Half way through a story about a child and their canine best friend, I pause to think, “this isn’t going to end well.” There is a peculiar ache to worrying about the fate of a fictional pet, a kind of inevitability that doesn’t quite translate to watching human suffering. Perhaps it’s because (as my mother always says) you can’t explain to a pet what’s happening – you can’t explain that they’re getting old, that they’re sick, that their family is moving away. This is the whole plot of Disney’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993); three beloved family pets are left with friends when their owners move across country, and they don’t understand. They vow to find their family, and make, yes, an incredible journey through the Canadian wilderness to be reunited with them.
It’s a story full of peril – bears and river crossings, hunger and the emotional strain of being abandoned and reunited. The climax of this story (spoilers ahead if you’ve not read the book or seen either of the films) is when the young dog and the cat bound over the hill towards their juvenile masters, and there’s a sweet moment of reunion mixed with an awful, sinking ache: the old golden retriever hasn’t appeared over the hill. The oldest child (there’s three pets and three children) looks devastated, as his dad gently tells him, “well, he was old.” It’s a horrible jumble of the pain of a lost pet and a child’s lost innocence, the stoic older-brother-ness of the boy’s sad little face, and the younger children’s elation at being with their own pets coupled with their sadness at their brother’s loss. And then the old dog comes limping up the hill, wearing that golden retriever smile, and it’s all alright again. It’s a saccharine moment of pathos and catharsis. I haven’t seen the film since childhood, and this is the only clear memory I have of it, so affected was I by the possibility that the little boy’s dog wouldn’t have made it home.
Because I’d been asking, all the way through the film, does something terrible happen to the dog? This is a question that recurs throughout Sigrid Nunez’s 2019 novel The Friend. The book is about a woman whose close friend dies, leaving her to take custody of his Great Dane in a 500 square foot New York City apartment. It’s a classic tale of reluctant owner turned devoted companion. It’s about the process of grief, and the way we attach emotions, personalities, ourselves to pets, particularly during periods of emotional or physical upheaval. The dog, Apollo, imposes himself on the narrator’s life until she can’t be without him, and she knows she’s succumbed to the thing so many people do: she’s fallen for a pet she will probably outlive. The dog is not incidental anymore, a trick Nunez’s narrator understands: less than fifty pages into the book, the narrator says, “there’s a certain kind of person who, having read this far, is anxiously wondering: Does something terrible happen to the dog?” From then on, you can’t help but wonder, at every turn, in spite of yourself, does something terrible happen to this dog?
Nunez’s novel draws a delicate and contemplative picture of the relationship between a human and their dog. It’s not overwrought, there are no manipulative emotional moments like the end of The Incredible Journey, and in fact we don’t really know if something terrible happens to this dog. Of course, something happens, but it’s unclear whether it should be read as terrible. Apollo’s arthritis becomes so bad he can’t climb the stairs, can’t stand up on his first try, can’t jump up on the bed. He is fading, and we are all watching it happen. The narrator’s solution is to transfer herself and her dog to her friend’s Long Island beach house for the final weeks of the summer. With no steps and no noise, there’s plenty of tranquillity for the ageing Great Dane. Apollo sits staring out at the beach, watching younger dogs and butterflies and, perhaps, he dies:
They should watch out for you, o eater of insects. One snap of those jaws would take out most of them. But there they go, heading right for you, as if you were no more than a giant rock lying on the grass. The shower you like confetti, and you – not a twitch!
Oh, what a sound. What could that gull have seen to make it cry out like that?
The butterflies are in the air again, moving off, in the direction of the shore.
I want to call your name, but the word dies in my throat.
Oh, my friend, my friend!
So the dog is dead. Or perhaps just sleeping, exhausted from the sun. But also definitely dead. Probably. However you read this ending, the question remains – did something terrible happen to the dog? Or did something terrible happen to me?
