In the years we have owned dogs, there have been countless times when I wondered what the dog was thinking and feeling or why he or she engaged in a particular behavior. Since we’ve always had cats with our dogs, I have wondered just as many times what our various dogs thought about the cats. And, of course, I’ve wondered what our dogs have thought of us.
W. Bruce Cameron has answered some of those question with his delightful book, A Dog’s Purpose. It’s the story of one dog’s spiritual evolution through several lifetimes, told from the dog’s point of view. As with humans, the dog’s name and circumstances change from life to life.
He begins his first life in a litter born in the wild, where he and his litter mates are eventually taken to a chaotic dog rescue place. Here, he’s named Toby and learns how to exist in the Yard, a fenced area, with other rescued dogs. Cameron captures the pecking order in such a situation and does it in a way that instantly pulls you into the emotional texture of Toby’s life. When Toby’s mother escapes from the rescue place, you feel what Toby feels, betrayal, bewilderment, fear. When Toby is attacked by Spike, the local bully, you feel Toby’s horror and pain. You also feel what Toby feels when his leg is damaged beyond repair and he’s euthanized.
Toby is reborn as a golden retriever, and this lifetime really spoke to me; we own a golden now – Noah – and before him, owned another golden, Jessie. Both were rescue dogs. In this life, Toby’s name in Bailey and after an iffy start, he ends up with a family whose young son, Ethan, is definitely his human. Bailey recalls his life as Toby, when he was always trying to define his purpose, and that quest continues in his life as Bailey.
“Living in the Yard has taught me how to escape through a gate. It had led me straight to the boy, and loving and living with the boy was my whole purpose in life. From the second we woke up until the moment we went to sleep, we were together.”
Bailey’s life has plenty of drama in it – a run-in with a skunk at the farm that Ethan’s grandparents own, a neighborhood bully tries to poison him, he and Ethan gets lost for several days in the woods, Ethan’s father doesn’t particularly like him. After the family cat dies, Ethan buys his mother a new kitten and Bailey’s reaction had me laughing out loud:
“He had no manners whatever and attacked my tail when I sat down often lunged out at me from behind the couch, batting at me with his tiny paws. When I tried to play with him, he wrapped his legs around my nose and bit me with his sharp teeth.” And his opinion on cats generally? “Dogs have important jobs, like barking when the doorbell rings, but cats have no function in a house whatsoever.”
Cameron is such a skillful writer that I was drawn fully into Bailey’s timeless life. He always refers to Ethan as the boy even when Ethan is college bound and has a girlfriend. Bailey has dog friends, too, like Duchess, who lives in the neighborhood. One evening, Bailey heads over to Duchess’s house to see if she can play, but there wasn’t any sign of her “other than a fairly recent patch of urine-soaked snow. I thoughtfully lifted my leg on the area so she’d know I was thinking of her.”
Passages like that one leads me to believe that while Cameron was writing this novel, he entered that magical place all novelists strive for, where you are so plugged into your character and your story that it’s as if you’re channeling. And now, I must return to Bailey. I’ve peeked ahead and know there’s at least one more life for this extraordinary soul.