Paulsen moved so much and so many times that it is hard to pin down exactly where he lived at any given moment. Thus, the settings for My Life in Dog Years wander; adding to the confusion is that the stories are not necessarily presented in chronological order. The novel is constructed as though Paulsen is sitting with some folks and swapping dog stories with them, so the dogs come up in a casual order.
There is a glimpse of the Philippines. There, seven-year-old Gary saves a puppy from being raised for food in an upriver village. (He has seen a dog strangled and prepared for food while he is there.) He wanders with the dog into the jungle, along streets, more or less wherever the dog’s nose says something interesting is to be found. In addition to finding ordinary stuff, such as the ever-present wreckage of war, he finds a cave with Japanese swords in it. Paulsen and the dog are inseparable, and he learns to smell and look at the world the way a dog does.
He also gives us a glimpse of his street life in the United States. Because his parents are “drunks,” he pretty much has to survive on his own. The streets are hostile, populated by toughs with nothing better to do than loiter and beat up and rob little boys, something that happens often to Paulsen. A dog adopts him, however, and takes care of the toughs. Somehow, out of the bleakness, comes a happy ending: the dog finds a happy home on a farm where Paulsen works for a while.
Most of the settings are frontier ones. Paulsen and his wife lived long on the fringes of civilization, raising much of their own food-or trying to-and roughing it. Paulsen takes his dogs on his frequent adventures in the wilderness. On one such adventure, traveling to Alaska to race in the Iditarod, he acquires an already old, little dog that thinks nothing of roughing it; back home he will bury his teeth in the chest of a charging bear to protect Paulsen’s wife. Curiously, this fierce little animal lives to a great age in spite of his uncompromising attitude toward larger creatures, even ones with bigger teeth. The frontier settings are rich in country odors, treacherous paths, near-deaths, and a bunch of dogs Paulsen could not live without.