Study Guide

A Dog's Purpose Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    What's the Point?

    See Spot. See Spot run. See Spot have an existential crisis and wonder what the point of his never-ending existence is.

    As the title suggests, this is a book about a dog finding his purpose. This purpose stuff is not on his mind during his first life, but at that point, he doesn't know he's on his first of a series of lives. All he cares about in this first life is romping and playing, although very early on, he does say, "I couldn't see that my brothers and sister had any purpose whatsoever" (1.2).

    This suggests that he thinks he might have a purpose, which is either a nice bit of foreshadowing or a sign that he's pretty darn conceited for a dog.

    By the end of his short life, the puppy brings up the concept of purpose once again. He thinks, "Of all the things I'd ever done, making Senora laugh seemed the most important. It was, I reflected, the only thing that gave my life any purpose" (4.81). He believes his whole purpose in his brief life was to make one woman smile. Does that make his life worth it?

    Fate says no. The dog is reborn again, with all the memories of his previous life intact, giving him a philosophical outlook on reincarnation that is surprisingly sophisticated for an animal that's about a year old. Here's what he ponders in his kennel:

    I was seized with an inexplicable question, a question of purpose. This didn't seem like the sort of thing a dog should think about, but I found myself returning to the issue often, usually as I was just dozing off for an irresistible nap. Why? Why was I a puppy again? Why did I harbor a nagging feeling that as a dog there was something I was supposed to do? (5.11)

    We know we've wondered the same thing before falling asleep.

    It's in this next life that our dog sets his big wet puppy eyes on Ethan and decides it's his purpose to be this boy's companion to the very end. He doesn't realize how true that'll be.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    They Call It Puppy Love

    At the end of A Dog's Purpose, the dog's purpose is revealed to be the role of wingman for his human companion, Ethan. The book veers into Must Love Dogs romantic comedy territory as the dog follows home another dog who smells like Ethan's childhood sweetheart, Hannah. Once at Hannah's house, Buddy the dog finds his way in. She reads his collar, learns he belongs to her high school love, and the two reunite to live happily ever after.

    But as life has a tendency to do, the book swings from comic to tragic territory. After a few happy years, Ethan experiences a brain aneurism and begins to die. Buddy knows that his purpose this time isn't to fetch Hannah. She's away, and that would be impossible. Instead, his job is remain Ethan's stalwart companion until the end.

    Ethan hallucinates that Buddy is his childhood dog, Bailey, which is pretty much true. Buddy thinks, "I wanted to let him know that, yes, I was Bailey. I was his one and only dog" (32.34). So he fetches their favorite childhood toy one last time to convince Ethan he is the same dog. In his final moments, Ethan says, "I will miss you, doodle dog" (32.43), which was Bailey's nickname. In that moment, Bailey knows, "I had fulfilled my purpose" (32.48).

    But a dog's work is never done. Bailey vows to support the family through the grieving period; Ethan would have wanted it that way. The book ends, so we're left assuming that this is the dog's last life in a series of epic adventures, but who knows? Maybe he was reincarnated as your dog.

  • Setting

    Michigan, circa 1960

    A Dog's Purpose is a story about your average American boy and his not-so-average American dog. (Sorry, girls and cats. You'll have to find a different book.) To keep the story relatable, Cameron doesn't root it firmly in a specific time or place, although there are a few hints as to where Ethan's story occurs.

    When Ethan goes missing on the Farm, the man who finds him says, "We've been searching the whole state of Michigan for you, son" (12.1). So we know the Farm is in Michigan. Also, young Ethan eagerly talks about space travel. He tells Bailey, "We're going to land on the moon one day, and then people will live there, too. Would you lie to be a space dog?" (6.63).

    We eagerly anticipate the sequel, A Space Dog's Purpose.

    Later at the Farm, the family watches the moon landing, which means that a pivotal moment in Ethan's childhood occurs in 1969. So even though Ethan, Hannah, and Bailey all sound like the names of kids who were seven years old in 1995, this part of the story takes place in the 1960s.

    Depending on how old Ethan lives to be, the book's final chapters could take place about 40-50 years later, putting them around 2009 or even 2019. The book was published in 2010, so we're betting on that. However, the author never shows us any fancy technology. If Ethan has an iPad, a Roomba, or a flatscreen TV, Buddy the dog isn't interested in chewing on it.

