Literature / A Dog's Purpose
"If I can get you licking and loving, I have my purpose."
— The Aesop of Dogs.

A Dog's Purpose is a novel by W. Bruce Cameron.

After a tragically short life as a stray, Bailey is surprised to find himself reborn as a new puppy. He is taken in by a loving family, and becomes especially close to the son, a young boy named Ethan. Throughout the years that Bailey lives with them, he decides that his purpose in life is to be with the boy, to have fun with him and protect him.

But that isn't the end of Bailey's journey. As he is reborn again and again, he begins to wonder: what is his purpose on this earth?

A sequel, A Dog's Journey, was released in 2012. It follows Bailey as he decides to protect Ethan's granddaughter, Clarity ("CJ"), and realizes that his purpose may not yet be fulfilled after all.

A film adaptation starring Dennis Quaid and the voice of Josh Gad was released on January 27, 2017, by Universal and Amblin Entertainment.

The books provide examples of:

  • A Boy and His X: A boy and his dog, from the dog's point of view. A girl and her dog, in the sequel.
  • Abusive Parents: Gloria in the second book, from neglectful to outright abusive.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Bailey always calls Ethan his "boy", even when he reunites with him as a different dog and Ethan is an old man.
  • Angry Guard Dog: In his life as Max, a Chihuahua/Yorkie mix, Bailey takes on this role: he's particularly aggressive because he wants to show that even though he's tiny, he can still protect his girl.
  • Berserk Button: Trying to harm anyone Bailey loves will result in him attacking you; it's the only time he's ever violent.
  • Big Damn Reunion: To Bailey's immense joy, he manages to find and reunite with an elderly Ethan while he's a different dog.
  • Career-Ending Injury:
    • Ethan's leg injury puts his dreams of football behind.
    • In his life as Ellie, Bailey permanently damages his sense of smell when trying to save someone and inhaling acid. He's retired from his career as a police dog afterward. It's even sadder in the film, when the gunshot is a LIFE ending injury.
  • Cats Are Mean: Bailey firmly believes this. If they're not mean, they're useless at best.
  • Chekhov's Skill: In each of his lives, Bailey learns something that carries over to his next life and contributes to his main purpose. As Toby, he learned how to open a gate, which, as Bailey, led him to find Ethan; he also uses this at the end as Buddy to open a closet and retrieve an item to bring to Ethan. As Bailey, he learned to love people, and he also learned to dive underwater, which enables him to save a drowning boy as Ellie. As Ellie, he learns to Find and rescue people, which as Buddy leads him to Ethan again and inspires him to help turn Ethan's life around.
  • Cone of Shame: Has to wear this several times, usually after getting spayed/neutered, and is highly embarrassed about it. It's a bit of a Running Gag.
  • Darker and Edgier: The second book is this compared to its predecessor. The first book did a good job jumping from highs and lows of both humans and dog through Bailey's many lives, with Bailey primarily serving as a positive influence in the lives of his humans. The second book focuses on the life of one human, CJ, whose abusive mother, and own bad decisions at times, seem to lead mostly to downs for CJ and Bailey, with fewer of the positive moments to compensate. Furthermore in a number of Bailey's lives he is unable to do much to help CJ, and his presence causes more conflict between CJ and her mother, meaning fewer heroic moments for Bailey than the first book had.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: A big part of the plot.
  • Department of Dog Disservices: In his first life 'the yard' where the dog is being kept is shut down because it is keeping too many dogs in an enclosed space. However, other then their mistakenly accepting a dog trained for dog fighting which bullies the rest of the dogs there was no other sign that the dogs are suffering or unhappy in the yard, while the titular dog is put to sleep shortly after leaving the yard. One can wonder if shutting down the Yard was a good option for the dogs. At the very least they could have let them keep the titular dog!.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: The man and canine version of this happens midway through the book, and is then mirrored at the end. Bailey is put down at the end of his long life while being watched over by a crying Ethan. At the end of the book, Bailey, now a dog named Buddy, has managed to reunite with an elderly Ethan and live for many years with him, until Ethan one day suffers a stroke and passes away while Bailey rests his head in his lap.
  • Driven to Suicide: CJ attempts this, but fortunately fails.
