My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen

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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

My Life in Dog Years is an autobiography because it is about Paulsen's relationship with dogs, but the dogs are the stars of the book. Paulsen declares:

I am—I say this with some pride and not a little wonder—a "dog person." I make no excuses for unabashedly loving them—all of them, even some that have bitten me. I have always had dogs and will have dogs until I die. I have rescued dozens of dogs from pounds, always have five or six of them around me, and cannot imagine living without dogs. They are wonderful and, I think, mandatory for decent human life.

These are the most important facts a reader needs to know about Paulsen for My Life in Dog Years. Other facts come out in his stories of his dogs—that he likes to wander, likes challenges, and can be cantankerous— but that he loves dogs is the key to his outlook and his never-ending kindness to them.

Yet Paulsen likes other animals too. To explain why he took a huge, clumsy, rambunctious Great Dane into his house, he says that he is driven by the thought:

If you don't take him, who will? This drive has brought me dozens of dogs and cats, a few ducks, some geese, a half dozen guinea pigs, an ocelot, several horses, two cows, a litter of pigs (followed by more and more litters—my God, they are prolific), one hawk, a blue heron, a large lizard, some dozen or so turtles, a porcupine and God knows how many wounded birds; chipmunks, squirrels and one truly evil llama (am I the only person in the world who did not know they can spit dead level for about fifteen yards, hitting your eye every time?).

He cares about wildlife, although he has hunted ducks. When animals invade his garden, he and his wife try to drive them away without hurting them, even though the law says they may kill the animals that damage their property. This forbearance toward invaders includes bears, although, Paulsen says, he once had to shoot one.

The stars of My Life in Dog Years are, in order of appearance, Cookie, Snowball, Ike, Dirk, Rex, Caesar, Fred and Pig, Quincy, and Josh. "Cookie was my lead dog when I first started to run dogs, and she was also my lead dog in my first Iditarod sled dog race; she took me from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, when most people—including me— thought I couldn't do it." She is a smart team leader who saves his life when he steps too near the ice around a beaver lodge. He says that you think "the ice will give way slowly." On the contrary, "it's as if you were suddenly standing on air. The bottom drops out and you go down." Cookie alerts her team of sled dogs and leads them away from the hole, pulling Paulsen up with a dangling rope. This sets the theme for the book as a whole, the dependence of a man on dogs. It is an ancient idea that has often been expressed—Paulsen alludes to Jack London—but Paulsen's friendly tone makes it seem fresh.

The first dog to matter to Paulsen is Snowball. "I was just seven years old," he recalls, when he went with his parents and his father's bodyguard to a village. "The village we were visiting raised dogs for food." He decides to save one of them, and his mother buys one for him. Life in the Philippines is hard on him: "I was only seven and found myself dropped into a world that was in many ways insane," remarking that "I evolved into being Filipino." This story sets forth another important idea in My Life in Dog Years—Paulsen's psychological dependence on his pets. Snowball and he are inseparable, and he learns how to discern odors and how to look for food. Her death is a very sad moment; it is a great loss for a boy with little human contact, and Paulsen claims, "I miss her as much as if she'd just died yesterday."

Paulsen provides other examples of dogs that have taken the edge off of his loneliness. He tells of Ike, "a great barrel-chested black Labrador that became one of my best friends I've ever had and was in all ways an equal." At the time, "I lived and breathed to hunt, to fish," although he is not a good aim. Someone has...

(The entire section is 1,896 words.)