This book is primarily about a man’s relationship with dogs. Paulsen makes few attempts to universalize his experiences; he does say that he believes dogs are necessary to civilized living, and he does find a trait or two in his dogs that he can find in other dogs-for instance, Josh’s high intelligence seems to be found in other Border collies.
Of significance is the companionship Paulsen has found in dogs. He says flat out that they have saved his life. He begins My Life in Dog Years with a story about Cookie, a smart, alert sled dog that knows he has fallen through ice and reacts quickly to pull him out. He starts the book with Cookie because, without her, he says, he would be dead and unable to write the book. He seems to have needed a dog to save him in this heroic way on other occasions. Still, there seems to have been another way dogs have saved him-through their care. Snowball’s constant companionship is a godsend for a lonely little boy in a place he does not understand; it is no wonder that Paulsen remembers Snowball as if she were alive only yesterday. Then there is Dirk, a beat-up dog that attaches himself to Paulsen for a hamburger and then frightens away the thugs who are compounding the difficulty of the boy’s already very difficult life. Dirk is also bodyguard and companion, helping to make loneliness less lonely. The same goes for Ike, who acts like Paulsen’s friend, an equal who chooses to spend time with Paulsen. These sorts of interactions can be lifesaving, with the human giving as much as the dog. It seems likely that Paulsen saves Dirk’s life, eventually taking the dog to the farm where he works and leaving Dirk behind there after his heart has healed.
Other social issues are touched on but not discussed in depth. There is the problem of unwanted pets and what to do about them. Paulsen adopts many, and he expresses contempt for whoever dumped Quincy by a road, left to be run over, to starve, or, as luck would have it, to be picked up by a dog lover. Human interactions with wildlife form some of the action in the stories. With Ike, Paulsen hunts ducks. In other stories he tries to create a balance between the needs of his family and the needs of the wild animals who live nearby. Raising chickens proves impossible because he does not kill the critters that eat them. His gardens are often raided, but instead of killing the raiders, he and his wife try to grow enough so that even after the raids they have food. This practice results in many pounds of excess tomatoes.
Paulsen’s own experiences in the Philippines, on the streets in America, and with alcoholic parents all suggest social concerns, but he remains focused on his experiences with dogs and those concerns are not developed. Why there were idle thugs on the streets beating him up, and whether there were other youngsters hanging on to life one hamburger at a time as he was, are questions he does not explore.