Dog books that aren’t cheesy. No, seriously.

There are far too many novels being written about dogs. And don’t get me wrong, I LIKE dogs, but so many of these books seem to rehash the same schmaltzy clichéd plotlines: a dog’s love helps someone overcome grief, a dog schemes to bring a couple together, a dog solves a mystery or cures cancer or saves the day in some fashion, or—worst of all—a beloved pet dog is killed off just for some cheap emotional response from the reader.

But there are some good dog books out there—some authors who know how to write about dogs as more than just trite symbolism or canis ex machina. These are my top ten dog books, in which dogs are presented in an interesting way, or which feature particularly lovable or realistic dogs, setting them far above the pack of interchangeable, emotionally manipulative treacle cluttering up the bookshelves.

I make no promises that all these dogs are going to live through their stories. Dogs don’t get nine lives, after all, but I guarantee that if they do fall, their deaths won’t be frivolous.

Faithful Ruslan

When Stalin’s gulags were dismantled, the guard dogs trained to corral or “discipline” prisoners were set free into the surrounding woods and towns. Relentlessly loyal, Ruslan searches for his master, the prison guard who abandoned him, and he interprets this newly expanded territory as an extension of the prison, seeing unruly “prisoners” everywhere, and awaiting his orders. Beautiful, heartbreaking stuff.

Lily and the Octopus

Just another story of a man and his dog and the octopus that threatens their happiness… This book is a raw gutpunch to the fierce protective love we feel for our pets, and the lengths we will go to keep them safe. Funny, sad and featuring an utterly charming dachshund, this book is not just sentimentality for the sake of sentimentality—there’s a true beating heart at its center that any pet-owner will recognize.

The Land of Laughs

This book is standing in for “any Jonathan Carroll book ever.” Nearly all of his books feature a dog, usually a bull terrier like Carroll’s own pets, and they are always lovable and goofy creatures you’ll want for your own.

Heroic Measures

Another excellent dachshund here, in a book with the best dog point-of-view chapter of all time. The novel has a wide focus, for being so slim, but at its center is the love of an older couple for their ailing, older dog, and their struggle to get her to the vet in the middle of a potential terrorist event paralyzing a Manhattan churning with post 9/11 paranoia. A beautiful and moving book.

Where the Red Fern Grows

I had to include at least ONE childhood favorite here. I can’t even tell you how many times I read this book, wishing for my very own Old Dan and Little Ann. This book is responsible for more bawling children than Old Yeller and The Velveteen Rabbit combined. But not me, because I am made of robot parts.

The Supernatural Enhancements

The dog may not be the most important character in the book and he’s far from the main focus, but his name is “Help,” and whenever he is on the page, you’re going to want to give him many underchin scritches.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

Even if you are someone who has reservations about either YA novels or talking dogs, I would still push this one at you with a hopeful grin because the book is a stunner on par with any grownup novel and Manchee the dog is impossible to dislike. Impossible. You can try, but you will fail.


How could the plan to genetically engineer superintelligent dogs for use as secret government spies possibly go wrong? Oh, because you’ve also made a horrible superintelligent assassin-monster? And superintelligent creatures will always find a way to escape a lab? Yeah, that’s one way it could go wrong. Maybe Einstein, the genius Golden Retriever, will save the day, using Scrabble tiles to communicate. Good dog!

Fifteen Dogs

Even worse than when scientists or prison guards decide to meddle with dogs is when the gods get involved. Then you know things are going to get out of hand. Here, Hermes and Apollo make a wager on what will happen when they grant human intelligence and language to a bunch of dogs. Place your bets, folks!


Cujo is a badass. ‘Nuff said.

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