Don’t Kill The Dog: The Human-Canine Bond in Stories and Life

You never forget them.

The dehydrated mini fox terrier. She was found three days after her owner, a farmer, was killed by a tipped quad bike. In the sharply sloping paddock, still hopefully licking his face.

Or the owner of a blue cattle dog with a terrible degloving injury. The dog jumped out of the back of a moving vehicle, losing all the skin from elbows to toes on both front feet. His recovery was an exercise in pain and bandaging, stitches and grafts, infections and injections. But the pain was equally borne by the man, a single, middle-aged carpenter, who took on ludicrous, long, body-breaking work hours and went deeply into debt to save his best friend.

As a vet, a writer and an avid SFF fan, I’ve marvelled at our canine connection, whether in fiction or real life. Long may it carry on, well into our actual and literary future!

Dogs and humans have travelled together for 30 000 years, plenty of time for us to form the symbiotic, mutualistic relationship otherwise known as the human-canine bond. Dingoes and wild dogs, only arriving in Australia around 4 000 years ago, fitted into Aboriginal culture as companions, physical and spiritual protectors, hunters and as a source of warmth.

From our oldest myths to our furthest-future stories, we’ve conjured dogs beside us for as long as the bond has existed. Writers learn that an important rule can be to avoid killing the dog, but there are almost as many types of canine characters in science fiction and fantasy as there are human characters, loosely classifiable into those five broad roles.

In the rainforest world of Crossroads of Canopy, dogs don’t appear, because I didn’t think they were appropriate for the branch-roads of a suspended city.

Yet Imeris, the protagonist of Echoes of Understorey, is based on Atalanta from Greek myth, who is a thinly veiled Artemis—and Artemis was rarely without her hounds, hunting dogs from the forest of Arcadia given to her by Pan.

Hunting was an important role for dogs of Ancient Greece and Rome, where the agricultural revolution 10 000 years ago meant that homes and farms needed to be defended. Hunting parties ranged for wild protein with the side-benefit of reducing the local predator population.

Fang, the sooky boarhound (aka Great Dane) from Harry Potter, is a fictional descendant of this proud lineage! He doesn’t hunt so much as a spider, but he does attempt to defend Hagrid from Dolores Umbridge at one point. Fang is not so much a hunter as a best friend character.

In contrast, we have the direwolves from A Song of Ice and Fire, or the wolves from The Wheel of Time, who may hunt with the human characters they are bonded to, but pour scorn on domestic dogs who sleep inside houses.

Going back to Harry Potter, the slavering Fluffy is much more of your typical guardian dog character, while Tock from the Phantom Tollbooth fits the companion role and Toto from The Wizard of Oz plays both roles, biting a witch and witnessing the transition between worlds all in one day. Most of Juliet Marillier’s fantasy novels feature a dog of some description, filling one or more of the five roles, with a good dose of wisdom and path-finding on the side.

In science fiction and fantasy films, we have more protector roles, added to dogs’ mythical ability to be able to detect the supernatural. Sam the German Shepherd guards against zombies in I Am Legend, dogs bark at black riders in Lord of the Rings, and dogs screen for Terminators in the Terminator movies.

Oh yes, when we imagine the future, we love imagining that dogs are there.

The sad true story of Laika has inspired many a tale, including “The Best Dog In The World” by Dirk Flinthart (from Fablecroft Publishing’s Worlds Next Door). Aside from future dogs continuing to be ruthlessly exploited, we also see the enhanced, super-intelligent dog as ally, like Einstein in Dean Koontz’s Watchers—or as comedy, like Gromit from Wallace and Gromit.

Whether the journey is fictional or real, you remember the fun times, and hope that they’ll outweigh the terrible endings. I’ll finish with two more veterinary tales from my time as part of the team looking after military working dogs at the local air force base.

Firstly, there was the handler willing to be discharged in disgrace if it meant his geriatric dog wouldn’t be euthanised. In those days, the dogs weren’t well-trained in crowd control as they are now. They were lethal weapons. Retiring them into homes with civilians and children after they were no longer fit for service would have been like giving the kids a gun to play with.

Not this dog, though. She spent her idle moments with cloudy eyes and ratty ears fixed devotedly on her handler, waiting for commands to leap fences and apprehend intruders—commands her severe arthritis would no longer allow her to carry out. All she wanted was to stay by his side until death. I would’ve lost my license for removing her microchip, so I didn’t, but since then I’ve often wondered if her handler found some other, more daring vet to do the deed.

Finally, these dogs were mostly dashing black Shepherds and Malinois. A common problem is gastric dilatation and volvulus. Because of their big, deep chests, their stomachs can bloat and rotate, trapping the expanding gas inside the stomach. If you don’t get it all untwisted very quickly, the blood supply to the stomach is cut off, and the stomach dies.

Stomach dies, dog dies.

Or so you would think.

One dog, let’s call him Loki, was struck down by GDV at the end of an exercise on the base. He was trying in vain to devour his dinner, and because the stomach was twisted and his oesophagus was obstructed, he kept bringing it back up.

His handler brought him in. I rushed him into surgery. The dog handlers always wanted to stay and watch any procedures that we did, as anxious as if their dogs were wounded human comrades.

When I opened up Loki’s abdomen, I didn’t know what to say to his handler, who stood quietly in a corner far removed from the sterile operating field. Instead of healthy pale pink, Loki’s stomach was dark purple. Other organs had become involved in the entrapment. The spleen looked horrible and black. Long loops of intestine were strangled, mottled and greenish.

I looked at that handler’s hopeful, confident face, and instead of telling him it was a waste of time, I got stuck into the surgery without a word. It took three hours and four instrument packs. I tied off so many blood vessels I felt like a carpet weaver, and each time I tied one off, or cut out a section of tissue, I thought: Loki needs this. I can’t take it out.

But I couldn’t leave it, either, because if you leave dead tissue in there, the whole abdomen goes septic.

Loki woke up from his anaesthetic woozy but happy. His biggest concerns were wanting to hang out with his handler and wanting to eat his dinner again.

Twenty-four hours later, I gave permission for him to have a small tin of cat food. I thought I was granting his final wish. He didn’t have enough stomach left to digest the food, he didn’t have enough intestine left to absorb the nutrients, and there were so many stitches in his gut, surely somewhere along the track one of them was going to tear, and then Loki would have cat food in his supposedly sterile abdomen and would die of shock.

Loki whined because he wanted more cat food, but nothing else happened.

The next day, I gave him two tins of cat food.

You can see where this is going. Loki went on to have a long career, serving in Iraq and elsewhere. If I ever have to have major surgery, the lesson Loki taught me is just stay cool, don’t panic, don’t listen to statistics—and remember that the most important things in life are friends and food.

In SFF, as in life, the human-canine bond is extraordinary. I hope we will carry it with us, in the best possible way, to the universe and beyond.

Thoraiya Dyer is a four-time Aurealis Award-winning, three-time Ditmar Award-winning Australian writer. Her science fiction and fantasy stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Analog, Redstone SF, Nature, and Cosmos magazines, and anthologies including War Stories, Long Hidden, and Cranky Ladies of History. A qualified yet not currently practicing veterinarian, she lived and worked for five years in Port Stephens in NSW. Her latest book, Echoes of Understorey, is part of the Titan’s Forest series, from Tor Books. Find her on Twitter @ThoraiyaDyer.

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