my dad who trained them well enough that they’d bring his slippers and newspaper in the morning. I remember my mum telling me that when my dad got ill, the dogs sensed it. They stayed away and wouldn’t jump on him but would sit by his chair as silent companions as he rested and slowly recovered. My dad always talks fondly of those dogs and how they used to watch me in my cot and stand guard by my pram. When Shane got sick and died, Seamus couldn’t be without him and soon joined him and my dad swore to never get pet dogs again. He never did. When I asked him recently why that was, he told me that he got far too attached to them and that when they died, he mourned them as if they were a part of the family.

This is the kind of relationship that Mark Doty looks at in his book Dog Years that Angela will look at in the Short Course; about how dogs can make us think about our need for joy, companionship, affection and how they can teach us seriously valuable life lessons. She will also look at Thomas Hardy. Hardy himself had a dog named Wessex, who like my dad, saw him as a part of the family and calved on his tombstone “Faithful” and “Unflinching” when he died. He also wrote an interesting poem called ‘Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?’ about a dog trying to bury his bone but happens upon a grave instead.

"Ah yes! You dig upon my grave . . .
Why flashed it not on me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
A dog's fidelity!"

- Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave, Thomas Hardy

The more I think about it, there are many great dogs in literature such as trusty Old Yeller and Lassie. Snoopy (can he count? I think so) said, “keep looking up…that’s the secret of life” as he lay happily on the roof of his kennel looking at the sky, which I think makes him pretty great. Shiloh from the children’s book of the same name became a friend to eleven year old Marty. A favourite of mine is Fang in the Harry Potter series. Not a big role, but he adds a lot of comedy value and is a lovely companion to one my favourite characters Hagrid, who loves and cares for him very much.

So, come and join us at Calderstones Mansion House for our Short Course for Serious Readers: A Dog’s Life?’ Mark Twain said, “If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow”, so let us listen to what these literary dogs have to say about life, love and loss.

'A Dog's Life' runs at Calderstones Mansion House on Wednesday 20th November, 10am-1pm, costing £15/£10 concessions. For more information and to book your place, see our website or contact Sophie Johnson: or call 0151 207 7207.

2 thoughts on “A Dog’s Life: Dogs in Literature

AndyG says:

I now have tears rolling down my face! Much as I love dogs and would love to come to Calderstones for a course, I couldn’t do this. I’d be a mess – I was reading White Fang to a Shared Reading group the other day and when his mother attacks him after he bounds up to her I had to stop. I couldn’t read with the enormous lump that suddenly materialised in my throat!
Good luck with the course, I’m sure it will be very enjoyable!

[…] course, there are many examples of dogs to be found in literature, from the adventurers to the faithful friends who go at a slower pace. This particular nameless […]

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