Among the very first dogs known by name in Western literature is Argos, who appears near the end of Homer’s Odyssey. In that great Greek epic of ancient times, he is depicted as the very epitome of faithfulness: waiting patiently for 20 years for Odysseus to return home from the Trojan War, he immediately recognizes his old master at first sight. Only then is the sick and feeble dog able to pass away in peace. Thousands of years later, we in the modern world can still recognize and appreciate this common bond between human and animal.
That is just one of the many reasons dogs are called “man’s (and woman’s) best friend”! Since the time of Homer, many more books have been written and stories told about the canines we love who love us back, entertain us, provide for us, work and play with us, protect us, inspire us, teach us the virtues of kindness and wisdom, and keep us company when we are lonely. Here are five of our favorites.
The Incredible Journey
by Sheila Burnford
The young dog slept in fitful, uneasy starts, his muscles twitching, constantly lifting his head and growling softly. Once, he sprang to his feet with a full-throated roar which brought a sudden splash in the distance—then silence—and who knows what else unknown, unseen or unheard passed through his mind to disturb him further?
Only one thing was clear and certain—that at all costs he was going home, home to his own beloved master. Home lay to the west, his instinct told him; but he could not leave the other two—so somehow he must take them with him, all the way.
* * * * *
As much a riveting adventure as Homer’s own epic tale of Odysseus, this ever-popular children’s story recounts the odyssey (based on true events) of Luath, Bodger, and Tao: respectively, a red-gold Labrador retriever, an English bull terrier, and a Siamese cat with sapphire eyes. Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, the three house pets embark together on foot through 300 miles of the Canadian wilderness in order to be reunited with their family. Along the way, they face predators, starvation, and exposure to the elements. Separately, each would most certainly have perished; but it is their tight-knit bond that helps them to survive. This tale of animal friendship inspired a 1963 movie adaptation of the same name as well as the 1993 film Homeward Bound.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America
by John Steinbeck
It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, which he is now practicing, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing on an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?
A dog is a bond between strangers.
* * * * *
In a decidedly less harrowing journey, the iconic American author set out at the age of 58 to rediscover the country he had been writing about for most of his literary life. The year was 1960, and the United States was about to begin a tumultuous decade of change. Accompanied by a French poodle named Charley, Steinbeck traveled from Long Island and Maine to Seattle and San Francisco and back again by way of the southern states on the eve of the civil rights revolution. Along the way—and with the help of his distinguished canine companion—he reacquaints himself with the quintessential American character, which is marked as much by a love of solitude as by vast reservoirs of kindness.
The Call of the Wild
by Jack London
Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.
* * * * *
Quite possibly the best (and best-known) dog book ever written, Jack London’s masterpiece, set in the 1890s, follows the journey of Buck from California to the Canadian Yukon during the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. A mix of Saint Bernard and Scotch shepherd, Buck is accustomed to an easy life on a ranch in the Santa Clara Valley—until he is stolen and sold into service as a sled dog in the harsh northern woods. Little by little he sheds the veneer of his tamed, “civilized” nature and comes into his own as an indomitable survivor in the wild. London’s beautiful prose renders the personality of the dog as powerfully and with as much complexity as any human character in fiction.
Where the Red Fern Grows
by Wilson Rawls
I suppose there’s a time in practically every young boy’s life when he’s affected by that wonderful disease of puppy love. I don’t mean the kind a boy has for the pretty little girl that lives down the road. I mean the real kind, the kind that has four small feet and a wiggly tail, and sharp little teeth that can gnaw on a boy’s finger; the kind a boy can romp and play with, even eat and sleep with.
* * * * *
It is said that everybody has one book in them. The self-taught author of this book, who grew up during the Great Depression, had two (the other is titled Summer of the Monkeys). But it is his first book, a perennial classic, that made him famous. And with good reason. It tells the tale of young Billy Coleman, who acquires two Redbone coonhounds and trains them into champion hunters. More than mere “work dogs,” intelligent Little Ann and brave Old Dan teach the boy the meaning of loyalty and selflessness. Lyrically written and hard to put down, this beloved book truly captures the depth of the connection between child and dog. Only at the end does the reader discover the meaning of the mysterious title. Just be sure to have a box of tissues handy!
by Fred Gipson
* * * * *
And speaking of tissues—you’ll need a couple of boxes for this one. And unlike the previously mentioned Wilson Rawls novel, the author here gives away the ending right in the second paragraph. But that has never stopped anyone from finishing it!
The story begins when a “dingy yellow” stray shows up uninvited at the Coates ranch in Texas. Ironically, the human protagonist of the story, young Travis, initially loathes the “rascal” (as he calls him), but reluctantly decides to take him in. He names the dog “Yeller,” partly because of the ugly color of his fur, but also because his bark sounds like a person yelling. Soon, however, the unwanted guest proves his worth by saving Travis’s brother Arliss from a bear, his mother from a wolf, and Travis himself from a herd of wild pigs. After that, the boy and Old Yeller become inseparable friends. We won’t give away the ending (the author does that anyway). Let’s just say that any adolescent familiar with the book underwent their first true experience of heartbreak by reading it. Yes, this exceptional book may leave you feeling unbearably sad—but it is also unforgettable.