If movie theaters were smart, they’d plant tissue boxes under the seats for every dog movie.
There’s a reason everybody cries when they watch “Old Yeller.” Travis Coates and Old Yeller’s mischievous adventures are coupled with an arc of developing maturity that we can all identify with in some way. When Travis is forced to choose between protecting his little brother and saving his beloved dog, we know we’re about to witness a boy become a man.
“Marley & Me,” “Where the Red Fern Grows,” “A Dog’s Purpose” and “My Dog Skip” make up a genre based on a simple but emotionally powerful idea: dogs make us better people, and then we lose them.
Every child grows up and has to leave their furry friend behind. Children shed their innocence the day they finally have to say goodbye to their canine companion. We see this story over and over again in storytelling because we experience it for ourselves so often in life.
We’ll begin chapter one of my own coming-of-age with an angsty young adult narrative. As a kid, I was rarely confronted with any responsibilities. I was dazed and confused; I didn’t understand what had real meaning or what my purpose was. But then when I was a freshman in high school, my family decided to get a dog.
When we first brought my new dog home, he was just 7 weeks old and immediately melted our hearts. We took forever to decide what to call him; it was several weeks of calling him “puppy” before “Fozzie” (because he looked like the muppet) finally stuck.
Next is the upbeat, silly montage where Fozzie and I run around causing chaos together. We were Hobbes and Calvin, Stitch and Lilo, Scooby Doo and Shaggy. If I was working on homework, he would jump on my bed and whine at me until I threw his ball for him. He loved to kill crickets and bark at the pool filter, and his favorite foods were cheese and peanut butter. He liked it best when you scratched him behind his ears. We raised each other. I taught him not to pee inside the house and snuck him food from the fridge; he got me to look up from my phone and engage with the world around me.
Fozzie quickly became the center of my universe. The lovable rascal with a heart of gold had softened the heart of the lonely kid who pensively stared out rainy windows a lot. I would lie awake in bed just to listen to him breathe. I fantasized about getting to take him to college with me. That’s how Act One ended.
The human-dog relationship is the subject of dozens of fictional narratives because we can all identify with what it represents. It’s not just about a child’s unbridled love for something; the more important part is the maturity that comes when that thing gets taken away for no good reason.
Now that you’ve fallen in love with this cheesy kid-dog story, the gravitas builds.
We had only had Fozzie for about three years when he began limping on his right leg. He started to yelp if you touched his back or if he bent his neck too sharply. After dozens of different tests, the vet found the issue: an incredibly rare fungal infection, one that was literally eating away at Fozzie’s bones. We remained optimistic about his recovery. He was so young — not even four years old — and had been in perfect health.
Then, just a couple weeks before my 19th birthday, my parents called me. Fozzie had taken a turn for the worse. They asked me if I wanted to come home first to see him one last time. Every bone in my body told me to be selfish; I wanted to tell my parents to keep him alive by any means necessary. It hadn’t started off this way, but I now needed Fozzie more than he could ever need me. My own character development had snuck up on me from behind.
For the first time, the right thing and the easy thing weren’t the same. This was the climactic final scene, the one you knew was coming the moment you saw a dog on the cover of the book.
I told my parents to put Fozzie down and not to wait. I hung up the phone, locked myself out on my suite’s fire escape and sobbed for hours. It had been the right thing to do, but I hated myself for it.
Behind every adult is a tough call and a lost dog. We can’t help but cry at dog movies because they’re so real to us; dog stories remind us that not every part of growing up is easy, humorous and free of consequence. Eventually, all the good scenes have to end so we can move on to the next story.
Shannon O’Hara writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on growing up through entertainment. Contact her at [email protected].