Study Guide

A Dog's Purpose Themes

  • Family

    Whether it is a dog, a cat, or a Burmese python, a pet is part of the family. Pets appear in family photos and home movies, and they sign holiday cards with their paws (or their forked tongues dipped in ink). Welcoming a pet to the family can feel like the birth of a new sibling, and when pets die, it's a very sad occasion. You might mourn the death of a dog more than the passing of a mean uncle.

    In A Dog's Purpose, one of the dog's purposes is to be an integral part of the family. For our main pooch, that can mean bringing people together and building the family from the ground up.

    Questions About Family

    1. The dog is reborn multiple times to different doggy families. How is each doggy family similar or different? How does the dog relate to his furry relatives? In what ways are his relationships with human families different?
    2. What different types of families (and family drama) does the dog encounter during his life? Which families are the happiest?
    3. Why is it so important that the dog find a family for Ethan at the end?

    Chew on This

    The humans who treat the dog as if he's a part of the family are the ones the dog is most attached to. Dogs need families, too.

    The dog helps to build multiple families during his lives. He brings Ethan and his grandparents closer together. He (as a she) helps bring Maya and Al together in marriage. And he gets Hannah and Ethan together in the end. He's quite the matchmaker.

  • Love

    "Puppy Love" was a popular song in the 1960s and '70s, crooned by both Paul Anka and Donny Osmond. There's even an urban legend that a DJ played the song for an entire morning in 1972, going for the pre-Internet version of a Rick Roll.

    Although the song "Puppy Love" is about "How a young heart really feels" when in love, it is talking about human hearts, of course. But A Dog's Purpose shows us that puppies have hearts, too—only they fall in love with their human owners. The novel explores the simple-but-complex relationship between humans and their four-legged companions: although they have different numbers of legs, they both have two hearts that beat as one.

    Hmm, that lyric is almost cheesy enough to be in the "Puppy Love" song.

    Questions About Love

    1. Which humans love the dog? Does the dog love any humans who don't love him in return?
    2. Is the dog capable of loving other dogs? Or can he only love humans?
    3. What different types of love do we see between humans? Who shows familial love? Or romantic love? How would you classify the love between the dog and his (or her) owner(s)?

    Chew on This

    The dog experiences love to varying degrees during his lives. But the love he treasures most is the love he shares with Ethan. He feels that they have a special bond above any other relationship.

    Because the dog can sense strong emotions, he forms stronger bonds with humans than he does with other animals, which do not feel as intensely.

  • Loyalty

    Here are a few words we associate with dogs: cuddly, furry, lovable, slobbery, loyal. All of these traits are important—especially the slobber factor—but most people probably place the highest value on loyalty. There are even lists of "Most Loyal Dog Breeds," with beagles and collies often featuring prominently. On the other hand, never turn your back on a Chihuahua.

    We're not always told what breed our dog narrator is in A Dog's Purpose, but he appears as both a retriever of some sort and a German shepherd—both very loyal breeds. But because the dog is born a mutt and returns as an unknown breed late in the book, we think that it might not be the breed of the dog the matters: it's the spirit of the pooch inside.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Which owners is the dog loyal to? Are there some owners he respects more than others? Why?
    2. The dog is often loyal to his owners, but are the owners always loyal to the dog? What does loyalty mean in a human-canine relationship?
    3. Are the humans in the book more loyal to animals or to other people?
    4. For a dog, is there a difference between loyalty and love?

    Chew on This

    The dog is always loyal to a human on first sight, until that human does something to break that trust. For the pup, humans are innocent until proven guilty.

    The dog forms bonds of loyalty with humans that he does not have with other animals—not even dogs in its own family. And definitely not cats.

  • The Home

    Snoopy's red doghouse is almost as iconic as the bipedal beagle himself. Dogs can make their homes in a variety of places, from a red house that doubles as a fighter plane, to the foot of his owner's bed, to a replica of his rich owner's palatial estate.

    In A Dog's Purpose, our dog lives in a ditch, in an outdoor pen, inside a loving family home, and even in the kennel of a police station. Some of these homes are nicer than others, but the dog doesn't care about the square footage or how many bathrooms the place has—although more toilets means more water bowls. No, the dog only cares about having food, warmth, and—most importantly—love. That's what makes a home for him.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Where is the dog's favorite home? Why is it his favorite?
    2. Which homes are unsuitable for the dog? What do they lack that the other homes provide?
    3. Why does the dog escape from some places where he is kept? What is he searching for in those moments?

    Chew on This

    The dog is capable of surviving anywhere, from a ditch to a farmhouse to a police station, but just because he lives in a place, that doesn't mean it's a home.

    The dog's different habitats come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but there's one thing absolutely necessary for him to call a place home: human love.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Have you ever looked at your dog and wondered what he or she is thinking? Maybe the dog is thinking about its next meal or its next nap. Perhaps the pup has thoughts of chasing balls—or its own tail. Or maybe the hound is pondering Nietzsche's theory of eternal recurrence.

