Dogs have long been celebrated as man’s best friend, and this bond has found its way into the cultural expressions of societies around the world. The portrayal of dogs in literature and popular culture often mirrors our society’s multifaceted relationship with these loyal creatures, spanning a wide range of themes and emotions – loyalty, companionship, heroism, and even profound loss.
Let’s take an in-depth look at the role dogs have played in literature, movies, and TV shows and what these portrayals reveal about our society’s relationship with dogs.
What role have dogs played in popular culture?
Dogs in Literature
Literature has always held a mirror to society, reflecting and challenging our beliefs, values, and relationships. The representation of dogs in literature is no different.
In children’s literature, dogs often symbolize innocence, adventure, and uncomplicated loyalty. The stories of books such as “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Because of Winn-Dixie” showcase the bond between young protagonists and their dogs, illustrating the journey of growing up and the lessons learned from the innocence and resilience of their canine companions.
The loyalty of dogs is explored in adult literature too, like in ‘The Odyssey,’ where Odysseus’s dog Argos is the only one who recognizes him on his return, showing unwavering loyalty despite years of separation.
Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild’ and ‘White Fang’ delve deeper into darker themes, exploring the primal nature of members of the canine family, their instinct for survival, and the conflict between domesticity and wilderness.
Dogs in Movies
The big screen has also seen its fair share of dogs in leading roles, each leaving its own mark on popular culture. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, originally from literature and radio, respectively, became even more famous through film. These characters exemplify the hero dog archetype, often saving humans from perilous situations, which underlines the valor we attribute to these creatures.
In contrast, movies like “Lady and the Tramp”, “101 Dalmatians”, and “The Secret Life of Pets” offer a humorous and endearing view of dogs, humanizing their experiences and showcasing their charm and mischief. These portrayals anthropomorphize dogs to the point where they have their own culture, internal monologues, and goals that they want to achieve.
This sits in stark contrast to the reality of dog psychology but is nonetheless a popular fiction and reflects the very human tendency to assign our own meaning to canine actions.
The portrayal of dogs in films like ‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,’ ‘Marley and Me,’ and ‘Old Yeller,’ reveals the heart-wrenching pain that accompanies the loss of a beloved pet, paying tribute to the profound emotional bond that forms between humans and dogs.
Dogs on Television
On television, dogs have served as both central characters and loyal sidekicks. In ‘Lassie’ and ‘Rin Tin Tin,’ we again see the hero dog trope. Sitcoms like “Frasier” – with the intellectual Jack Russell Terrier, Eddie – and “The Simpsons” – with the lazy and often forgotten Greyhound, Santa’s Little Helper – use dogs as devices for humor and commentary on human behavior. These portrayals underscore how integral dogs have become to our everyday lives.
The immense popularity of dog competitions, such as the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and reality TV shows like ‘Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan,’ showcases our fascination with the canine world. Streaming content is no different, with platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video producing dozens of shows about dogs for viewers all over the world.
Reflections on Society
The breeds and types of dogs we showcase in media can often reflect social status and power dynamics. Purebred dogs in shows or competitions like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog may represent a sense of status, reflecting our societal fascination with pedigree and purity. Indeed, many of the eventual winners of these competitions are praised for their ‘noble’ or ‘royal’ bearing.
On the other hand, the celebration of mutts, crossbreeds, or rescue dogs in other narratives may symbolize resilience, survival, or even challenge the idea of status and purity.
There’s also a rising trend of showcasing dogs as therapeutic agents in our narratives, echoing their real-world roles as service dogs or therapy animals. This highlights the therapeutic value dogs bring to our lives, aiding those with physical, psychological, or emotional challenges. These stories attest to the versatile roles dogs can play, far beyond that of a simple pet.
Our portrayals of dogs in literature and popular culture are as diverse and multifaceted as our relationships with them. As the rate of dog ownership continues to grow, it’s a safe bet that we will see these incredible animals occupy an even more central role in society and popular culture – not simply as pets, but as humanity’s loyal sidekick and moral compass, appealing to the better angels of our nature.
The bond between man and dog transcends cultural, social, and emotional boundaries and is deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. Thousands of years by humanity’s side means that they are not merely pets but a crucial part of human history.
The narratives we tell about dogs encourage us to aspire to higher virtues in our lives, fostering qualities that put us on equal footing with these most humble creatures. We can only hope that we, as pet owners, can be the people that our dogs think we are.