26 January 2021

Don't Kill the Dog: An Examination of this Fiction Dictum


Don't kill the dog. This advice is commonly given to fiction authors. Readers will put up with a lot, but they won't put up with a dead dog. Or cat. Being a lover of furry friends, I can understand, though I don't hold such a hard line. For me, the question is if the animal's death--or even the animal's jeopardy--is necessary for the story. 

Before you go any further, let me warn you that the rest of this column includes spoilers about some old books, movies, and a couple of my stories. I hope you'll keep reading anyway.

I gave up on a TV series once when a dog was killed just to show how far the bad guy (in that case, a bad gal) would go. The show could have achieved the same effect in another way, so I dropped the series in disgust. Similarly, I once read a cozy (a cozy!) in which a horse was killed. I decided I was done with the author after that because the horse's death wasn't necessary for the story. It was gratuitous, and that crossed a line for me. 

In contrast, I have watched the heartbreaking movie Hachi: A Dog's Tale several times. Based on a true story, it involves a dog in Japan that had no closure after his person died, so he spent the rest of his life living at the train station where he last saw his person, waiting hopefully for the man to come home on the  next train, until the dog ultimately died of old age. That movie bothered me because I disagreed with the dog's family's decision to allow him to live his life waiting for a man who would never return, until he dog eventually died sad and alone. But the movie was based on a true story about a dog named Hachiko, and the dog's actions were the basis for the movie, so I accept the plot, and I happily (and sadly) grab a box of tissues and settle in each time the movie comes on. (Richard Gere being in it doesn't hurt either.)

I've also watched Turner & Hooch a number of times. This wonderfully funny movie stars Tom Hanks as a police detective who takes on the care of an ornery dog who witnessed a murder. Hanks's character grows to love the dog, and when the dog dies at the end, it's heartbreaking. Granted the dog didn't have to die. The people who made the movie could have let him live. But the death was important to the story, and it wasn't done for mere shock value. Therefore, I accept it, though I still cry every time it happens.

What differentiates movies like Turner & Hooch, Hachi, and even Old Yeller, where I could put up the animals' heartbreaking deaths, and the books and TV series I mentioned above, is that in these movies the animals' deaths are not gratuitous. They are instrumental to the story lines. (Note: I've never seen or read Old Yeller. I know what its story is, and I could never watch this movie because the dog in it looks very much like my old dog, Scout. It would be too difficult.)

I know not everyone draws the same line in the sand that I do. For some people, any animal's death, or even an animal's jeopardy, is too much. It's why I worried before my story "Alex's Choice" was published in 2019 whether readers would be done with me because I put a dog in jeopardy. I feared readers might stop at that point--about two-thirds into the story--thinking the dog had died, never to learn that there is a happy ending. But the dog's jeopardy is vital to the story, so I went with it. I similarly worried before my story "An Officer and a Gentleman's Agreement" was published about a decade ago because it involves a dead goat. That death is the conflict from which the plot unfurls, so it wasn't gratuitous and thus passed my personal test of acceptability, but I know it might not pass all readers' tests.

I decided to write about this topic today because earlier this month CrimeReads.com ran a column about why killing dogs is the one line that crime writers can't cross. It was a good column, which analyzed why we feel this way about dogs. You can read it here. But I disagreed with the columnist's conclusion that the reason readers won't put up with the death of dogs in crime fiction is that such dogs can't get justice under the law, unlike murdered humans.

More specifically, the author said that animals, particularly dogs, shouldn't be killed in fiction because there's no legal penalty commensurate with the violation, and thus no true justice can be achieved for the animals. That, the author said, is why readers can't stomach such killings. 

She went on to say that you don't go to jail for killing a dog. Well, that may be true in her home country of Australia (and it's surprising if it's accurate), but it's not true in the United States. Laws vary by state, of course, but they're getting stricter all the time. In my state of Virginia, animal cruelty is a class-six felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $2,500. This isn't one of those laws that's on the books but is never used. That five-year prison sentence has been handed out. Yet even knowing that someone could go to prison for five years (should be more) for killing a dog or cat in my state, I still cringe at the thought of reading something like that in a book, and I cringe at the idea of writing it, and I'll only put up with it if it feels to be a considered choice on the author's part, one that's vital to the story, not made just for shock value.

I think killing a dog (and cat and all other pets, but particularly dogs) in fiction is generally verboten because dogs, like little children, are inherently trusting and cute. (Sorry, but cute probably plays a role.) No matter if you neglect them or mistreat them, they love and trust you anyway. I recognize that there are exceptions for some abusive situations, but overall, I believe my premise holds. Dogs might love their family members more than they do other people, but many (most?) dogs are loving to everyone. Consequently, killing a dog (in real life and in fiction) is not just an amoral act of violence, but it also involves breaking a bond of trust between a complete innocent and a person they trust inherently, especially if that person is who the dog looks to for their care and for their love.

