People love dogs. A lot. Nearly half of all families in the U.S. have a dog, and right now there are more canines on earth than human babies — over 400 million of our four-legged friends share the planet with us.
With numbers like that, it could be argued that people like dogs just as much as their fellow humans … or maybe more. So why not write your next novel, short story, social media update, poem, blog post, or greeting card from the point of view of man’s best friend?
Here are seven tips that will help you write like a dog — and a whole bunch of shamelessly cute dog pictures, too!
1. Start with a really big word: anthropomorphism
When you set out to write a story that includes a dog, the first thing you have to decide is how “human” you want to make this animal character of yours. Do you want the dog to be a realistic dog, or do you want to give it human emotions, motivations, language, and behavior?
Humanizing your canine character is known as anthropomorphism. It means interpreting the actions of something like an animal, plant or force of nature in terms of human behavior, often crediting them with having uniquely human characteristics. In its mildest form, anthropomorphism encourages us to believe that our new puppy is trying to tell us he’s confused when he cocks his head to the side, the idea that he is “telling” (i.e., trying to “talk like people”) being the act of anthropomorphism. Dialed up to eleven, you have the singing, speaking, spaghetti-eating pooches from Lady and the Tramp.
The Western literary canon has a long tradition of anthropomorphized dog characters. There’s nothing wrong with the concept — but in order to pull it off, you have to be clear how far you want to take it.
The main thing to avoid is inconsistency. Making your fictional dog periodically psychic or suddenly half-witted to gloss over flaws in your anthropomorphism will pull your readers out of your story. If your puppy thinks like a puppy, acts like a puppy, engages with the world like a puppy, and interprets the actions of humans like a puppy, don’t cheat and give him a sudden moment of insight that only a person would have. And if your dog drinks coffee, wears clothes, and trades wisecracks with his owner, don’t make him suddenly unable to communicate with humans if your plot requires him to get trapped in the dog pound.
You get to make the rules; just be sure your dog’s level of humanity is consistent.
2. Whose story is it?
If you use a third-person omniscient narrator to tell your story, you’re not going to have too much trouble incorporating a minor character, or even a protagonist, who’s a dog.
But if you want the dog to be the narrator, you’re going to face some additional challenges — fun challenges.
“Anywhere you find humans, you will almost certainly find dogs,” proclaims “Dogs Decoded” on PBS’s NOVA series, but that’s not actually true. There are many places that dogs are almost never found, such as operating rooms at a hospital, jail cells in county lockup, atop Mt. Everest, and miles beneath the sea in a military submarine. If your story requires your canine protagonist to have awareness of events that occur in places like this, either rethink your choice of narrator or come up with clever ways to put them in these strange locales. Make your dog a service animal, a member of the local police’s K9 unit, or the pampered lapdog of a powerful monarch whose desire to bring their dog everywhere must be humored.
The most important thing to remember is if you use a dog as the teller of your story, it must provide a certain tone, perspective, narrative voice, or plot conflict that a human character couldn’t offer the text.
3. What’s going on in your dog’s head?
What do dogs really think and feel? And how is it represented by their behavior?
These questions, and those that follow, are the building blocks you will use to create a dog character that’s realistic, reliable and relatable.
From the wild wolf of the prehistoric era, humans have created more than 400 dog breeds. What breed is your dog and how will this impact their behavior? Are they an aggressive breed that’s been raised in an aggressive environment or a loving one? Is their breed prone to genetic ailments, especially as they age? How does the size of their breed affect their way of interacting with their environment, other dogs, and humans?
No matter their breed, animal experts believe dogs are more intelligent than horses and lions. According to Dr. Stanley Coren, a professor of canine psychology who studies and writes about canine intelligence, dogs are even smart by human standards … but not that smart. “The mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old,” he explains.
Like a toddler, dogs are aware of the concept of “object permanence,” or the idea that even though you can’t see the family cat or your favorite toy right now, it hasn’t ceased to exist. They also understand that time is not a single state of “now,” but also a past and a future, something human babies aren’t able to grasp. As writer Jeffrey Kluger explains, “A sense of time as a linear thing — that the current state is not the only state — is an abstraction that human babies take a long time to learn, which partly explains tantrums. A present moment without a cookie means an eternity without cookies.”
And like a kid in the midst of the “terrible twos,” dogs have genuine emotions, but they aren’t as nuanced as their owners often believe. “Much like a human toddler, a dog has the basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust, excitement, contentment, distress, and even love. A dog does not have, and will not develop, more complex emotions, like guilt, pride, contempt, and shame, however,” notes Stav Dimiropoulos in Discover magazine.
Observing your local toddler might just be the best way to understand how your dog character thinks and experiences emotion: simply, immediately, unapologetically, but with an understanding that there’s more going on than meets the eye.
4. How to talk like a dog
Though they bark, whine, and occasionally growl, dogs are nonverbal — they don’t “talk” the way humans do. But they do have ways of communicating with us. Though wolves only emit simple barks as a warning, dogs have developed an entire repertoire of special barks, yips, growls, and howls just to communicate with each other and humans.
