My Life in Dog Years is an autobiography because it is about Paulsen’s relationship with dogs, but the dogs are the stars of the book. Paulsen declares: I am-I say this with some pride and not a little wonder-a ”dog person.“ I make no excuses for unabashedly loving them-all of them, even some that have bitten me. I have always had dogs and will have dogs until I die. I have rescued dozens of dogs from pounds, always have five or six of them around me, and cannot imagine living without dogs. They are wonderful and, I think, mandatory for decent human life.
These are the most important facts a reader needs to know about Paulsen for My Life in Dog Years. Other facts come out in his stories of his dogs-that he likes to wander, likes challenges, and can be cantankerous-but that he loves dogs is the key to his outlook and his never-ending kindness to them.
Yet Paulsen likes other animals too. To explain why he took a huge, clumsy, rambunctious Great Dane into his house, he says that he is driven by the thought: If you don’t take him, who will? This drive has brought me dozens of dogs and cats, a few ducks, some geese, a half dozen guinea pigs, an ocelot, several horses, two cows, a litter of pigs (followed by more and more litters-my God, they are prolific), one hawk, a blue heron, a large lizard, some dozen or so turtles, a porcupine and God knows how many wounded birds; chipmunks, squirrels and one truly evil llama (am I the only person in the world who did not know they can spit dead level for about fifteen yards, hitting your eye every time?).
He cares about wildlife, although he has hunted ducks. When animals invade his garden, he and his wife try to drive them away without hurting them, even though the law says they may kill the animals that damage their property. This forbearance toward invaders includes bears, although, Paulsen says, he once had to shoot one.
The stars of My Life in Dog Years are, in order of appearance, Cookie, Snowball, Ike, Dirk, Rex, Caesar, Fred and Pig, Quincy, and Josh. “Cookie was my lead dog when I first started to run dogs, and she was also my lead dog in my first Iditarod sled dog race; she took me from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, when most people-including me-thought I couldn’t do it.” She is a smart team leader who saves his life when he steps too near the ice around a beaver lodge. He says that you think “the ice will give way slowly.” On the contrary, “it’s as if you were suddenly standing on air. The bottom drops out and you go down.” Cookie alerts her team of sled dogs and leads them away from the hole, pulling Paulsen up with a dangling rope. This sets the theme for the book as a whole, the dependence of a man on dogs. It is an ancient idea that has often been expressed-Paulsen alludes to Jack London-but Paulsen’s friendly tone makes it seem fresh.
The first dog to matter to Paulsen is Snowball. “I was just seven years old,” he recalls, when he went with his parents and his father’s bodyguard to a village. “The village we were visiting raised dogs for food.” He decides to save one of them, and his mother buys one for him. Life in the Philippines is hard on him: “I was only seven and found myself dropped into a world that was in many ways insane,” remarking that “I evolved into being Filipino.” This story sets forth another important idea in My Life in Dog Years-Paulsen’s psychological dependence on his pets. Snowball and he are inseparable, and he learns how to discern odors and how to look for food. Her death is a very sad moment; it is a great loss for a boy with little human contact, and “I miss her as much as if she’d just died yesterday.”
Paulsen provides other examples of dogs that have taken the edge off of his loneliness. He tells of Ike, “a great barrel-chested black Labrador that became one of my best friends I’ve ever had and was in all ways an equal.” At the time, “I lived and breathed to hunt, to fish,” although he is not a good aim. Someone has trained Ike to be a fine hunting dog, one who knows good hunting when he sees it. When Paulsen misses a shot, “he would watch the duck fly away, turn to me and give me a look of … uncompromising pity and scorn.” It is sad when Ike stops meeting Paulsen after school, but years later Paulsen learns that Ike’s master has returned wheelchair-bound from the Korean War and that Ike stays with him after his return. “That was why Ike had not come back. He had another job.”
On the other hand, Dirk is either terrifying or hilarious, depending on where one stands with him. Paulsen first encounters Dirk as a sound: “It was not loud, more a rumble that seemed to come from the earth and so full of menace that it stopped me cold, my foot frozen in midair.” Half a hamburger seems to buy passage past Dirk, but Paulsen no sooner escapes Dirk than four young thugs try to rob him and beat him up. He drops into a ball to minimize the damage from their kicks, and then, “there was a snarling growl that seemed to come from the bowels of the earth, followed by the sound of ripping cloth, screams, and then the fading slap of footsteps running away.”