That loyalty and willingness to follow any command, trusting that you have their best interests at heart, makes the animal helpless, in a way. It's why they'll wait for you forever, like in Hachi. It's why they'll risk their lives for you, even if not asked to do so. In Turner & Hooch, the dog gets shot because he is trying to protect Hanks's character. It's a sense of loyalty you rarely see among humans. That is what tugs at readers' heartstrings. And that is why fiction readers can put up with murdered humans but they can't stand reading about the death of  animals, even if some readers, like me, will put up with deaths and jeopardy that are instrumental to their story lines.  

It's not a matter of the animal not being able to get justice that's the problem. It's the betrayal of the animal's trust that readers can't stomach. So if you're going to do it, fellow authors, you better have a damn good reason for it, and you better do it with sensitivity too.

39 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff. Once or twice in reviewing short stories at Little Big Crime I have mentioned that this or that one might not be for animal lovers. Recently I debated doing that again. No animal is explicitly harmed in the story but if you think things through it seems inevitable that... You get the idea. I decided that would be too much of a spoiler.

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  2. Same here in NZ, you can go to jail for killing a dog. SPOILER ALERT... The John Wick movies have gotten a lot of mileage out of the plot point of a dog's murder.

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    1. I haven't seen those movies, and I think I don't want to. Poor puppy.

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    2. But the dog's killers do suffer consequences. Oh Lord, do they ever.

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  3. When I was growing up,a "family movie" almost aleays included an animal dying or being abused, ( as did many, many middle grade books). I was completely traumatized by The Yearling and by my reacher reading The Incredible Journey. I refuse to ever see Old Yeller and others. If I didn't already hate the movie Breakfast At Tiffany's, the scene where Holly throws the cat out of the cab in the rain sure nailed that coffin.(I don't care that they showed her going to look for the cat, it didn't help.)

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    1. That Breakfast at Tiffany's scene is terrible. For a character who supposedly loved that cat to treat him that way, forcibly abandoning him. That cat should have clawed her when she found him.

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    2. I was shocked when she did that, too. But at least it had a happy ending when they went back and got the cat.

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  4. When I was growing up,a "family movie" almost aleays included an animal dying or being abused, ( as did many, many middle grade books). I was completely traumatized by The Yearling and by my reacher reading The Incredible Journey. I refuse to ever see Old Yeller and others. If I didn't already hate the movie Breakfast At Tiffany's, the scene where Holly throws the cat out of the cab in the rain sure nailed that coffin.(I don't care that they showed her going to look for the cat, it didn't help.)

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  5. Hachi's story remind me of the very old Scots' story about Greyfriars Bobby, a small terrier who haunted his late master's grave in one of the Edinburgh churchyards until his death.

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  6. Let me recommend Charlotte Armstrong's short story "The Enemy," one of the best dead dog stories (is that even a category?) ever written.

    Cats, however, seem to be fair game. One of the funniest stories I ever read by P. G. Wodehouse concerned a dead cat.

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    1. I can't believe you made me laugh, talking about a dead dog (and cat). I'll have to look up the Armstrong story. Do you recall the name of the Wodehouse story?

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  7. Interesting post, Barb.

    Here in Connecticut, animal cruelty has severe penalties, but I don't know the specifics. I do remember two men being arrested for killing a cat.

    A few years ago, I read a novel by a respected writer and finished it even after he had a fire in a stable that killed several horses. He publishes a lot of short stories and has won awards, but the death of those horses wasn't necessary to his plot and I have never touched another work by him since then.

    One of the ways I depict characters in many of my stories is by how they feel about animals, especially pets, and how the animals react to them, too.

    I did see Old Yeller when I was young, and I do remember crying. If I ever saw Bambi, with his mother dying, I have completely blocked it out.

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    1. Heck, the Fox and the Hound made me cry when the hound turned on his old buddy. And Homeward Bound, with the two dogs and a cat risking their lives to get home again ... I'll watch it because the dogs getting left behind at a caretaker's home was instrumental to the plot, but OMG the tears. And that's another good example of how animals will believe in their humans. One of the dogs thought they'd been abandoned because he already had abandonment issues, but the other dog, the noble one, thought it could never be. Something must be wrong at home. They had to find their way there to protect the family. Sigh.

      Looking at animals in movies (and TV shows and books) from a different perspective, one of the nice things about the movie Ratatouille is that it turns on its head the idea that rats are vermin that should be killed, and the viewer knows the nice guy is nice because he befriends Remy the rat.

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  8. If my memory is still working (it's been a while since I have re-read any of these books), but I think Dick Francis had a few horses die in the course of his work. Again, if my memory is working, those deaths were integral to the plot.

