Book Review : The Good Dog

Book Review : The Good DogThe Good Dog by Avi
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks on May 25th 2004
Pages: 224
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When the Wild Calls McKinley, a malamute, is a good dog -- he's reliable and trustworthy. Whether it's watching over the other dogs of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, or taking care of his human pup, Jack, McKinley never even thinks of letting anyone down -- until he meets Lupin. Lupin is a she-wolf and she's urging the dogs of Steamboat Springs to leave their domesticated lives and join her wild pack. And though she scares McKinley, he also finds himself drawn to her and the life of freedom that she offers.
For the first time, McKinley's loyalties are torn. Should he stay with his humans and continue to lead the dogs of Steamboat Springs? Or should he join the wolf and live freely, like his ancestors did? When the wild calls, what will McKinley's answer be?

Ever read My Dog Skip? How about Shiloh or Where the Red Fern Grows or a lesser known book called Scruffy? Or god forbid, Old Yeller? These books are all children’s books and also all about dogs, but they’re also about dog abuse and dog death. They’re about grief and circumstances outside of a child’s control. Raise your hand if you were a young kid and ever picked up one of these innocuous books with a loveable pooch on the cover only to end up crying your heart out later. Or maybe, you didn’t even choose these novels, and it was your school’s sick and twisted idea of required reading for impressionable young minds. 


Ask yourself: do you have dog book related trauma? 


If the answer is yes, then you are entitled to compensation. That compensation is this very book, The Good Dog. 


At 34 years old, I still can’t look at a book about a dog without internally wincing. In fact, I consciously avoid reading any and all books about dogs. I thought it’d be different as an adult, I thought I could handle it. I tried reading Marley & Me when the book hit the shelves and was all the rage. But just like the books I read when I was a kid, it ended in tears. Thus other books with dogs adorning the covers gifted to me, the friendly neighborhood dog lady, like The Art of Racing in the Rain, forever collected dust on my shelves.


Until now. A friend gave me this book as a birthday present and boldly declared that if I didn’t like this book, we could no longer be friends. I was entirely intrigued by this very bold proclamation of the novel’s greatness, but completely intimidated by this book plastered with adorable doggos with their tongues hanging out. But you know, my friendship was on the line. 


I worked up the guts nearly a month after my birthday, sat down with some mild misgivings about what I was doing to myself…and read the entire book in one sitting. And I have to say, this book healed years of trauma that I never fully and consciously realized I was carrying. 


The Good Dog is a wholesome adventure told by the pack leader of the town’s dog, McKinley, a half Malamute, half wolf dog. How this book has not been made into a Pixar or Disney movie is honestly beyond me. Anyways, McKinley, as a part-wolf dog is perfectly poised to see the best of both worlds—the domestic and the wild—and is torn between his love and loyalty to his life as a family dog and the, er, call of the wild, when a female wolf shows up to invite the town dogs to join her diminishing pack and to enjoy a life of freedom. 


Through the eyes of McKinley, we witness the many different realities of dogs and their lack of choice in the life they lead. There’s Redburn, the prized hunting Irish Setter who lives to obey his owners every command for fear of repercussions and Duchess, a greyhound perpetually chained outside to a cheap doghouse and forced to race against her will by a man who is cruel and unkind. There’s also Tubbs, the basset hound (honestly in love with the idea of this dog), who is looked down upon by the other dogs, but is more than eager to please his pack leader. And there’s the lovely retriever next door and McKinley’s best friend, A.  But there’s also Lupin the wolf, whose freedom, confidence, and zest for life, brings out something primal in McKinley, who is suddenly not sure how he feels anymore about wearing a collar around his neck and protecting his “human pup” Jack.


Obviously, I loved all of these dogs. Even the antagonistic Redburn is sympathetic, as he’s only a product of his environment. The poor dog is valued only for his prowess at hunting and as a status symbol, not his personality or companionship, which is very different from the love given to McKinley and the life the pack leader has in his own home. There are many life lessons in The Good Dog about kindness, loyalty, self worth, acceptance, and being true to one’s self, and get this, none of these lessons involve a dog being horrifically and repeatedly abused, or having its parent or caretaker brutally murdered in front of their eyes (looking at you, Disney), or dying.*


I wasn’t sure that any of these things were actually possible in a novel about dogs. It feels so healing that it is. And so criminal that I had never heard of this underrated and underappreciated book before.


The Good Dog is the book that every young child should read and every adult dog lover can cherish. McKinley’s viewpoint feels like a real man’s best friend narrating—complete with strange names for human things and a lack of understanding of their speech, as well as some pack dynamics and dog behavior thrown in—and it’s utterly endearing and wholesome. Likewise, the commentary on the difference between wolves and dogs and the confusion at why humans love dogs and hate wolves is also incredibly poignant and can serve as an allegory for so many painful and real issues in our own world, like racism. And on a less metaphorical level, The Good Dog also serves as a reminder to readers of the very real threat wolves face as humans continue to breed dogs while hunting down their very ancestors, wolves. 


In fact, reading this novel through McKinley’s eyes put me to mind of viewing the world through Scout’s innocent young eyes in the much lauded classic To Kill a Mockingbird. McKinley, like Scout, struggles to understand why the world is the way it is and the strange duality of humankind. I’m honestly not sure why The Good Dog has flown so under the radar, but I imagine it’s something equivalent to it “just being a dog book.” 


But there are a lot of different levels to unpack in this heartwarming story and we could all use a little reminder to be more like dogs—to unconditionally love with our whole hearts, to stop and spend time with our dear friends, to give whatever is needed, to show gratitude where it is earned, and to protect those we hold dear.


If, like me, you needed a balm to soothe your soul from all of those crushing books you read as a child or even if you just need a heartwarming and wholesome read, read The Good Dog.


*Please note: The Good Dog does contain depictions of animal abuse. Duchess does share that she is verbally abused and her living conditions are indeed appallingly abusive, as is the fact that she’s forced to race when she doesn’t like it and is punished when she doesn’t succeed. While this abuse is referred to multiple times in conversation, it mostly happens off page and what readers do see is certainly not on the level of other children’s books like Shiloh. Lupin is also met with prejudice and actual violence at the hands of the town members, who are threatened by her mere existence and are actively trying to kill her. Those who find this content upsetting should proceed with caution.


Book Review : The Good Dog - Blogging with Dragons

Posted November 30, 2022 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Favorite Books

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2 responses to “Book Review : The Good Dog

  1. kamifurr

    I’ve read Where the Red Fern Grows, Shiloh, Old Yeller, Stone Fox, and the like. I have refused to read Marley and Me, and I even started refusing to watch movies with dogs. Why does the dog always have to die!?!?!?

    I have hope for this book. Thank you for sharing.

    • Oh my goodness, bless your heart. ? I am the same way, I even follow a Twitter account called, “does the dog die,” so I can refuse to watch movies and shows that have dog deaths.

      This book was such a breath of fresh air.

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