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As sad as it is, the most important thing about Dave is his death. When Dave gets sick and insists on staying with the sled, we really get to see that pulling the sled can become a way of life for a dog. Dave doesn’t pull because he’ll get beaten otherwise; he pulls because being a sled dog has come to define his entire existence:
Sick as he was, Dave resented being taken out, grunting and growling while the traces were unfastened, and whimpering broken-heartedly when he saw Sol-leks in the position he had held and served so long. For the pride of trace and trail was his, and, sick unto death, he could not bear that another dog should do his work. (4.29)
It's interesting that Buck never gets to this point; he adapts to the wilderness, and he learns how to pull the sled, but he never lets his role in life become solely that of a sled dog. What is it about Buck that makes him destined for a different life than Dave? What is it about Dave that keeps him standing in the traces as he slowly dies?