Sad Dog Stories: They’re a Thing–and a Necessity

Does the Dog Die?

“Miss Wanda,” I stage whispered to the children’s librarian across from me, “I need to know. Does the dog die?

I was holding an audio copy of Shiloh, and I needed to be prepared before listening with my 2nd and 3rd grade children. After all, I’d grown up on Old YellerWhere the Red Fern Grows, and a host of other sad dog books. I knew that doggie death was a very real possibility in children’s literature.

“I don’t know, but I know how we can find out!” Like all librarians worth their salt, Miss Wanda knew exactly how to help me. Together, we looked at a new-to-me-website: Does the Dog Die?

This is a useful resource for parents and teachers who want to know before reading or watching a dog story to what extent they will need to triage traumatized young readers.

Why Read Sad Dog Stories?

If there’s an entire website dedicated to the question, “Does the dog die?” one might question why we have this many sad dog stories! I mean, why can’t they all be like Beethoven with happy endings? And not outright tear jerkers like Marley and Me or the aforementioned Old Yeller?

I’ll tell you why: Reality + Virtual Reality.

Reality Bites

In the case of dogs, sometimes reality literary bites. Tongue-in-cheek humor aside, it’s true that many people are pet owners and grow attached to their animal companions. The Lord designed us to want to care for his creation, and sometimes that takes the form of bringing a particular animal into our “family” to care for in a special way. And nearly every species we own as pets will not outlive their human counterparts.

Dogs die. Cats die. Lizards, goldfish, birds–all die. And even though I know this cold, hard truth as an adult, I can tell you that I’ve ugly cried at all my pets’ demise, even as a “mature” adult who knew that putting down my dog with cancer was clearly in my pet’s best interest and a privilege I had as her caretaker to alleviate her suffering. But it hurts!

Books Provide Great Virtual Reality

When I ugly cry over my sweet dog’s death, when I mourn the loss of a neighbor dog, when I empathize with my children over the loss of frogs, fish, shrimp, etc., I recognize that those particular animals were special to us. But I also knew that those special animals would die and that sometimes I’d have to make an “Old Yeller” decision. Or a “Rascal” decision to rehome an animal. And somehow, knowing that mere kids had made these hard decisions in the books I read as a kid helps shore up my ability to make a similar decision as an adult.

Reading a book like Shiloh offers much discussion fodder for mistreatment of animals, lying and its consequences, and the harsh reality we must sometimes face. Reading Rascal helps us discuss with our children that God made many marvelous animals with unique abilities; sometimes, those animals are better left in the very environments the Lord made for them rather than caged up in our house. And reading books like Old Yeller help us, with tears, remind our children that people are more important.

When animals are a threat to people, we must sometimes make hard decisions. When animals are sick beyond our help, we have the right and privilege to put them out of their suffering even though it grieves us. Animals do not have souls and their suffering will not benefit them spiritually in the way our own suffering might benefit us. Thus, we sometimes make excruciating decisions that really are in the animal’s best interest. And reading books that show these issues ahead of time, when our emotions aren’t already involved, can be a great way to help our children experience that pain vicariously and be better equipped when the time comes.


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Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Northwest.

1 Comment

  1. Meredith on May 15, 2017 at 6:55 pm

    I love this post and am remembering the first time I read Where the Red Fern Grows. I was torn apart! But it’s a beautiful story, and I still reread it occasionally. (And Old Yeller, too, although I remember enjoying the movie more for some reason. That’s very rare.) I love Charlotte’s Web, too.

    I just read a wonderful animal story called The Ark, the Reed, and the Fire Cloud, by Jenny L. Cote. It’s a profound story of Noah’s ark from the animals’ perspectives; one I could not put down. I really think you would like it, but I cannot tell you if the dog dies. That’s a major spoiler! Ha!

    God bless you.

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