The situation is frightening, but it is hard not to share Paulsen’s joy that his tormentors have been put to flight. This must have occurred after Paulsen got his library card, because he says that he named the dog after a character in a mystery he was reading. Dirk, he says, “was Airedale crossed with hound crossed with alligator.” The dog shows little affection, although he makes sure to stay close to Paulsen when they sleep, and he goes with him everywhere. When Dirk again puts the thugs to rout, the scene is one of jubilation: “It was absolutely great. Maybe one of the great moments in my life. I had a bodyguard.”
This dog turns out to have more in him than loyalty to the boy who feeds him. Taken to a farm, Dirk thrives and, according to Paulsen, lives well with the farmer. The dog even wags his tail when the farmer pets him.
There is some organization to the stories, although it is not chronological. The story of Dirk and the farm leads comfortably to the story of Rex. Paulsen is thirteen or fourteen years old and working on a farm when he decides to follow the dog Rex through his workday. He discovers that the dog is conscientious: he checks out the entire property, even noting where a skunk has tried to get in at the chickens and later ambushing that skunk and creating a very bad smell. The dog seems to take pride in his work and to regard his life as important, and he never stops working. At night he is outside keeping watch.
Before the faithfulness theme becomes cloying, Paulsen introduces Caesar, an enormous Great Dane. A man who can no longer keep him leaves Caesar at Paulsen’s house. At first the story seems to be sad, because the dog will not eat and just stares at the door. “I have never seen a dog grieve like Caesar,” says Paulsen. But when Caesar perks up, he is an explosion. Paulsen opens the refrigerator door for him, and food disappears in sudden gulps. The dog cannot help but knock over furniture. (Paulsen confesses that he eggs Caesar on when his wife is not home.) Caesar “became many things to us-friend, entertainer, horror show,” remembers Paulsen, and “I think he would have sold his soul for a hot dog.”
“Fred and Pig” is about a dog named Fred and a pig named Pig. A little boy cons Paulsen into buying a small puppy that does his own bit of salesmanship: “I know some people think dogs can’t smile, but they can, and he [Fred] did.” Pig was intended for food, not to be a pet, but as Paulsen implies often happens, Pig becomes a pet anyway, living to a great age and a quarter-ton. Fred and Pig like hanging out with each other; Fred especially likes the weird slops that are put in Pig’s trough.
Fred turns out to be a very determined dog. Pig has been raiding the garden, which has food the Paulsens depend on, so Paulsen eventually puts an electric fence around Pig’s pen. When Fred is zapped by the fence, it is war. Fred wins.
Like Fred, Quincy is notable for his determination. This little dog was abandoned beside a road, picked up by a trucker who runs sled dogs, and taken deep into Alaska’s wilderness. Quincy runs away and somehow traverses “thirty miles of rivers, swamps, wolverines, wolves and black and brown bears.” Heading to race in the Iditarod, Paulsen and a friend take the opportunity to earn a free salmon dinner by building a set of steps in the home of the woman who has taken in Quincy. “When I first saw Quincy he looked like a dust mop that had been dropped in grease and rolled in old coffee grounds.” Even so, Paulsen trades a sled dog that would be better off as a family pet for the determined little dog: Quincy “was approximately nine inches high at the shoulder, had four-inch legs and a long tail, and his whole body, including the tail, was covered with ratty, curly hair.” In this story, the dog attaches himself to Paulsen’s wife, defending her with devotion and courage. When a bear charges his mistress in the garden, “Quincy went for the bear like a fur-covered bullet.” He bites into the bear’s chest and hangs on. In spite of this and other adventures, Quincy lives to be very old for a dog-eighteen to twenty years, according to a veterinarian. “He should have been named White Fang,” declares Paulsen.
Another very old dog rounds out My Life in Dog Years. Josh is eighteen to twenty years old as of the writing of his story. A Border collie, Josh “is loving, thoughtful, wonderfully intelligent-frighteningly so at times-and completely and totally devoted to the person he views as his master.” Like Ike, Josh seems to be more than a dog, “he [Josh] is a person,” Paulsen asserts. “I do not think in my heart that he is a dog.” Josh seems interested in all aspects of Paulsen’s life, picks up quickly what is being done, and participates in whatever needs doing, whether it is cleaning irrigation ditches or entertaining party guests. “He will do anything I ask and many things I tell him to do, unless he thinks they are too stupid or repetitive or boring.” Josh pays such close attention to Paulsen and picks up so quickly what Paulsen is doing that he is “like a spirit, like an extension of my mind.”