Retread #4: Hey, There’s That Dog Again!

Continuing the “retreads,” posts from my archives, here’s one from July 2014. It was read by only one person on its first outing, as far as I can tell. And this was before a dog joined our household. Now, with four retreads, I have enough wheels for a vehicle. Oh wait — I might need a spare.

Our dog, Nelly the Newfoundland, at Genoa Bay in January 2019.

I’m a big fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side and rue the day he stopped drawing those bizarre and wickedly funny cartoons. One of my favourites shows a couple of typical Larson cows discovered in the act of drawing a meat chart of a human figure. The caption reads: Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed back at him. Somewhere, off in the distance, a dog barked.

I recently read a review of a book I’m reading — Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven — taking the author to task for ending a scene with the “ultimate cliche” of a dog barking in the distance.

I googled the phrase, wondering just how much of a cliche it could be. A 2010 article in Slate listed authors from James Joyce to Jodi Picoult who have put variations on this barking dog into their novels. Kurt Vonnegut used it consciously as a kind of leitmotiv in Slaughterhouse Five.

Side note: compiling this information is a lot easier now that ebooks can be searched for particular words or phrases. I’m betting the average reader would hardly notice these recurrent dogs (except as they are used in Slaughterhouse Five, where they are meant to be noticed).

Eventually, an uneasy feeling crept into my ruminations. Could there be — oh, surely not! — a barking dog somewhere in the Herbert West Series, written by one A. Driscoll? I pulled up the books on Adobe Reader and searched on “dog.” And there it was, in Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure. Young Herbert West, during an awkward “date” with a girl called Violet, hears a dog barking in the distance when he should be carried away with the thrill of kissing Violet.

Well, dang!

So really — what’s going on here? Why do so many writers, including quite a few highly-regarded ones, make this barking dog an accessory to scenes in their novels? In my case, it was unconscious. I lived the scene as I wrote it, and I heard that dog. Revisiting this scene in the course of multiple revisions of the text, I never considered deleting the dog.

That Larson cartoon is a parody of the Moment of Crisis, as when Farmer Brown realizes those cows are Up To Something Serious. Even while laughing at the cartoon, I was reminded of similar moments in various novels, where a terrifying realization breaks upon the protagonist. They know I’m a fake. He’s planning to kill me. Those things aren’t human.  Here, the barking dog is more than a filler; it’s a reminder of the ordinary world in which the terrible thing is happening, highlighting the contrast between the mundane and the terrible.

If you find a barking dog in a piece of your writing, put out the dog and reread the paragraph. If its fine without the dog, leave it out. If a necessary tinge of poignancy is missing sans dog, let it back in.

Things other than dogs may serve the same purpose if the presence of a dog is either implausible in the situation or the writer is dutifully trying to avoid cliches. Consider the following:

A bird sang far away, and another replied, nearby.

A little breeze stirred the curtains.

A moth bumped against the lampshade.

A burst of laughter erupted from the street.

A siren wailed in the distance. (This one may be just as common as the dog).

On the other hand, the barking dog may be seen as a secret detail that unites a diversity of writers. William Faulkner, Jackie Collins, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King and Henning Mankell are all members of the Order of the Barking Dog. So am I.

Cartoon image from:
https://www.commonsenseevaluation.com/2016/01/21/cartoon-of-the-day-farmer-brown/

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31 comments

  1. I’m almost certain I have never had a barking dog in my writing, but I do have dog characters in two of my novels. I love the cartoon. We always used to give my uncle a book of Gary Larson’s cartoons for xmas. why or when did he stop drawing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apparently he retired in 1995, deciding to quit before he became mediocre. Probably a smart move. Dog characters are perfect in some fiction; I added one to the Ice Cream Truck from Hell, as you may recall. Thanks for your comment, Janet!

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  2. I know it’s not the point you were making Audrey but, as a vegetarian, I love, love, LOVE that cartoon! I’ll be watching out for barking dogs in my reading from now on … and I have to say that Nelly is one gorgeous big furball. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s one of my favourites from the Far Side too. And furball definitely describes Nelly, especially now that she’s shedding her winter coats (both of them). But she is a sweetie. 🐶

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  3. Huh… I never even noticed the dog in “Slaughterhouse Five.” I’m not sure if I’ve done this myself exactly, but I have a work-in-progress where coyotes cackle in the distance during a big scene. I’m also a big fan of distant train horns at night; that would probably be my go-to sound effect.

    I loved “The Far Side” as well. Another favorite of mine (continuing the dog theme) is one where two guards are standing on the Great Wall of China, and one says to the other, “NOW let’s see if that dog can get in here!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good thing there are all those Far Side books to revisit and laugh over again. I read Slaughterhouse Five nearly 50 years ago (gasp!), so don’t actually remember the recurrent barking dog, but the article I referenced said it was there. Coyotes are most likely not a cliche, and a distant train whistle would certainly add some atmosphere. I don’t think I’ve seen that particular Far Side cartoon; must look it up.

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  4. Now you’ve got me checking out my books! I searched the first four Man Who Found Birds volumes and while I use “dog” in many metaphorical connotations, I never used it in the sense you’re discussing. (Obviously, I wouldn’t have used it in the Ki’shto’ba books, because there are no mammals of any kind on the termite planet.) The metaphor I use is of the crowing cock – you might recall, in Mythmaker terminology, a crowing cock is a sign that reality is dawning. This comes up a number of times.

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  5. Hah! I’ve learnt something today. Thank you, I had no idea barking dogs was even a ‘thing’! I do have dogs, and a cat, in a couple of my books but they’re up front and personal. Like you, I can’t see anything wrong with having a dog barking in the distance if it adds something to the story. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Just finished reading The Green Mile by Steven King. I know. I’m a little behind the times. Anyway, in this story, there’s an absence of a barking dog when it should have been barking – leading to the reader wondering about what happened to it and adding to the intrigue.

    I’ve never had a barking dog in my writing – but an owl hooting might work.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I had a good giggle over that one, Audrey! I LOVED Gary Larson’s cartoons. So beautifully observed and witty. As for “barking dogs” – in moderation, why not?. In the dead of night, when all is quiet, it is not unusual to hear a dog barking and it is NATURAL (goodness knows there’s enough super-natural writing around to choke a book-shop…). The same could be said of using anything too often. “Birds,” “the wind,” ” an owl”,etc., Some people can be so picky!! Cheers. xx

    Liked by 1 person

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