Cats are supposed to be the ones with nine lives, not dogs, but our main pooch in A Dog's Purpose has four—that we know of. Each time he's reborn, he retains the memories of his previous life. And we'll usually say "he," because three lives out of four involve him getting neutered instead of spayed.
When we first meet our dog, he's a nameless mutt born in a ditch. Like a furry orphan out of Dickens, the pup has no idea that he's destined for greatness. Destiny implies that a person's—or a dog's—fate is out of his control, and in fact, our dog is totally cool with his fate being in human hands.
First, he is taken by a group of people who believe they are helping stray dogs by removing them from the wild and putting them in a big pen, which the dog calls the Yard. The Yard's owner is known only as Senora. She names the dog, and it's a monumental moment for the little furball: "My name, she told me, was Toby. She said it to me every time she saw me: Toby, Toby, Toby" (2.36).
Great. Now we don't have to call him "dog" anymore.
Because the book is narrated in human English, it's difficult not to think of the dog as a little person. We mean, how would you feel if someone took you away from where you were born and put you in a pen with a bunch of people you didn't know?
Yeah, well, Toby ends up liking it, and he feels bad for those of his siblings who weren't captured, like his sister. When she is finally brought into the Yard, she is mangy, skinny, and hungry. Toby observes, "This is what happened to dogs who tried to live in the world without people—they became beaten down, defeated, starved. Sister was what we all would have become if we'd stayed in the culvert" (3.16).
But isn't it possible that everything that happens to dogs who live in the wild happens because of the way people run that world? Sister is defeated and starved because she has to try to find food without being spotted by men who would take her. It seems like our narrator is becoming conditioned to being imprisoned by humans. He prefers being domesticated to living on his own and running wild.
But why? As humans, after all, we value freedom. So why does Toby value captivity? Well, Toby has an answer to that question: "I loved the Yard. I wanted to belong to Senora. My name was Toby" (4.3). Toby likes to belong. He likes to know what his role is. He likes serving humans; this is what makes him feel good.
In fact, Toby loves his human master, and even when he is being taken away to be put to death with all the other dogs, he is grateful that he at least made her smile.
Whoa, that's darker than any Disney doggy story. But don't worry: it gets a little better the second time around.
After being reincarnated, the dog is initially confused. We've all been there, right? He wonders what his purpose is if it isn't to make Senora smile.
It turns out his purpose is to make Ethan smile.
We're getting a little ahead of ourselves, though. First, the dog runs away from his pen and is picked up by a man who names him "Fella." Our dog loves having a name, so he thinks, "[Y]es, I could be Puppy, I could be Fella, I could be whatever they wanted" (6.9). He's a Barbie dog, living in a human's world. He is whatever humans want him to be, without a specific identity of his own. But he's fine with that.
That man neglects Fella right off the bat, leaving him locked in a hot truck. The dog is rescued by a woman who presents him to her son, Ethan, and they rename him Bailey. Ethan is the love of the dog's life. Actually, all his lives. But more on that later.
One thing Ethan does that Senora did not is show Bailey a specific love. Bailey isn't one dog of many, the way Toby was: he is Ethan's one and only dog. The two of them play together, sleep next to one another, and go on adventures together. For Bailey, it's like they are equals—young dog and young boy. Plus, Ethan gives him a nickname: "Bailey, you are a doodle dog. You are a doodle, doodle dog" (8.52).
If one name makes Bailey happy, having two names is better than anything he ever could have imagined.
Bailey and Ethan's life together makes up the core of the story. They get to grow up together, for good and for bad, and they spend many days playing. Over time, Bailey develops a dog's love for and devotion to his boy. He wants them to always be together, living life as though it were one long endless summer. "When I dove after him I felt so happy, I never wanted it to end" (16.42).
Well, spoiler alert, folks, but it does end. At least this time Bailey gets to die after a long, happy life, with his boy by his side. And then he gets to rest in peace.
Bailey is reborn again, doomed to walk the planet in an almost Nietzschean nightmare of eternal recurrence. For life number three, Bailey is now Ellie, a female German shepherd who is put to work on a police force's elite K-9 unit.
For her job, Ellie relies on her memories of Ethan. They played a game called "Rescue Me" on the farm, which involved Bailey pretending to save Ethan from drowning. This time, it's like that game—but with real life-or-death stakes. Using her super doggy nose, Ellie sniffs out missing Alzheimer's patients, earthquake victims, and missing children. Although she misses her #1 boy Ethan, she realizes that her four-legged life has an even greater purpose now. She isn't just making people smile; she is literally saving their lives.
Ellie's life includes a little more personal tragedy than her other lives. She loses her sense of smell in a freak accident and can no longer find people. Unlike one of her previous master Jakob, who mourns for years over the loss of his wife, Ellie adapts to this loss with true canine-like resilience. She doesn't dwell on the bad stuff; she just accepts what she has.
Our doggy pal is reborn one more time, because he still has new lessons to teach us stubborn old humans. Yes, you can teach old humans new tricks.
For his fourth life—he's a he again—our dog is soon back where he started. After being abandoned by his owner, he's homeless, a feral dog like he was way back in his first life. Feral, wild, and aimless, he feels shame: "I felt like a bad dog. I had no real purpose, now that I was here" (28.23).
Remember what we said about not dwelling and accepting what we have? Well, our dog might roll around in his own poop, but doesn't wallow in self-pity. That doesn't mean he accepts his situation, though: he decides to make an effort to change his life for the better.
Realizing that he is back where Ethan lives, the dog uses his Find sense, which he honed in his life as Ellie, to find his boy, who is now an old man somewhere nearby.
Ethan takes the dog in and names him Buddy—a fitting name, since all the dog ever wanted was to be Ethan's best buddy, from beginning to end. In this final life, Buddy uses all the skills he's learned in his previous lives; it's like all his incarnations are the Power Rangers joining together to form a giant Megazord. He's lived in the wild like he did as Toby; he's found Ethan as he found people as Ellie; and he's returned to Ethan, his favorite boy.
But Buddy wants these lives to be greater than the sum of their parts. He wants to do more than just exist with Ethan: he wants to better Ethan's life. So he concocts a scheme to get Ethan back with his childhood sweetheart, helping Ethan find the happiness he never had. All thanks to his faithful canine companion.
Not only that, but Buddy will make sure to be there for Ethan's family, too. At the end of Ethan's life, this is what Buddy has to say:
I lay there quietly with my boy in the stillness of that spring afternoon, the house silent and empty. Soon the girl would be home, and, remembering how hard it had been for everyone to say good-bye to Bailey and Ellie and even the cats, I knew she would need my help to face life without the boy. As for me: I loyally remained right where I was, remembering the first time I had ever seen the boy and then just now, the very last time—and all the times in between. (32.47)
We're not crying. There's just something in our eye…
We imagine Buddy can stop being resurrected after this life, because he seems content with the results of his work. But who knows? Maybe after living a long life as Buddy, he'll go on to be reborn as a Hollywood dog actor, a socialite's purse pup, or one of those dogs that sounds human when it barks. Then he would find a new purpose as YouTube sensation.