  • The Empath: As a dog Bailey has a highly evolved (literally in this case) ability to sense the emotions of humans around him; a trait it's believed dogs evolved when domesticated to allow them to work better with humans. While he doesn't understand context of situations around him, he can read body language of humans so well that he always knows exactly the emotions they are feeling, and often discusses what emotions he senses radiating from a person. It's implied all dogs have this trait.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The first time we see Gloria, she's sleeping on a lawn chair while her daughter is wandering off the edge of the dock of the pond, and then blames the dog for pushing the baby in, when really he dove underwater and pulled her out. This sets the tone for what we can expect from her for the rest of the book.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Bailey can tell early on that something's a bit off with Todd, thanks to his empathic ability.
  • Gender Bender: Bailey is reborn into his third life as a female dog that gets named Ellie. His fifth life is also as a female, a poodle mix named Molly.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Bailey, when he's reborn as Buddy. He was so certain that saving people was his purpose, so after he died as Ellie and was reborn again, he did little more than mope around for months.
  • Heroic Dog: Particularly in his life as Ellie (trained to scent and track missing people, serving in a K-9 unit), but he's got some heroic moments in his other lives as well: he saves a drowning boy, detects a stroke, and protects his humans from someone trying to hurt them.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: Bailey's first mother, a stray, believes this. When they're taken in by Senora, he realizes that humans aren't bad. At least, not all of them.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Ethan was excellent at football and was being looked at by several colleges for it, but his leg was permanently injured in the fire that Todd started.
  • I Have Many Names: The main character goes over his list of names and lives at the start and end of the second book. He's had many - the actual names he's been given, as well as nicknames. For the purposes of this page, he's referred to as Bailey, because that's who he most identifies as and what the first book's blurb calls him.
  • Innocent Inaccurate:
    • A straight example with one unique twist. While he describes the conversations around him to the reader, he personally only understands a hand full of words like stay and good dog. He therefor regularly fails to understand what's going on, which can be tragic since his other senses make him aware of things that could have saved allot of pain for the humans if he just understood the importance of them. He is, however, less innocent then some examples, having a bit of an elevated sense of self importance. More interesting, as described below Bailey counts as an empathicic Innocent Inaccurate. He sometimes is *more* aware of his owners needs, at least when it comes to their need for emotional support, then the humans around him despite his obliviousness to the specifics of the situation.
    • The dog also has some examples of Innocent Inaccurate beyond his inability to understand humans. Most noticeably he doesn't seem to quite understand sex, or his mating instincts. He describes females having a scent that attracts him without his understanding why, and developing a new version of 'wrestling' where he would wrap his front legs around his bitch friend and start thrusting; a game that other dogs seem to steal from him and which for some reason the bitch in question doesn't seem to enjoy playing as much. This is mostly because he keeps being neutered (yes, plural, it doesn't stick ) before he has an opportunity to figure out what his instincts are telling him.
  • New Old Flame: After reuniting with an elderly Ethan as a different dog, Bailey manages to make him and Hannah meet and talk again, and while they haven't dated since they were teenagers, they turn out to still have feelings for each other and get married the following year.
  • Revealing Injury: Bailey bites an arsonist in the leg, so the cops are able to easily find the person.
  • Reincarnation: A major part of the plot. The dog is reincarnated multiple times.
  • Shipper on Deck: Bailey is one for Ethan and Hannah, and Trent and CJ.
  • Weight Woe: Clarity is obsessed with her weight and is bulimic, thanks to the way her mother raised her (even when she was a baby, Gloria wouldn't let her have cookies because "she's already too chubby").
  • Where It All Began: When Bailey, as Buddy, runs stray, he finds himself near the home he'd had with Ethan. He is also given the name "Toby" in his final life, which is the name he was given in his first life.

