Study Guide

Josh in My Life in Dog Years

By Gary Paulsen


In a book packed with unique dogs, Josh is a unicorn. (Technically, he's a border collie—"the quintessential border collie," even. Anyway, you know what we mean.)

Understand that I've had hundreds of dogs and loved them and, I hope, been loved by them, and I've been in God knows how many different kinds of situations with them, but I had never, ever seen anything like Josh. (9.17)

Basically, this dog is Paulsen's soul mate.

One of the things that makes Josh stand out is his intelligence. He understands a lot of English words, but more than that, Paulsen thinks he understands real conversation. The dog can also fetch a horse, irrigate a ditch, and escort party guests to their cars at the end of the evening. Seems like there's nothing this dog can't do.

A Quiet Dignity

Of the nine dogs profiled in the book, Josh was the only one still alive when Paulsen was writing it. Since we're reading now, decades later, Josh has of course long since died. Even when Paulsen was writing, Josh was nearly 20 years old, so his chapter, more so than others, is shot through with melancholy. We can sense how much it will hurt Paulsen when Josh is gone.

If possible, Josh is always with me. (9.33)

We know the day will come when he won't be.

(Sorry, just give us a sec to collect ourselves.)

Josh comports himself with a quiet dignity that does not just come from being old.

He has wonderful limits. He will do anything I ask and many things I tell him to do, unless he thinks they are too stupid or repetitive or boring. (9.25)

He'll play any game or do any trick five times. (Not four, or six. Just five.) That's it—after five tries, Josh is done forever.

A Real Equal

Paulsen thinks that Josh is in every way his equal—and in some ways his better. "He is full of a gentle honor that I will never come close to achieving," he writes (9.1). Also, he says that Josh is "completely and totally devoted to the person he views as his master" (9.2). (Not the person who is his master. The person he views as his master.)

He is...real. No, more than that, he is a person. I do not think in my heart that he is a dog. (9.6)

Coming from Paulsen, who is a no-nonsense sort of guy, and who's known a lot of dogs, these words carry a lot of weight.

This all sounds like very serious business, but Josh has a great sense of humor, too. After a friend died, Paulsen was in an ugly, dark mood.

I was sitting in an old easy chair with my legs stretched out thinking dark thoughts and Josh came up in front of me and sat, studying me for a full minute, his eyes clear and calm. […] suddenly he reached down, grabbed my boot and with a mighty lunge jerked me completely out of the chair on my butt and then jumped on me and pretended to be biting my ribs, back and forth, tickling me. (9.30)

Just like Paulsen always tickles Josh's ribs when the dog is having a bad day.

Just knowing Josh is something that Paulsen counts among the major events of his life—in the same category as enlisting in the army and getting married. Reading along, it's easy to see why. In each sentence of this short but sweet chapter, Josh's specialness shines through.