In general, according to Les Krantz, author of Power of the Dog, low-pitched vocalizations indicate aggression or danger to dogs, while high-pitched sounds mean either affection or a request for assistance. “A dog knows its master is saying something harsh or threatening, even if the specific content of the words is not understood,” Krantz writes. Though dogs are capable of learning a certain number of human words, “When dogs respond to human commands, they are probably responding to body language and voice intonation.”
In order to convey subtler concepts than “I like you!” or “Get away from my yard!” dogs rely on body language, which constitutes a sort of “dog dialect.”
Ear position, the way they wag their tail, whether they hide or bare their teeth, and many other postures give a clear indication of what’s going through a dog’s head.
“The tail’s position, specifically the height at which it is held, serves as an emotional meter. If the tail is held at a middle height, the dog is relaxed. As the tail position moves up, it is a sign that the dog is becoming more threatening, with a vertical tail being a clearly dominant signal meaning, ‘I’m boss around here,’” explains Dimiropoulos.
And now, the final piece of the puzzle: how much human language do dogs understand? The average dog can comprehend somewhere in the neighborhood of 165 words, according to Coren. The important question you’ll want to answer is which words can your particular dog-character understand — and what does she think they mean in dog-terms?
Which words are just gibberish or noise with merely an emotional tone? How do these nonsense sounds either comfort or confuse her? And how will this impact the plot of your story?
5. Sensory stuff
A dog’s reality is not the same as yours or mine. This is because their five senses are calibrated at levels that are very different from ours.
Dogs perceive motion better than humans and can see better in the dark. But their general visual acuity is a lot lower than ours. As Coren described it, “The overall effect is something like viewing the world through a fine mesh gauze or a piece of cellophane that has been smeared with a light coat of petroleum jelly. Dogs do see colors, but the colors that they see are neither as rich nor as many as those seen by humans. Dogs see the colors of the world in shades of blue, yellow, and gray. Red is difficult for dogs to see and may register with them as a very dark gray or perhaps even a black.”
When it comes to smell, on the other hand (or paw?), dogs have humans beat. It’s estimated that their sense of smell is anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times better than ours.
They can smell like champions but, surprisingly, they can’t taste all that much. Writes Coren, “Humans win the sensitivity contest for taste, with around 9,000 taste buds compared to a dog’s 1,700.”
As for hearing, dogs outperform humans in both the kinds of sounds they can hear and the levels at which they can detect a particular sound. While humans can hear sounds from 60 Hz to 20,000 Hz, dogs can hear anything between 67 Hz and 45,000 Hz, making them experts at sensing very high-pitched tones like sirens and dog whistles. They can detect sounds that originate at a much greater distance than humans can — about four times the distance. They’re also good at “selective listening,” with the ability to tune out environmental noise like the TV, kids chattering, the phone ringing and a cat meowing to pick up on the sound of their dog dish being set down in the kitchen.
Here are a few quick ways you can start to perceive the world as your dog-character experiences it.
Sight: Humans typically see the world from a height of between five and six feet off the ground. But a Doberman will see the world from half that height; for a tiny Chihuahua, it’s just a few inches. As author Larry Verstraete recalled when writing his book, Coop the Great, which tells the story of an old dachshund, “I wanted to see and feel what a small dog might so I crawled on hands and knees. Believe me, that was a revelation. Try it yourself, if you will. You’ll see knees, chair legs, the bases of cabinets, and the floor in new and interesting ways.”
Smell: Instead of relying on your eyes, you “see” with your nose. You can also “see into the past” with your nose. If you’ve ever stepped into an elevator, smelled the unmistakable scent of Axe Body Spray, and said to yourself, “A teen boy was in here just before me,” you’ll have an idea of how this way of perceiving the world works.
Taste: You’ve got no hands, so whenever you want to pick something up, you have to use your mouth. That means everything you pick up, you taste — including your leash, your owner’s dirty shoe, and your newborn puppy.
Hearing: When you’re out for a walk, you can hear kids playing in your backyard long before your house comes into view — in fact, there’s a child you’ve never heard before with them. And your kids sound scared of her.
Touch: You don’t wear clothes, so you’re in constant contact with the air around you. You also don’t wear shoes, so the texture and temperature of the ground is something you’re constantly aware of. Also, being dirty (by human standards, at least) isn’t upsetting. The bathtub is your enemy and the world is your toilet.
6. Canine society
Figuring out the social structure of your dog’s world is very important as you plan your story. What is their relationship with humans? What’s their place within the hierarchy of other dogs in their home and neighborhood? What did they do to establish (or lose) their dominance in canine society?
And how do cats fit in?
Take some time to consider the world of your story and your character’s place within it.
7. Writing for your readers
Is your story tragic, heartwarming, insightful or funny? Is it intended for kids or adults? There’s a reason the website Does the Dog Die? exists. Some people don’t want to read a sad story about an ill-fated pup. Others don’t mind.
Be aware of how your audience might react. Downer dog stories are not always well received. But if you’re going for a tear-jerker, there’s no better way to bring on the sobs than with some puppy-pathos.
One final piece of advice: consider subverting your audience’s expectations. Dogs in fiction — with the exception of Cujo — tend to be portrayed as pure-hearted, loyal, selfless creatures. Why not make the dog a jerk with selfish motives? Or even the villain of the story? Remember, they have the emotions and brainpower of toddlers — and there are no bigger jerks than toddlers.
Except cats … at least, according to dogs!
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.