    But what about the dog's other lives? The whole reincarnation element is never fully explained. We're not sure how much time passes between each life, or if he is reborn in the same geographical location. Toby's Yard feels like a desert in nature, and the owner is called Senora. That makes us think it takes place on the Mexican border, perhaps in Arizona. And Ellie's section puts her on a police force that keeps multiple K-9 units. It feels like a big city instead of suburban or rural Michigan.

    Thanks to reincarnation, the dog gets to spread happiness all over America. If only he didn't have to die to do it. How about a road trip next time? He loves riding in cars.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    Not All Dogs go to Heaven

    Bailey serves as a loyal companion to Ethan until he dies. Before he fades away, with Ethan at his side, he knows he's fulfilled his purpose.

    He's wrong.

    He's totally reincarnated once more, which throws him into another paws-istential crisis. "Could a dog have more than one purpose?" (18.30), he wonders. During his life as Ellie, he finds people and saves them using some of the tricks and techniques he picked up in his previous lives. He realizes he wouldn't be the effective police dog he is without all this past knowledge: "As I lay in a patch of sun, pondering this, I realized that I had spent my life as a good dog. What I had learned from my first mother had led me to Ethan, and what I had learned from Ethan had enabled me to dive into those black waters and find Geoffrey" (24.59).

    So, once again, the dog believes his purpose has been fulfilled as he dies. And once again, he's dead wrong.

    It's his last life in the book that is the true test, the final exam after his multiple-course existence. This time, the dog must deal with a difficult early life, stuck in an apartment without much food, exercise, or affection. He thinks, "I felt guilty and sad. I had no purpose, no direction" (27.38).

    Are direction and purpose the same thing?

    When the dog picks up Ethan's scent, he is led in Ethan's direction. However, once Ethan takes him in, and once things are almost back to the way they used to be many years ago, the dog realizes that a purpose is more than just finding the end of a road. "That's when it occurred to me that my purpose in this world had never been just to Find; it had been to save. Tracking down the boy was just part of the equation" (31.21).

    Ultimately, this dog's purpose is how he initially viewed it—to make a human happy. In his first life, he just had the wrong human. In two lives, the dog serves Ethan and acts as a loyal companion to bring him joy and comfort.

    Is that every dog's purpose? The title of the book isn't All Dogs' Purpose, but it isn't This Dog's Purpose, either. The article "a" makes us wonder if the book is telling us about the purpose of this singular dog, or if it's leading us to believe that all dogs exist for the same purpose—to provide unconditional love that even other humans cannot.

    Until dogs talk, we'll never know for sure.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (1) Sea Level

    Reading A Dog's Purpose is easier than teaching a dog of any age tricks. The book's cover features the subtitle "A Novel for Humans," which means that you don't need to speak dog to understand it, nor do you need sophisticated knowledge of animal psychology. There are some difficult emotional moments, because in order for a dog to be reborn, he first has to die. But on a vocabulary basis, this is a book for humans of all reading levels.

  • The Flip

    Flipping Out

    Dogs like to chew on almost anything: bones, balls, remote controls, their own tails—you name it. But back when A Dog's Purpose is set, PetSmart hadn't been founded yet. If a dog wanted a fancy chew toy, he needed his owner to make one.

    Ethan, going for his Dog Toy Crafting merit badge, makes a toy for Bailey that is "like a cross between a boomerang, a Frisbee, and a baseball" (10.18). We're not sure what's wrong with any of those toys individually, but hey, whatever works. The Frankentoy isn't much of a hit with dogs or people; according to Grandpa it's "Not aerodynamic […] Too much resistance" (10.27). Whenever Ethan pulls it out, Bailey "glance[s] away in dread" (13.8).

    Even though it's a bigger disaster than Nintendo's Virtual Boy, the toy means a lot to Ethan. He's playing with it when he first meets Hannah, he uses it to break a window to save himself from a fire, and he saves it all the way up until his death. When Ethan looks at it, he doesn't even seem to be thinking of playing with Bailey. Instead, "he'd hold it up and look it over, feeling its heft, and then put it away with a sigh" (13.8).

    It seems like Ethan is thinking about his own life—and about his own failures—when he looks at the toy. Like his life, the flip is heavy, it didn't quite work out as he planned, and Ethan isn't sure what to do with it.

