Inspired by the recent Westminster Dog Show, I decided to come up with a top ten lis of the best dogs in literature (by the way, I'm pretty proud of myself for not titling this "Top Dogs"). Unfortunately, after deciding to stick with adult literary fiction, and with dogs that don't just make brief appearances, it turned out I couldn't think of enough. The comprehensive list of ones I came up with, in no particular order, looked like this:
Mr. Bones (from Paul Auster's Timbuktu); Buck (from Call of the Wild); White Fang (from White Fang); the dog (from London's story "To Build a Fire"); Argus (from The Odyssey, not what we usually mean by "literary fiction," and Argus isn't in there much, but I had to fudge on these a little); Pilot (Mr. Rochester's dog in Jane Eyre); the hound (from Hound of the Baskervilles); the dog (from Kafka's story "Investigations of a Dog"--I don't remember if he had a name).
I'm sure there are some out there I've missed, but it does strike me that dogs are conspicuously absent from literature, especially considering how prevalent they are in our lives (there are 70 million pet dogs in the US), and also considering how popular non-fiction books about them have been (Marley and Me, the Dog Whisperer books, etc.). My theory on this is that authors tend to be very wary of sentimentalism, and dogs are necessarily going to bring an emotional element that might seem manipulative, especially if one of them dies. Auster got around this problem by making Timbuktu incredibly bleak, and by investing Mr. Bones with humanoid powers of insight. Homer's Argus scene is unapologetically weepy, but somehow it works. Kafka's dog was also anthropomorphized, sounding suspiciously like an Austrian intellectual.
If I had to pick a winner among those seven that I thought of, it would be the dog from "To Build a Fire." In the story, the protagonist is going to die of the terrible cold unless he can warm his frozen hands enough to light a fire, but it doesn't look good for him. He hits on the idea of killing his dog and sticking his hands into its guts to warm them, like Luke did with the Taun Taun in The Empire Strikes Back. Anyway, London describes how the dog can sense in the man's voice and general manner that he's up to no good--London describes this very astutely, referencing evolution and instinct and the canniness of animals--and the dog takes off.
This sort of thing happens to me every day, when my dog Mitch somehow senses that I plan to leave and put him in his room, even when I make sure to hide my intentions (I go to great lengths to fool him, waiting to get my keys and even put on my shoes, but he never falls for it). This perspicacity, the ability to pick up on the most minute clues in manner and inflection, is a very enviable trait--writers are always trying to hone that skill, so that their characters' movements and speech tics and gestures will strike the reader as genuine. Like Jack London's fictional dog, Mitch (and my other dog, Gordon, who doesn't mind going to his room) apparently has this skill hard-wired into him, but unfortunately he can't put it to narrative use (no thumbs).
It just struck me that one my favorite narrative dogs, the Family Guy's Brian, is himself a frustrated writer, always trying and failing to finish his novel. So maybe I'm wrong, maybe it would be just as hard for dogs as it is for the rest of us, even if they knew how to type.