Ah, let's settle in and read this book with a cuddly little puppy on the cover, shall we? We're sure it's going to be a sweet and heartwarming tale, one where the dog definitely does not die at the end.
Okay, here we go.
Our dog narrator is born in a ditch. He lives in the wild until he is captured by some humans who keep a bunch of dogs in a pen somewhere. Our dog is basically a canine Oliver Twist taken to a puppy orphanage. There, the woman in charge names him Toby and occasionally gives him a pat behind the ears. He barks and wags his tail, which is dogspeak for Thank you, ma'am, may I have another? He doesn't get another, because animal control arrives, says the people have too many dogs in poor conditions, and takes the dogs all away to gas them.
Whoa. Okay, at least the dog doesn't die at the end. He dies at the very beginning.
The dog is soon reincarnated as a different dog, but with all his memories from his first brief life intact. This time, he is born to a dog breeder. He has food and water, but he doesn't want to be in a cage. So he escapes, opening the cage door and running away. A nice man picks up the dog to take him home with him. He puts him in his truck but leaves the dog there when he stops for an unknown reason.
The dog sits in the truck with the windows up. The day gets hotter, and hotter, and hotter. Could this little puppy's life be even shorter than the first one's?
A rock flies through the window. A woman has smashed the glass to rescue the puppy. She takes the dog home and gives him to her son, Ethan, who names the dog Bailey. They become the bestest of friends, romping and playing like there's no tomorrow. Ethan nicknames Bailey "doodle dog," which is a nice way to say "stupid dog." They ride on sleds and go-karts together and swim and go fishing. Ethan makes a toy for Bailey to play with called "the flip."
It's just like Timmy and Lassie, except that Ethan doesn't fall down any wells.
Bailey, on the other paw, gets himself into more danger than James Bond. A neighborhood troublemaker—and by troublemaker, we mean serial killer in training—named Todd dognaps Bailey and appears to have the intention of harming the dog in some way. Bailey escapes and learns to stay away from Todd. But Todd won't stay away from him.
As Ethan grows older, he learns to drive, meets a girl named Hannah, and joins the football team. Todd tries to convince Hannah that Ethan is seeing another girl, but she doesn't believe him. When Ethan finds out that Todd lied, he confronts Todd, telling him that he's a weird loser who doesn't have any friends. (True.) Todd can't handle the truth, so he burns Ethan's house down.
Seriously. Todd sets Ethan's house on fire. Bailey sees Todd doing it and bites him, but it's too late. The house is ablaze, and Ethan must jump from the second story to save himself. His leg is badly injured, which leaves him unable to play football again. He loses his football scholarship, and his life changes forever. Bitter and depressed, he pushes Hannah away by being jealous of every able-bodied guy she happens to be within a two-mile radius of.
Soon Ethan goes off to college, leaving his beloved dog behind. Bailey is confused and lonely without his boy. Ethan's grandparents are nice and caring, but it just isn't the same. Within a year or two, Bailey is old and sick. The family decides to have him put down, and Ethan shows up just in time to say goodbye to his "doodle dog." Bailey is happy fulfilling his purpose of bringing happiness to this one human boy.
Yeah, well, the dog wakes up in yet another doggy body, this time as a female. She is confused, and not just at the change in sex: she thought she had fulfilled her purpose. Why has she been reborn? She is soon adopted by Jakob, a cop, who names her Ellie and trains her to be a K-9 cop. Call her Rin Tin Tina.
Jakob is bitter and lonely after the death of his wife, and he is a workaholic as a result. Ellie's job is to sniff out missing people. She finds a kidnapped girl, but the kidnapper shoots Jakob. He almost dies, and he is forced into retirement. Ellie's care is transferred to Maya, a rookie cop who trains hard to be the best master for Ellie.
Maya and Ellie travel to Latin America after an earthquake to find survivors. Ellie rescues someone trapped in rubble, but she injures her nose in the process. Unable to smell as a result, she can no longer do her job.
In retirement, Ellie is taken to schools to teach the importance of not getting lost. Stay put, kids, because the dog can't find you anymore. One of the girls at the school is Jakob's daughter, and Ellie is happy to see that Jakob has found a family. Ellie performs one last miraculous rescue when a kid—who clearly didn't listen to Maya's speech—goes missing.
Maya finds a family, too. A dude named Al proposes to her, she says yes, they move in together, and Maya gets pregnant. By this time, Ellie is pretty old, and she passes away, satisfied she has fulfilled her purpose of saving lives.
She's in for a rude awakening when she is reborn, again. Once again a male dog, the pup is really confused this time. Why can't he be free? Why is he eternally reborn? What purpose has he left unfulfilled?
The dog is bought from a breeder by a man who gives the dog to his girlfriend. She keeps the dog in a grungy apartment, where she often forgets to feed him and rarely takes him out for walkies. She's not supposed to have dogs in her apartment, anyway, so she gives the dog to her mother and stepfather. The stepfather abandons the dog in the woods.
Now he's back where he started, many lives ago, as a homeless drifter on four legs. Soon, he picks up a familiar scent. No, it's not the scent of existential despair; it's the scent of Ethan, his boy. The dog tracks the scent and finds Ethan living on the family farm they used to visit so many years ago. He's not a boy anymore, but a wrinkly old man.
Ethan feeds the dog but doesn't let him in the house. Soon, remembering his beloved dog Bailey, Ethan agrees to take the dog in. He names him Buddy, which gets no points for originality, but it's sweet. However, Ethan is still bitter, old, and lonely. Buddy can't do anything about the old part, but he feels like it's his purpose to take care of the bitter and lonely stuff.
At a dog park, Buddy meets a dog who smells like Hannah, Ethan's childhood sweetheart. Buddy follows the dog home. Turns out the dog's owner is Hannah's daughter, who lives with Hannah. Hannah reads Buddy's collar and learns he belongs to Ethan, her first love. She calls Ethan. As both of them are now old and single, they rekindle their old romance and fall in love.
Ethan has a family, and Buddy is content. But one afternoon, when no one is around, Ethan has an aneurysm and starts to die. Hallucinating, he not incorrectly thinks Buddy is Bailey, and he remembers playing with his favorite "doodle dog."
To give Ethan a final pleasant memory of his childhood, Buddy retrieves the flip toy from the closet. Ethan throws it out the window, and Buddy fetches it. When he returns, he keeps Ethan company as Ethan breathes his final breaths. Buddy resolves to do everything he can to support Ethan's family as they grieve. His purpose continues.