Unlike the first time I had my heart broken, a lingering affair that I’m not sure the other party knew he was a part of, or my first experience with human death, a great-uncle who had given me orange circus peanuts once and then moved to the West coast, the first time I watched the movie Shiloh, I cried. A spoiler: Shiloh, the star beagle, never actually dies. But he comes close, in a suspenseful car crash scene followed by a midnight trip to the town veterinarian-grandfather-guy and his wife who give some sad looks to Shiloh’s owner until the next morning when we find out that Shiloh’s totally fine. I left our living room couch mid-movie to cry with my mother, who was curling her hair at the time and after a few moments of my explanation looked at me kind of funny, like she was embarrassed that her kid was crying over a not-at-all-dead dog.
Two years later I still counted Shiloh as one of the greatest films ever made and my sixth-grade class was reading Where the Red Fern Grows. Did I cry? I cried. I mourned. I don’t think I told my mother about it that time. Why had I never taken my own slightly over-weight, thirteen pound chihuahua, Buster, into the woods so we could bond how owner and dog really should, before it was too late? But I keep coming back for dog death. And so does everyone else apparently—Marley and Me sold 2.5 billion copies. Everyone knows how it ends. When the movie form was released, no one came to watch Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston be a cute blond family—they came because along with the disproportionate amount of grief we feel over fictional dog-deaths, there’s the sick pleasure in feeling all the sadness with no strings attached.
The technique of inserting the poignancy of a dog-death into a story is two-step.
1) The Dog is Introduced
It’s loyal and can pick up on the bad vibes of the villains before you even know they’re the bad guys. It will represent everything that’s lacking in human-to-human friendships, from the fact that we can’t lick each other, to the question of which of your friends you would actually fight off a bear for. Everyone will immediately love it and wish their own dog was so cool.
2) It Dies
Mailman accident. Stray bullet on a hunting trip. Burning building after it has already pulled several elderly residents to safety. The always reliable dogs-only-live-a-fraction-of-a-human-lifetime-anyway death. Any of the above and more will devastate the reader and act as a quick and easy metaphor for the icy cold cosmos we live in.
This is a time honored process. After twenty years of fighting to come home, Odysseus walks in to find that his dog is the only one who’s cool to him, and then it drops dead. The fact that Odysseus’s home is overrun with men who are trying to marry his wife is sad and all, but Homer knew what would hit us the hardest.
In fiction, there is no moral compunction over dog-deaths. All are unquestionably wrong because our love of dogs exceeds our love of humanity. For fictional humans there’s wiggle room—that person may have been a jerk, or boring, or was just the crazy wife locked in the attic preventing the union of true love. It makes us question its meaning, or worse, reminds us that we’re also going to die. The death of Emma Bovary makes us think that made sense, she just wasn’t meant for this world, but the death Old Dan and Little Ann makes us embarrass ourselves in front of our sixth grade class and wonder if anyone would ever love us enough to just lie down and die because we were gone. With dogs it’s just a clean emotional dump of all the sad we’ve walled up and can now release in gross, mucousy sniffles or stoic tears, depending on your setting. Try it out in your local book club or maybe on a city bus—the key is to purchase a copy of your dog-death book of choice that features the dog on the cover so the people around you know what’s up and don’t ask questions.