    One of Ethan's last actions is to toss the flip to Buddy, the reincarnation of his dog Bailey. Dying of a brain aneurysm, Ethan heaves open the window and throws the flip outside. Buddy gets it, but in Ethan's dying brain, he imagines he's playing with his dog Bailey one last time. He's reliving the happiest moment of his childhood, and in his final minutes, he gets to relive it without the weight of his adult life suffocating it. Can you get that from a dog toy shaped like a hippo? No, that's the magic of homemade memories.

  • Cars

    Riding in Cars with Boys

    Dogs and cars go together like mayonnaise and chocolate. Our dog narrator develops an infatuation with cars as a puppy when he first sees a dog riding in a car: "He barked joyously when he spotted me, but I was too astounded to do anything but lift my nose and sniff in disbelief" (1.30).

    From that moment on, all the dog wants to do is ride in a car. Even when he is taken to get neutered—and, later, when he is taken to be put down—the traumatic experiences don't take away the magic joy of the car ride. No, the dog can't get enough. He doesn't just want to ride in a car; he wants to ride in the front seat.

    Here are six instances when the dog, across his various lives, gets to ride in the front seat.

    • "Well it looked like I was a front-seat dog now!" (6.11).
    • "Grandpa took me for a car ride and I was a front-seat dog" (12.2).
    • "Ethan could take his own car rides! This changed everything, because now I went almost everywhere with him, my nose out the window as I stood in the front seat, helping him drive" (13.11).
    • "Car rides were always exciting, no matter where we went" (16.28).
    • "He'd never let me be a front-seat dog before!" (19.55).
    • "Though it had been a long time since I'd had the wonderful thrill of a car ride with my nose out the window, what I wanted most was to put my head in Ethan's lap and feel his hand stroke me, so that's what I did" (30.66).

    We're sure we missed plenty, but we wanted to highlight the sheer joy the dog feels at being in the front seat. Some people treat their car as a status symbol, but the dog in A Dog's Purpose treats his location in the car as the status symbol: he knows that if he's in the front seat, his owner must truly care about him.

    Hey, it helps cut down on motion sickness, too.

  • Cats

    The Aristocats

    Cats (and scientists) like the say that cats rule and dogs drool. Dogs don't have a response, because they're too busy drooling.

    In A Dog's Purpose, we get a dog's-eye view on what Bailey and Ellie (the same dog if you just ended up here and missed out on the whole reincarnation thing) think of their feline frenemies.

    The first cat the dog meets is Ethan's cat Smokey. This tabby is Bailey's nemesis: he hisses and spits at him whenever he approaches. Smokey and Bailey tear up the house, but only Bailey gets in trouble—he doesn't understand yet that cats get away with everything. When Smokey dies, Bailey doesn't care. It's not because he's cruel, it's just that he doesn't really understand the gravity of death. And he always thought he was the superior pet, anyway.

    As Ellie, the dog has to live with three cats: Stella, Emmet, and Tinkerbell. Stella and Emmet die over the years, but Tinkerbell clings to life like a fairy to her wings. Alone, Tinkerbell looks to Ellie for comfort. Ellie reluctantly gives it: "I didn't understand her attachment to me and knew it was not my purpose in life to be the substitute mother for a feline, but I didn't mind it much and even let her lick me sometimes because it seemed to make her happy" (24.35).

    In this one little moment, Ellie the dog learns what it's like to have a pet of her own. All she needed was faith, trust, and a little bit of cat dander.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person

    A Dog's Purpose is told by a dog. The text isn't 300 pages of "bow wow," "yip yip," and butt sniffing. This dog has the vocabulary of a college philosophy student ruminating on death and rebirth. It's a unique way of telling the story, since the dog cannot "talk" to humans or other animals. While it may be possible that the other dogs in the book—and yes, maybe even a cat or two—have similar complex thoughts, we have no way of knowing what is going on inside their little animal heads.

    Telling the story this way allows W. Bruce Cameron to explore both the philosophical meanings of life and the humor inherent in, say, trying to housebreak a dog when he doesn't understand human language. While the narration style may be in the realm of fantasy, with the dog having an advanced vocabulary at birth, each life the dog lives feels very real.

      • Allusions

        Historical References

        • The Moon landing (10.6)
        • Rodney King (18.51)

        Pop Culture References

        • John Lennon (31.2)