Study Guide

My Life in Dog Years Themes

By Gary Paulsen

  • Admiration

    Humorist Will Rogers once said, "If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went" (source). We bet Gary Paulsen would agree. My Life in Dog Years is a tribute to the beauty and wonder of dogs.

    Paulsen often sounds awe-struck as he describes the lives and accomplishments of his dog pals. (Reading along, it'd be hard not to admire these extraordinary animals.) There are many points in the book where Paulsen compares dogs favorably to humans, especially himself. Where he's bumbling and unskilled, his dogs are graceful, efficient experts.

    There's no doubt Paulsen's admiration for dogs is heartfelt and true. Still, when he talks about how his dogs are smarter than some people he knows, we have to wonder: are the dogs really that smart? Or is it possible he doesn't give people enough credit?

    Hint: Paulsen told a reporter from the New York Times that he doesn't like people much. "I don't have anything against individuals," he said. "But the species is a mess" (source).

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Which dog do you think Paulsen admires most?
    2. Which dog do you admire most? Why?
    3. In Paulsen's eyes, what makes dogs so admirable?

    Chew on This

    The author admires dogs more than humans.

    The author might overlook his dogs' less admirable qualities, like chewing the house to pieces, because they're dogs. He probably expects more of people, and therefore is less forgiving.

  • Love

    Charles Schulz had it right: Happiness is a warm puppy.

    Conventional wisdom has it that pets, like parents, offer love that's unconditional. Funny guy Dave Barry once wrote, "You can say any foolish thing to a dog, and the dog will give you a look that says, 'Wow, you're right! I never would've thought of that!'" (source). Unconditional.

    In My Life in Dog Years, Paulsen turns the tables; his love for his dogs is unconditional—even for dogs that don't much like him. Whether he's writing about his first love, Snowball, or his most recent dog, Josh, Paulsen is clearly a guy who loves dogs with his whole heart. And it's not just dogs; that love seems to extend to all living creatures. He's the kind of guy who ends up with a 500-pound pet pig in the yard when he's trying to raise that pig for food.

    Many of Paulsen's dogs return the favor. They're devoted companions, wanting to cheer him up when he's sad, keeping an eye on him, or yeah, saving his life. They love him back, even if he can't shoot straight now and then.

    Questions About Love

    1. If you were to ask Paulsen why he loves dogs so much, what do you think he would say?
    2. Do you think that Paulsen loves some dogs more than others? Or would that be like asking someone to choose a favorite child?
    3. Dogs like Ike and Dirk—dogs that Paulsen doesn't even know—help him when he needs it most. Why do you think these pooches are attracted to him?

    Chew on This

    Paulsen suggests that dogs are capable of human emotions like love.

    Paulsen suggests that love is not a human emotion. It's something that many kinds of animals feel in some capacity.

  • Loyalty

    Dogs have a pretty solid reputation for being very loyal animals. Beyond the regular bond of loyalty between dog and "master" (a word that Paulsen doesn't seem to care for), there seems to be the idea that some dogs have a person. You know, their one and only. Once they've found their person, they're in it for life.

    That's certainly true for Ike, whose person is a veteran who was injured in the Korean War; for Dirk, the tough dog that only lets Olaf the farmer pet him; and for Quincy, the dog who runs through at least three other owners before he becomes totally devoted to Paulsen's wife. The dogs that seem most attached to Paulsen himself are Snowball and Josh.

    As for Paulsen? He's attached to all of them. Half a century later, he's still honoring the memory of Snowball and Ike. He remembers what each of the dogs in My Life in Dog Years offered him, and never forgets their unique personalities and skills. He's learned a lot about loyalty from them.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. We know that Paulsen's dogs are loyal to him. In what ways does Paulsen demonstrate his loyalty to the dogs?
    2. Which of Paulsen's dogs do you think demonstrates the mostly loyalty?
    3. What do you think inspired Dirk's loyalty to Paulsen?

    Chew on This

    In this book, the loyalty between dog and master isn't a one-way street. It's a mutual bond.

    My Life in Dog Years explores the idea that a dog's loyalty is one of the most powerful forces in the universe.

  • Strength and Skill

    My Life in Dog Years is packed to the brim with smart, strong, capable dogs. No joke; these dogs are practically superheroes. As his canine crew saves lives and manages farms and fights off bears, Paulsen paints his own work in a less-than-flattering light. The way he tells it, his hunting skills…and construction skills…and life skills could all use some serious work.

    Every now and again, though, he'll drop a comment that reminds us that he used to run dogs in the Alaskan wilderness. We get the sense that maybe—just maybe—Paulsen tends to downplay his own expertise as an outdoorsman. In fact, has tons of skills in many different fields—publishing almost 500 books, short stories and plays being only one of them. He sails, trains horses in New Mexico and sled dogs in Alaska, pilots a plane, makes his own bows and arrows, sews animal pelts, and grows and hunts his own food in an area full of rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and bears. He's an ace poker player. Then there's that Iditarod…

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. How did Paulsen's childhood experiences help develop his skills as an outdoorsman?
    2. Besides his history with dog racing, how do we know that Paulsen is a capable outdoorsman?
    3. Which of Paulsen's dogs has the most impressive skill set?