That’s what we’re really concerned about. If something terrible happens to the dog, the dog won’t necessarily perceive it as terrible – if the dog is dead, the dog won’t perceive it at all – whereas we, as readers, as witnesses, will feel terrible about the so-called terrible thing that is happening. It’s hard to disentangle these emotions. When the golden retriever doesn’t immediately lope over the hill, are we feeling sad for the dog or for the child? Both, of course, particularly as the dog in question had been so thoroughly anthropomorphised as to be given a voice and thoughts and worries throughout the film. But the both-ness of this feeling is difficult to comprehend, because we’ve so connected the boy and his dog that emotions for one are emotions for another. This feeling is tinged with the question, “how would I feel if I were that child? What if that were my dog?” At the same time, we’re asking “how would I feel if I were that dog?” So much of our fear over whether something terrible happens to the dog seems to be to do with the prospect of having to bear witness, to bear the emotion of the event. While – or because – the dog might not comprehend its dying, we feel it twice over. Once again, Nunez’s narrator understands this:
It is widely believed that although animals don’t know that one day they’ll die, many of them do know when they’re actually dying. So at what point does a dying animal become aware of what’s happening? Could it possibly be a long time before? And how do animals respond to aging? Are they completely puzzled, or do they somehow intuit what the signs mean?
These are burning questions precisely because we cannot answer them. We cannot know whether our beloved pet knows it’s going to die. We can’t even really know how much pain it’s in. The pathos comes from not knowing and asking anyway, as Nunez’s narrator understands: “are these foolish questions? I acknowledge that they are. And yet they preoccupy me.”
They preoccupy me too. My own childhood dog is ageing now, and every time I visit my parents, she’s a little slower, a littler stiffer. She no longer runs after a ball, and has trouble jumping onto the sofa on her first try. Has it occurred to her that she’s getting older? She certainly has a lower tolerance for younger dogs now, but then again, she wasn’t that sociable to begin with. And she still trots off along the beach, and gets excited when she goes in the car. She still wants to share our snacks and loves to be where the action is. We explain it away like this. She’s still happy, she has a good life. My dad makes jokes about her dying soon because he’ll be devastated when she eventually does, and my mum trawls through Mary Oliver’s dog poems to find the one she thought would be “right for the funeral.” I pretend the dog’s just fine, and try not to feel sad when she can’t jump up next to me.
I remember how distressing my first pet deaths were. The white rabbit, stretched out and stiff as though running, mum lifting her out of the hutch and explaining what had happened. And the twenty-three-year-old cat who’d been around long before me, mangy and skeletal under the radiator in the kitchen. Like the empty space before the golden retriever, these memories are tense and breathless, and they’re pivotal. We learn to process, to accept, to confront the possibility of loss through the sick cat, the belly-up goldfish. We learn that we will outlive things.
“Does something terrible happen to the dog?” is a question about control. Our ability to answer it, to know not only what will happen to the dog but how and when, gives us a sense of preparedness and assuredness we’ve probably all been searching for since our first shoebox funeral. At the same time, knowing that the dog will die does something to our love for it, gives us a kind of urgency, a desperate affection. It’s difficult to know that a being we love will go before we do, will be small, and grown, and ageing within the space of about ten years, but this difficulty amplifies our feelings. Stephen King, who owns (and is obsessed with) corgis, understands this. In an interview with Nerdette, King explains that he thinks his current dog, Molly, will be his last corgi: “I think I particularly care for Molly because I understand she’s probably my last dog. She’s a year and a half old, I’m sixty-eight, and if things work out the way that I hope they do, we’ll play out at about the same time.” This is the dream, to have exactly the right amount of time with the pet and for neither of you to have to witness the demise of the other. It’s hard to connect this sweet wish to the person who wrote Cujo. Or perhaps it’s easy: something terrible happens to the dog in that one, too.
Back to The Incredible Journey for a moment. Here is Mark Doty on that film in his 2008 memoir, Dog Years: ‘When he watched the Disney remake of The Incredible Journey … I made sure he wore [headphones]. I didn’t want my mind to be infiltrated by those images and their soundtrack, because I knew they’d break my heart. Never mind that my circumstances were already genuinely heartbreaking; I was managing that, somehow, but what I couldn’t bear was the representation of the heartbreaking.’
The ‘he’ in this passage is Doty’s partner Wally, who is dying of AIDS. Dog Years tells this story, refracted through the life and death of two retrievers. The irony here, of course, is that Doty’s fear of the representation of the heartbreaking through the film about dogs and their humans is the same representation we experience as readers as we learn about his two dogs (Beau and Arden) and witness, at the edges of the narrative, Wally’s slow death. It is a devastating book. And while at the end of The Incredible Journey we get the “inevitable reunion,” as Doty puts it, his book offers no such resolution: both of the dogs and Wally are dead by the end.
