My love for reading and my love for dogs go hand in hand. Both bring me so much joy, help relieve stress, and teach me important lessons about the world. At their best, I believe that both literature and living with dogs can be transformative - helping us to develop more empathy, consider world views outside of our own, and find support in navigating loss, grief, trauma, and change.
One of the books that had the greatest impact on me growing up was Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. I read this book so many times, getting lost in the story of a little boy named Billy growing up in the Ozarks who longed for two redbone coon hounds of his own. After saving his pennies for years, he finally goes into town and buys two puppies, who he names Old Dan and Little Ann. The book chronicles their adventures as Billy raises them into champion hunting dogs. Although the ending is tragic, the book offers profound lessons about growing up, working hard, and coping with the inevitability of change.
Dogs are there, by our side, for all of what life brings - walking with us through the dark valleys and standing with us on the high peaks, sharing our joy. Here are five beautiful memoirs about the dog-human relationship that have stayed with me.
Merle’s Door: Lessons From a Free Thinking Dog
By Ted Kerasote
This memoir is about a young, freewheeling, mountain town bachelor who comes across a stray puppy during a river rafting trip. He takes the dog home, names him Merle, and they begin a long and beautiful relationship. Ted lives in the Teton Mountains of Idaho and allows Merle more or less a “free range” life in town and in the mountains where Ted hunts, skis, and backpacks. Ted aims to give Merle a life with as much freedom and choice as possible - and in this memoir, he shares much of what he learns about how dogs think and learn. Ted’s chronicling of Merle’s decline and eventual passing is as beautiful a love story as I’ve ever read.
Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs
By Caroline Knapp
In this memoir, Caroline Knapp recounts losing both of her parents and quitting drinking after decades of alcoholism, all within a short period of time. Around the same time, a shelter puppy comes into her life - and as she grows in relationship with her pup, she re-learns how to “be” in the world. Knapp delves deep into research on the dog-human bond, especially as it relates to emotional healing. In doing so, she helps to validate the deep, profound love that so many of us feel from, and towards, our dogs.
Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship
By Tom Ryan
This extraordinary memoir tells the tale of a newspaper reporter in a small New England town who adopts a miniature Schnauzer named Atticus. Tom is middle aged and is entrenched in his work and unhealthy habits until Atticus comes into his life. After adopting Atticus, Tom decides on a crazy goal: to climb all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000 foot peaks, twice each, in winter. Most of the book follows Tom and Atticus along on their hikes, with tough little Atticus leading the way through snow, ice, hail, and blizzards. It’s a remarkable story of adventure, and also a beautiful story of a man finding purpose, health, joy, and love later in life.
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country
By Pam Houston
Not a dog memoir per se, this is a wide-ranging memoir by one of my favorite writers that happens to feature Irish Wolfhounds, Houston’s breed of choice. Houston leads an unconventional life, living on a ranch high in the Colorado Mountains with an assortment of animals including miniature donkeys, Icelandic Sheep, and her beloved Wolfhounds. She touches on many themes throughout the book, but comes back frequently to the notion that nature and animals are the greatest healers and teachers. She describes, hilariously, the personalities and physical feats of all of the Irish Wolfhounds that she has lived with over the years (spoiler: they are not a breed to trifle with).
Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod
By Gary Paulsen
Gary Paulsen writes primarily young adult books, but this one is for adults. It’s an enthralling recounting of Paulsen’s first Iditarod Race in 1983. It’s an amazing story, full of adventure, humor, only-in-Alaska moments, and insights into the wild world of the Iditarod. It’s also a tender story of Paulsen’s relationship with the dogs on his sled team and a testament to how incredibly tough and smart sled dogs are.