If a Dog Shows Up in Your Story

Lost&Found cropped dog book cover

By Jacqueline Sheehan

Lost and Found book cover

I never intended to include a dog in my 2007 novel, Lost & Found, but once a barrel-chested black lab showed up in the story line, there was no going back. He had a big personality and kept muscling his way into each scene. And I am so glad that he did. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about including dogs in fiction.

Three reasons to include animals, specifically dogs, in your fiction:

  • Dogs don’t conceal their feelings. If they are afraid, they show it. If they’re glad to see you walk in the front door, they don’t try to play it cool. This is helpful because you may have characters who do try to conceal their emotions, or who are unaware of their feelings. Dogs serve as a more truthful barometer.
  • The main character’s relationship with a dog can help reveal aspects of their personality. For example, a stingy character may be generous with their dog. A shy person can reveal her playful side when she is out with her golden-doodle.
  • Dogs can play a part in moving the plot forward. When the stakes are high, the plot charges along. When the welfare of a character is linked to the welfare of an animal, we are glued to the page.

Three essentials when including dogs:

  • Research their behavior and body language. The world of animal research is constantly expanding, so there is an abundance of information. Your canine character needs to respond to the action in your story. Use their complex body language and the reader will immediately understand without “telling” what’s happening. Is the tail up, or has it drooped down? Is the dog rolling around on the ground exposing his belly, or is he staring into the woods, standing between the hero and someone who shouldn’t be there? Did he give a short, high bark, or a series of barks that sound an alarm? Check out, How to Speak Dog, by Stanley Coren.
  • Research the particular breed. When I included Irish Wolfhounds in Now & Then, I contacted a breeder and trainer who let me spend time with her gentle giants. Each breed has subtle differences. For example, Irish Wolfhounds seem to understand their strength and are gentle with smaller dogs.
  • Talk to a dog trainer. They understand what motivates dogs. I spent time with one of our Straw Dog writers, Cynthia Hinckley, who runs Bright Spot Therapy Dogs.  While I was with her, she assessed a young golden retriever as a potential therapy dog for an assisted living center.

Lastly, if you don’t feel a deep sense of appreciation for dogs, for their totally joyous approach to life, don’t include them. You can’t fake this.