Yet this is not a surprise. The question “does something terrible happen to the dog?” doesn’t quite follow us around this book in the same way, because these deaths are revealed in the first few pages. We know that Wally passed away as early as page four, and the fact that the dogs die follows soon after, though we’re not told how or when. Instead, Doty backtracks, and begins to tell the stories of adopting, caring for, moving around, and losing both dogs, against the backdrop of Wally’s illness and death. The book gives us the sense of control we thought we craved, that we think we want. But because we know, more or less, what happens to Wally and why, we become preoccupied instead with the question: “what terrible thing happens to the dogs, and when?”
A terrible thing happened to my dog. She died in October. She was the first dog I’d ever had. We got her when I was a teenager, and for twelve years she’d been a noisy, untrained, loveable fixture in my parents’ house. My friends loved her, my family loved her, my dog-hating boyfriend was entirely persuaded by her. She was a joyful, unignorable force – which is a kind way of saying she barked too much, loved carrots, and by the end was being made her own cup of tea.
She was old. Old dogs die. We know this. But I was completely unprepared for her death, despite the months of jokes and conversations about it. She wasn’t sick, she wasn’t that slow, and she definitely wasn’t unhappy. I assumed she wasn’t done with living. But my dad phoned one morning to say that Wilma had died in the night. His voice was small and sad. My mum didn’t speak on the phone. Months later she’s still, understandably, devastated: something terrible happened to her dog.
We all knew the dog would die. We always know the dog will die, but in the same way we know we’ll die: we don’t look at it, don’t think too long or hard about it unless someone or something tells us we must. There’s such an impulse to ignore or brush away the impending terrible. Very few people want to know how and when they’ll die, and the same thing goes for pets: in spite of us asking and asking does something terrible happen, I don’t think we really want to know, don’t think we can ever be prepared. And all it really leads to are more questions. What is the terrible? Is it the death, or how we feel about it? Is it the absence of the dog, or of something the dog represents? For Doty, the dogs are signifiers, metaphors for love, for devotion, for the slow death of his long term partner. But they’re also dogs, and this is just as important. Getting too tied up in dogs-as-metaphors is to discount the very real effects they have on our lives. When our dog died, my mum wasn’t sad because Wilma represented her relationships to other loved ones, or to the very idea of death; she was sad because the dog had died and was gone.
Mourning a dog is not part of our grief culture. There’s no compassionate leave for losing a dog, and grieving a pet when hundreds of thousands of people are dying isn’t something to shout about. Nevertheless, the loss of a pet, a dog in particular, leaves a rift. When I speak to my parents on the phone, they talk about how quiet the house is, how they haven’t been out for a walk in a few days, how the entire shape of their day has changed. I think about how loud the dog was, how she’d bark at the postman, steal socks from the radiators, demand a handful of your crisps. She was so obstinately there, so part of it all. It’s hard to explain this to people who’ve never had a dog, hard to refer to the dog as ‘part of the family’ without sounding twee, or deluded. But it’s true. We love them fiercely because they love us fiercely, and they fit in our lives because their life entirely depends on us.
When Wilma died I started thinking again about my obsession with that question, does something terrible happen to the dog. I started wanting at once to watch all the doggy snuff films and never watch one again. I thought about the ending of Marley and Me – which every dog owner has seen but not every dog owner will admit to – when Owen Wilson holds Marley’s paw and tells him he’s been a good dog. Marley was never a good dog. He was untrained and big and loud. But he was funny and loving and loveable. Most dogs are like this, I think. Mine was. Her propensity to entertain and annoy was boundless and we all loved her, even though she ate windowsills, ripped apart books, and used to hide pound coins behind her teeth. She had character. Was a character. So when something terrible happened to her – because something terrible always happens to the dog in the end – it happened to us too, and we were sad, and we still are. But before the terrible thing happened to us, the dog happened to us.
The end of The Friend avoids tying off the terrible thing, doesn’t need to say how sad the death was but how life ultimately goes on. Instead it just half-answers the question that we don’t really want the answer to anyway. Did something terrible happen to the dog? Yes, and no. So did something terrible happen to us? Yes, and – mercifully, wonderfully – no.
Daisy Henwood in a writer, tutor and arts producer. She leads workshops for the National Centre for Writing and Young Norfolk Arts, and has been commissioned by Norwich City Council and BBC Norfolk. She received her PhD from UEA in 2020. She is writer-in-residence at the Wherry School and lives in Norwich.