    Chew on This

    Paulsen plays up his dogs' strength and skills by deliberately poking fun at himself.

    The skills that Paulsen needs as a human are pretty different and more complicated than the skills you need as a dog.

  • Mortality

    The dark side of having a pet is that their lifespans are relatively short. If you own a dog, chances are that you'll have to deal with losing it.

    All but one of the dogs in My Life in Dog Years had died by the time he started writing. The surviving dog, Josh, was almost 20 years old—probably not long for this world. While it seems like part of the book's purpose is to memorialize these dogs, Paulsen chooses to emphasize life.

    He celebrates the dogs' lives, and also the life that the dogs gave him. He witnesses the life that dogs give others too, like with Ike and the veteran, Rex and his farm family, and Quincy and Paulsen's wife. Still, inevitably, death is part of the natural order…and its shadow haunts the book.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How does Paulsen pay tribute to the memories of his dogs?
    2. Snowball died some 50 years before Paulsen was writing, yet she seems to be the dog he grieves most. Why?
    3. Why do you think Paulsen starts the book with his near-death experience?

    Chew on This

    Dogs have saved Paulsen's life—not just literally, but also emotionally.

    Though almost all of the dogs that Paulsen writes about have died, there's a way in which they all live on in him.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    Paulsen has never met a dumb dog (or if he has, he never wrote about it). His canine companions in My Life in Dog Years are hunters with a strong grasp of physics and aerodynamics, astute businessmen, workaholics, and engineers. They make critical decisions, including snap judgments and long-term plans. They have memories like elephants. They speak English as a second language. They've won Nobel Prizes, Pulitzers, and MacArthur Genius Grants.

    Okay, we made that last part up. Suffice it to say, these dogs are smart cookies, and Paulsen admires their amazing brains from the first chapter to the final sentence.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Which acts of cleverness impressed you most as you read about the dogs?
    2. Do you think that Paulsen gives his dogs too much credit for smarts?
    3. What do the vocabulary words that Josh knows tell you about Paulsen's life?

    Chew on This

    In My Life in Dog Years, Paulsen doesn't underestimate people. It's just that dogs are really smart.

    In My Life in Dog Years, Paulsen underestimates people. Even a less-than-brilliant person is smarter than a dog.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Man vs. nature—it's a classic theme in novels and stories. People are struggling to survive in the wild, being attacked by animals, freezing in the Arctic or broiling in the desert, or maybe even doing their own part to destroy nature.

    Paulsen, on the other hand, doesn't really see it as a conflict. From the time he's a troubled child through his advanced adulthood, he spends a ton of time outdoors. (Especially as a teenager, he finds solace hunting in the woods.) In his descriptions of the mountains and his outdoor surroundings in My Life in Dog Years, we know that Paulsen highly values the natural world.

    That love for nature doesn't just extend to beautiful settings or adorable dogs; he also cares for "problem bears" so much that he doesn't want to shoot them, even when they threaten his family. This conflict, which is under the surface in a few chapters, makes us wonder: is Paulsen right to love all living creatures? How about that snake that almost killed him? Could all of those novelists who pit man and nature against each other be on to something, after all?

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What does Paulsen appreciate about the Great Outdoors?
    2. Paulsen shows his respect for all things natural with his reluctance to shoot a bear that's a possible threat to his family. What other signs of that respect are in the book?
    3. Do you think that Paulsen's love of dogs is related to his being an outdoorsman?

    Chew on This

    One reason Paulsen loves dogs is that they're so much at home in the natural world.

    In My Life in Dog Years, we see Paulsen prioritize nature over human life—sometimes to a fault.

  • Violence

    My Life in Dog Years is a pretty lighthearted book. Still, Paulsen and his dogs are outdoorsy types, and the natural world can be a violent place. We watch Paulsen hunt and kill animals and see dogs face off against vicious predators (including, hilariously, an electric fence). Also, Mother Nature almost kills Paulsen twice—once when he falls through some thin ice and another time when a poisonous snake tries to attack him.

    We also see lots of man-made violence, including a country ravaged by World War II, a pet who got hit by a car, a veteran who lost the use of his legs in a war, and a human who shot a dog for no reason. Are these acts all just part of the same giant circle of life? Or is there something unnatural about the way humans hurt each other and other animals?

    Questions About Violence

    1. There are a few places in the book where Paulsen mentions that he was in the army. Does he seem to have a positive or negative attitude toward the military?
    2. Paulsen is an avid hunter. Does his attitude about shooting ducks and other animals seem at odds with his love for dogs?
    3. Describe an act of senseless violence in the book.

    Chew on This

    The natural world is brutal. All violence—including people's violence against other people—is part of the natural order.

    In My Life in Dog Years, Paulsen draws a sharp line between violence in the natural world (like hunting) and human-on-human violence (like wars).