    On a different note...I was at a talk given by an author (Elaine Dreyer) for a writers group (mostly romance authors; I was married to one at the time). She asked if anyone knew the first rule of writing. And I said, "Don't kill a cat."

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    1. Someone on my Facebook page (I think) mentioned the book with the dismembered horses. Makes me shiver just thinking about it, even if they were integral to the plot. Since that story has not just the animal-death factor but also the gross factor, I'm sure I would have put that book down once I came across the first dismembered horse (and I never would have picked it up knowing what I was in store for).

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  9. There are so many middle grade books featuring dead dogs that Gordon Korman wrote a book where it was part of the plot: No More Dead Dogs.

    As for Old Yeller, I loved the story, though it made me cry. The setting is frontier Texas and provides a very accurate description of the Hill Country around Austin near where I live. The story always struck me as realistic because my father grew up in Central Texas on a farm where he became skilled at shooting rabid animals that threatened the family. Old Yeller provides a great lesson for today on keeping your animals vaccinated to protect them. Travis didn't have the option to vaccinate Yeller from rabies on the frontier, resulting in that tear-jerker of an ending, but I bet he would have if he could have.

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  10. Don already made the same point I thought of--Dick Francis books. And one, Come to Grief, made my heart stop. Yet, it was that very book I picked up and read it again instantly. It's a hard topic.

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    1. A very hard topic. One you have to handle carefully if you're going to do it at all.

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  11. I think it all depends on the type of story. You mentioned an animal death in a cozy. I agree that's a little crazy. But I wrote a hardboiled story set in the Great Depression where some animals are killed -- integral to the plot. I think it works. But, I've never done it again in a story. (I cried when I saw Old Yeller as a boy)

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    1. I'm glad I never saw Old Yeller. And yes, I think it can be okay in some stories and books, under the right circumstances. But other readers' mileage may differ.

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  12. If you don't cry at "Old Yeller", you're not human. Serious, serious tearjerker. Another one, of course, is "Sounder", both the book and the movie.

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    1. I've never heard of Sounder. Part of me is tempted, and the other part of me (my heart) is saying: No, no, please! I can't take it.

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  13. The first book in my cozy series is titled To Kill A Labrador. All the titles are take-offs on classic books or movies and I didn't give it a second thought, until reviewers started mentioning that they almost didn't read the book because they didn't want to read about a dog dying. The dog is put in jeopardy in that book, but ends up saving the day! Now I have a note in the book description telling people that no dogs die in the series.

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    1. I'm glad the dog saves the day. That's the way it should be!

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  14. And I'm with you, Barb. If you're going to kill an animal, you'd better have a darn good reason!

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  15. Old Yeller made me cry, too. I don't like reading books where children die. There's enough sorrow in real life without reading more of it in one's leisure time.

    I wrote a book that started with a dead cat. I still wonder if it turned readers off right from the start. The cat was already dead, and it wasn't anyone's pet, but a stray which had been run over. The dead cat on the heroine's doorstep was a nasty message from the villain, and therefore appropriate to the plot, but...but...but...ah, well. :)

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    1. You can second-guess yourself forever. I have a story that was originally going to involve a dead cat, but I found I couldn't write it. The story would have been too dark. So I turned it into a pot roast, which surprisingly worked.

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  16. Does a deer count.... I was traumatized the first time I saw Bambi. That said, I think it takes great finesse to kill an animal in a story...something I'm not sure I'd be comfortable doing. Good analysis, Barb.

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  17. Speaking of deer, Debra, in Florida school children can't escape Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling, not that it bothered rough, tough boys, who… damn pepper in the air.

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  18. Barb, you nailed it and I agree with your analysis.

    The famed Joseph Kessel wrote a coming-of-age story called The Lion. It's a short novel but a deep one. If you read it, be warned there's an awful American edition for the youth market that pretty much strips the guts out of it, bowlderized because it touches upon s-e-x. But the grownup version is a powerful story.

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  19. Oh, oh, oh! Jerry House's comment reminded me of the dog in the Cosmo Topper duology by Thorne Smith. Skippy(?) hasn't quite mastered the art of becoming a ghost. If I remember, the tip of his tail keeps reappearing and disappearing.

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  20. I've been told my main character's German shepherd has surpassed the life expectancy of his breed. I briefly wondered about having him die. Just thinking about it hurt me too much. So Sunny is still in my stories. Thank you for your post. You've made me feel more confident in my decision.

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    1. You're welcome. There are a lot of series in which time doesn't seem to pass or it passes really slowly. Think about Sue Grafton's series. Twenty-five novels published over 35 years, yet Kinsey was in the 1980s when the series started and when it finished. So yours can be the same, if you want. Your dog and your owner never age or never age much. It's kind of nice, if you think about it.

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