Dog  The Use of Dogs in Young Adult Literature Dog


As children mature into young adults, they desire more sophisticated, challenging fiction than that typically offered in children’s animal stories.  Young adults list adventure, mystery, romance, realistic depictions of other teens, horror, fantasy, and science fiction as their favorite genres (SmartGirl Survey).   This made me wonder about the relationship between teens and animals, specifically dogs, and the status of dogs in young adult literature.   How do teens feel about dogs?  How is or isn't this relationship addressed in young adult literature?

Research    Methods    The Books    Conclusion    Works Cited

Research: What is the relationship like between young adults and dogs?

A 1995 study concluded that pets hold a significant place in the lives of young adults between the ages of 12 and 17.  Of pet owners, 64% of young adults say that their pet is extremely or very important to them, and the importance levels are highest for dog and cat owners (Siegel 223).

Research also has described three developmental phases in young adults’ perceptions of animals.  The third developmental stage occurs between the 8th and 11th grades, when young adults’ “ethical concern for the welfare and kind treatment of animals increased dramatically”  (Kellert and Westervelt 190).  During that time period, the increase in moralistic concern for animals amongst female teens was greater than that of male teens (Kellert and Westervelt 165). 

At the same time, there are some teens who fear dogs.  In a survey of whether or not teens agreed with the statement “Most big dogs scare me,” 17.9% of 8th graders agreed.  Of 11th graders, 18.8% agreed (Kellert and Westervelt 73).

So, the research tells us that as teens move further into young adulthood, their relationship with dogs is complicated.  Some young adults exhibit ethical concerns about animals, and some teens fear dogs.  At the same time, their desire to read books about other topics increases.  Is this complexity evident in young adult literature?

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 I used NoveList, Books-in-Print, and Books-in-Review to search for books about dogs.  I used the subject heading “dogs” and limited my search to fiction for young adults.  I tried to find books for older young adults.  I decided whether or not they were for older young adults by (in no particular order): 1. the age of the main character 2. the maturity of subject matter 3. the reading level of the books (small font, long words, etc., but I did not use a formal scale). 

Some of these books are more challenging than others, but I believe that these will appeal to older young adults as well as younger young adults.

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The books:

Koja, Kathe. Straydog. New York: Farrar, Straus and Girous, 2002. Straydog

Rachel, a disgruntled high school student and aspiring writer, is “too smart for the freaks, but too much of a freak for the smart kids.”  On the surface, Rachel really doesn’t care about much except for volunteering at an animal shelter.   Rachel’s world changes when a wild, street-dog Collie mix—“Lassie with an attitude”—arrives in the shelter.  As Rachel plots to gain the Collie’s trust and save her from euthanasia, she struggles with her parents, school, and her identity as an outsider.  She even develops a friendship with Griffin, another outsider who she describes as “Lost Boy.”  In the end, Rachel is unable to save Grrl, but through this experience she learns about herself and grows into a stronger person.

This is a problem/realistic/romance novel that uses the dog as a device for Rachel to learn about herself and to take risks. This is not a children’s book; this story is hip and sophisticated and the language is cutting and quick.  Straydog is an excellent illustration of the important role that dogs can have in the lives of teens, similar to what Siegel described.  This book also demonstrates the strong bond that girls can have with pets.  Rachel also has what Kellert and Westervelt paint as a strong ethical concern for the welfare and kind treatment of animals.

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Hathorn, Libby. Thunderwith. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1989. Thunderwith

Australian high-school student Lara is devastated when her mother passes away from a terminal illness.  Lara is sent to live with her father, Larry, who she has not seen since she was an infant.  Larry lives on a remote farm with his new wife, Gladwyn, and their four children.  However, life with Larry and his family does not ease Lara’s grief; Gladwyn disapproves of Lara, she is bullied at school, she feels desperately lonely, and her heart aches for her mother.  One day while wandering the farm during a rainstorm, Lara meets a stray dog who she befriends and finds comfort and solace in.  Lara finds the courage to stand up to Gowd, the bully, but is then devastated when the bully kills “Thunderwith,” the name she gave to the beloved dog.  However, it is the loss of Thunderwith that eventually allows Lara to find peace after the loss of her mother, and unites her with Gladwyn. Lara resolves to stay with her new family, and finally feels a part of their home.

This book will appeal to teens because it is a problem/realistic novel that touches on many problems teens may have experienced in their own lives.  Teens can relate to the sense of isolation that Lara feels as she enters a new school and moves to a new area.  Many teens may also be able to identify with Lara’s struggles with her new family.  Teens may also understand Lara’s ability to find comfort in a source outside her family; for other teens this may be in a friend, a book, or a dog.  Similar to Straydog, this book depicts the strong bond that is possible between teens and animals, especially girls and dogs.  Thunderwith also speaks to the strong concerns that teens can have for the wellbeing of animals.  In addition, the Australian setting, full of words like “kookaburra,” will appeal to adventurous teens who want to read about foreign, unknown lands.

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Wersba, Barbara. The Farewell Kid. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

This is the story of Heidi Roosenbloom, who at 17-and-a-half, begins the tale by stating “it was the most important year of my life, and its hallmark was that I was saying good-bye to everything.” Heidi’s only passion in life is dogs, and she decides to swear off both men and college.  Instead, Heidi plans to save all the stray dogs in New York City.  To the anxiety of her divorced parents, she moves out of her mother’s apartment and into a former barbershop, which serves as her first apartment and the headquarters for her company, Dog Rescue, Incorporated.  Heidi struggles financially and strives to show her parents her independence.  She meets a kindred spirit, Harvey Beaumont the Third, an 18-year-old aspiring vegetable photographer, with whom she eventually begins a romantic relationship.  The story ends as Heidi’s parents become accustomed to Heidi’s choices, and as she successfully places her first rescued dog, a ten-year-old chihuaua, with a family.