    In A Dog's Purpose, the dog doesn't talk like the farm animals in Babe or walk around on two legs like Snoopy. Outwardly, he behaves like a dog. But inside, his thoughts are very complex: he wonders if his life has any purpose. He may be sniffing his own poop, but inside, he is pondering the meaning of existence itself.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. Do you think real dogs might think the way this dog does? Do his thoughts seem like puppy thoughts or human thoughts?
    2. Is the dog reincarnated to fulfill a purpose? Or does the dog think he has a purpose specifically because he is reincarnated?
    3. Do any of the human characters consider the dog's purpose? What do you think each person in the book would consider a dog's purpose to be? Are some of those purposes more important than others?
    4. The dog's purpose is centered on serving humans. Is it possible for a dog to have a purpose without a human in the picture?

    Chew on This

    The longer the dog lives, the more complicated his life seems to be. The more complicated his life is, the more he feels the need to find a purpose to give himself direction.

    In each of the dog's lives, he is focused on a human (sometimes more than one), and he devotes his life to making that person's life better. That is his purpose.

  • Mortality

    We're told that All Dogs Go to Heaven. But if we believed everything Don Bluth said, we'd also think that mice wore cowboy hats and that Matt Damon was a space explorer years before he became the Martian.

    The cold but honest truth is that all dogs, like all people, die. We all deal with death in different ways. In A Dog's Purpose,we learn that dogs, just like people, have to confront various deaths in their lives, from the deaths of doggy siblings, to the deaths of family cats, to the deaths of owners, and even their own deaths. Because our dog narrator is reborn, he hasn't gone to heaven…yet. Unless heaven is a place on earth.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How did you feel the first time the dog died? Did you feel differently the second time? And the third time? Does seeing the dog die multiple times change your feelings? Does knowing he will be reborn change your feelings about his death?
    2. How does Ethan's death compare to the dog's? Did you feel differently when Ethan died compared to when the dog died?
    3. What is the dog's attitude toward death at the beginning of the book? How does his attitude change by the book's end? Does he care more about the deaths of certain beings than he does about the deaths of others?

    Chew on This

    The dog's has little sense of perspective or scope beyond his immediate existence, so to him, death is often not a big deal. It's a natural part of life.

    The dog learns from Ethan what to do when someone dies—stay by that person's side until he or she goes. He does the same thing for Ethan that Ethan did for him in a previous life.

  • Language and Communication

    Woof woof yip bark growl ruff ruff.

    Translation: In fiction, many dogs end up talking like humans, either conveying their thoughts in little bubbles, like Snoopy, or in voiceover, like the adventurous animals in Homeward Bound. But in A Dog's Purpose, the dog acts like a normal dog. He doesn't talk to humans or to other animals. But even though the dog cannot speak in English syllables, he does have a rich inner monologue with which he narrates the story.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What is the dog's primary method of communication? Does he always get his point across to humans and other animals?
    2. How does the dog communicate with animals compared to how he communicates with humans? Is the dog more effective at communicating with other animals than he is at communicating with humans? Less effective? About the same? Why?
    3. When is the dog frustrated in his communication with humans? When does he have trouble understanding them, and vice-versa?

    Chew on This

    Despite his rich narrative, the dog only knows a few choice words of English, like "good dog," "bad dog," and his different names. Instead, his primary method of understanding humans is through sensing their emotions and attempting to respond appropriately.

    The longer the dog lives, the more he understands how humans communicate with one another. He uses this knowledge to bring Hannah and Ethan together.

  • Abandonment

    Before developing a sense of object permanence, a child believes that if he or she cannot see an object, it must not exist. That means that when mom leaves, she is gone forever. If food is taken away, it no longer exists. And if the child cannot see the second season of Firefly, it must be because one was never made. Hmm.

    Dogs have some ability to understand object permanence, but not as much as humans. However, the dog in A Dog's Purpose understands complex theories of reincarnation, so maybe it's no surprise that object permanence is easy for him to understand. That doesn't mean it's easy for him to deal with the fact that when some people leave him, they are gone forever. In fact, it may be that small sense of object permanence that makes it harder for a dog to cope with abandonment sometimes; dogs know their favorite person is out there somewhere, but they don't know if that person will ever return.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. How does the dog feel after being abandoned by his mother in his first life?
    2. Which humans betray the dog's trust by abandoning him? How does he feel about these people?
    3. When Ethan leaves for college, how does the dog feel? Does he feel abandoned? Does he forgive Ethan?

    Chew on This

    The dog escapes his cage in his second life without giving any thought to the fact that he is abandoning his dog mother. In the dog world, it's every dog for himself.

    The dog learns to accept that human lives are greater and more complicated than his own. He also learns to accept that humans come and go, though that doesn't necessarily mean that they are abandoning him.