Examples specific to the film:

  • Abusive Parents: Ethan's father. Even before he became a drunk he was clearly a very stern type of parent, and while he never outright hits Ethan or his mother, he's get rough enough that Ethan and Bailey leap in to defend her and order him out of the house.
    • The girl Ellie rescues was kidnapped by her abusive father.
  • Adaptation Distillation:
    • In the film, his first life is particularly short. The film version just shows him playing with his littermates as a stray and then being put in an animal control van before fading out, while in the book his first life lasted a whole 54 pages: he was a stray, found by humans and raised in a place he called "the Yard" with dozens of other dogs, and named "Toby". There was some detail about his life there, and he learned how to open gates, which would help him in his later lives. The Yard was shut down due to too many dogs in what they considered inhumane conditions, and he was put to sleep.
    • The film ends perhaps a year or two at most after Bailey has reunited with Ethan as a different dog. In the book, Bailey and Ethan live together for many years until Ethan passes away.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The film covers Bailey's lives mostly as they appear in the book, but it adds a completely new life between his lives as Ellie and Buddy: Tino the Corgi, owned by a lonely student named Maya.
  • Afraid of Needles:
    • He mentions this a few times throughout the film, presumably because he was euthanized as a puppy in his first life as Toby.
      As Tino: "What's with these white-coat people sticking me with sharp things?"
    • As Ellie, while dying from a gunshot wound:
      "I always hated getting shots. This was definitely the worst shot I ever got."
  • The Alcoholic: Ethan's father slowly but surely becomes one.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the film, two of Bailey's incarnations get this:
    • As Ellie the police dog, he saves a drowning girl, then saves his handler's life, but is shot in the process. His dying thoughts?
      "I need to rest. That life wasn't a lot of fun, but I did a lot of good work."
    • As Tino the Corgi, he has a wonderful time, getting to be with his owner through college, marriage, and the birth of her children, who grow into their early teens before he passes on. But he becomes depressed after the death of his dog friend—like the other half of an elderly couple dying soon after the death of the first one—and never recovers. It's sad to see him go as well, but his dying thoughts are to fully acknowledge:
      "One of my best lives yet."
  • Character Tic: Spinning around and catching his tail in his mouth. When Hannah sees him do it as Buddy, she comments, "Didn't Bailey used to do that?", and between the trick where he jumps off Ethan's back, his tail-catching trick, and his reaction to the phrase "boss dog", it helps Ethan recognize who he is.
  • Chekhov's Skill:
    • In addition to the examples that originally appeared in the book, in his film-specific life as Tino between Ellie and Buddy, he sees how his owner is sad when she is alone but becomes much happier once she finds someone, and so he uses this knowledge to help guide Ethan and Hannah back together as Buddy.
    • Ethan develops a trick with Bailey where he tosses the flip in the air and crouches on the ground, and Bailey jumps off his back to catch it in the air. Bailey does this as Buddy to help Ethan recognize that he's the same dog inside.
  • Death by Adaptation: Bailey lived a full life as the German Shepherd Ellie in the book, but in the film dies from a gunshot wound from a criminal Ellie helped stopping.
  • Death by Despair: Aside from old age, it seems that part of the reason Tino passes away soon after his friend Roxy does is that he's too depressed to go on.
  • Department of Dog Disservices: An animal control officer comes to the house where Buddy has repeatedly been left outside in the cold. Kudos to whatever concerned neighbor called the cops, but the officer doesn't do anything more than give them a ticket. Buddy's bewilderment as to why she isn't taking him with her (because he remembers his life as a police dog), is wrenching.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Tino the Corgi becomes very sad after his dog friend Roxie dies and never recovers, passing away himself a few years later. This is very similar to what has been observed in elderly couples—that one dies within six months to a year afterwards.
  • Domestic Abuse: Ethan's father roughs up him and his mother enough for them to order him out of the house, the girl Ellie rescues was kidnapped by her abusive father, and it's implied that the male half of the couple that purchases Buddy ill-treats his girlfriend.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Bailey gets very edgy when Ethan's drunken father shows up.
  • Foreshadowing/Foreseeing My Death: Or perhaps a literal Chekhov's Gun. As Ellie, he is told to get used to the smell of a gun, which stings his nose. Guess how he dies later on.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Bailey's first life as a stray. He's scooped up and put into an animal control van. The scene fades out, then fades back into his next life as Bailey. Younger viewers might easily fail to realize that that the stray was taken to a shelter and eventually euthanized, as shown in the book.
  • Heroic Dog: As Bailey, he saves Ethan and his mother from a house fire. For an added bonus, he catches the jerk who set it.
    • As Ellie, he saves a young girl who's been kidnapped by her abusive father and pushed into a river, then saves his handler from being shot by the kidnapper.
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: Several of the decades—50's, 60's, 80's—the vignettes take place in are well represented by the cars, clothing, and hairstyles.
  • Running Gag: Bailey's Corgi incarnation Tino and his owner develop a game where she asks him, "Do you know what I'm thinking?" He responds, always correctly, with some food item, "Pizza", "Ice cream", etc. It becomes a Tearjerker when she asks him this for what turns out to be the last time and he responds:
    "I'm thinking. . . I'm ready"
  • Sad Times Montage: Tino after the death of his dog friend, showing him sadly sitting by the window, looking for her, while the seasons pass and the children grow in the background, and Buddy, continually left outside in the cold, confused as to why his owner doesn't play with him or take him anywhere.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Ethan is still alive at the end of the film.
  • Truth in Television: One of Bailey's thoughts on football.
    "Everyone knows there's never been a game in the history of balls that can't be improved by having a dog in it."

Alternative Title(s): A Dogs Purpose