This book is a realistic/romance novel that will appeal to teens who love dogs and who are struggling with leaving childhood behind and entering adulthood.  Like many teens, Heidi struggles for independence from her parents and with the expectations that her parents have for her, which differ from her own goals and aspirations.  Teens of divorced parents will also identify with this character.  In addition, Heidi exhibits a true ethical concern for the well-being of animals, a quality that teens have developed. 

Unlike the other books mentioned, there is not one particular dog character that is important to the story of The Farewell Kid.  There are indeed many anecdotes about dogs, but the theme of dogs in general is the main way in which dogs are present in this story.  A love of dogs is a sort of wallpaper that decorates the interior of this book.

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Burgess, Melvin. Lady: My Life as a Bitch. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2001. Lady

Sandra, a British seventeen-year-old, is turned into a dog one day by a homeless alcoholic man after she taunts him in the street.  The story is not all about chasing squirrels though; Sandra the dog recounts her life as a person, including her relationship with her family, the divorce of her parents, her relationship with her friends, and she also gives frank details about her past drug use and her sexual experiences.  Sandra also meets up with other people-turned-dogs, who she forms a pack with and even has romantic entanglements.  As a dog, Sandra experiences life without consequences and is able to do what she pleases, when she pleases.  Though Sandra initially enjoys her life as a dog, she decides she wants to be reunited with her family.  After she breaks into their house, she tries to convince them that indeed she exists within the body of a dog.  However, after Sandra’s family has difficulty believing and accepting her for who she is, Sandra chooses the life of a dog over the life as a person.

This book uses an interesting device—being turned into a dog—to get inside a teenager’s head.  In that sense, this book uses elements of science fiction, but this is more like a problem/realistic novel.  After Sandra is turned into a dog she begins to reflect on her life and the choices that she has made.  Once again, this is not about a particular dog/pet, but about using the dog as a form to allow a character to develop.  This is a mature, dark story for older teens; there are details about sex, drug use, and other sophisticated behaviors.  Sandra is an edgy, gruff teenager who speaks in a confrontational, in-your-face manner, daring us to judge her.  Here the dog is not used as an object of love, but as a vessel for self-exploration.  In this sense, the relationship described in the research is not addressed in this book.

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Carter, Alden R. Dogwolf. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1994. Dogwolf

This haunting story is the tale of Pete LaSavage, a fifteen year old half-Native American and half-white boy who is spending the summer as a lookout for fires in the forest near his home in Wisconsin.  Pete lives with his mother, step-father, and two half-sisters, and he gets along with them pretty well.  Pete wants to know more about his father, who wandered off into the woods when Pete was young and never returned.  Near Pete’s home, a dog, rumored to be half-dog, half-wolf, is kept in a cage by a derelict neighbor.  The dog howls into the wind, driving Pete and his family crazy.  Pete can’t stand the dog and lets it free.  Forest fires loom continually on the horizon.  The dogwolf is spotted around the reservation and attacks people, eventually killing one of Pete’s friends.  A huge fire, the “big one,” finally erupts.  Pete kills the dog in the climax of the story.

This is a realistic/horror/mystical story that will appeal to horror fans and those who fear dogs.  The book deals with sophisticated story lines that speak to teens: sex, alcohol, and family relationships.  In addition, Pete’s identity struggle as half-Indian, half-white, will resonate with teens who may struggle with where they fit into the world.  There are also mystical elements that will appeal to those who enjoy the supernatural.  Other mature issues in this book are the status of Native Americans in America, particularly life on reservations and the role of alcohol in Native American culture.  The dog is a sophisticated device in this book, used to scare, discuss self-identity, and allow for a story line that integrates realistic teen issues.  This book exploits the fear that some teens have of dogs.

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Garth, G. G. Bad Dog. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

A vampire who owns a slaughterhouse in the New England town of Westlake has begun preying on teens.  Dan, Aaron, Katrina, and Correy, a group of high school students, vow that they will not fall prey to this growing group of vampires.  As the teens eat garlic in every shape and form they can think of, they meet a basset hound who roams the streets alone.  Little do they know that this basset hound has been genetically bioengineered to be host to a colony of killer fleas.  At first it is not clear if the dog is the enemy or the vampire is, or if they are working together in some way.  The teens eventually adopt the dog, who they name Fang, and with the help of a scientist at the local laboratory, are eventually able to defeat the vampire and save Fang from a terrible fate.

This is a disjointed horror story that will appeal to vampire lovers, those who fear dogs, and those who love dogs.  The story combines both positive and negative aspects of teen relationships with dogs as some readers can sympathize with a bioengineered dog while others will become scared by the dog.  

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In summary…

These books, with the exception of Lady, speak of the relationship that teens have with dogs.  This is accomplished by using dogs in several genres, in several ways:  as friends/companions, as animals that human beings care deeply about, as thematic backdrops, as vehicles for transformation, and as a horror creatures.  Though teens do not list dogs as their primary reading interests, the dog is present in young adult literature, and  the dog is a suitable and viable subject that can interest both those teens who wish to read about dogs and those who are just looking for a good book.

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Works Cited

SmartGirl Teen Read Week 2002.  March 2004. SmartGirl. March 1, 2004 , <>
Kellert, Stephen R. and Miriam O. Westervelt. Children’s Attitudes, Knowledge and Behaviors Toward Animals. Washington, D.C.:             U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1983.

Siegel, Judith M. “Pet Ownership and the Importance of Pets Among Adolescents.” Anthrozoos 8.4 (1995): 217-235.

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