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Literature / A Dog's Purpose

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A Dog's Purpose is a 2010 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 Hannah's granddaughter, Clarity ("CJ"), and realizes that his purpose may not yet be fulfilled after all. Another sequel, A Dog's Promise, was released in 2019.

There are also a series of children's books themed around the puppy days of the protagonist's lives.

A film adaptation starring Dennis Quaid and the voice of Josh Gad was released on January 27, 2017, by Universal and Amblin Entertainment. A film adaptation of A Dog's Journey came out May 17, 2019 to less fanfare.

Compare to A Dog's Way Home, a similar book and Live-Action Adaptation also written by W. Bruce Cameron that stars a dog named Bella as she tries to get back home.

The books provide examples of:

  • 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.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: The first portion of the book isn't dated. The other parts include tidbits here and there such as references to the space race or mentioning it's almost the new millenium, but the time Toby lived is ambiguous. It's presumably in the 1950s or 1960s.
  • 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.
  • Big Damn Reunion: To Bailey's immense joy, he manages to find and reunite with an elderly Ethan while he's a different dog.
  • Bizarre Beverage Use: Bailey gets sprayed by a skunk and his owners wash him with tomato juice twice.
  • Canine Confusion: Zigzagged in A Dog's Journey; Clarity gives her dog Molly lots of ice cream bars, pizza, and cookies and Molly doesn't have any ill effects, but she does vomit after she eats moldy cheese (Clarity assumed dogs can eat almost anything).
  • 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 Lazy: Bailey frequently complains that cats are useless, lazy creatures without any purpose.
  • 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.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Clarity is not fond of her given name for obvious reasons and prefers to go by her initials CJ instead.
  • 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.
  • First Period Panic: A dog counterpart. Bailey is reincarnated into a female dog named Ellie. Having always been male before, and having always been neutered as a puppy, she has no clue what her heat is. She just thinks it's a gross, uncomfortable scent. Ellie never does learn what heat is, because she's spayed afterwards.
  • Free-Range Pets: Bailey is allowed to go walk around town by himself all day. Averted with Buddy, who people take notice of when he appears at the dog park without an owner. This also likely counts as Deliberate Values Dissonance, as the two events take place decades apart.
  • Heroic BSoD: 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 therefore 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 a lot 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.
  • It's All About Me: Gloria, CJ's mother. She never quite seems to understand or care that other people have feelings and that they matter except in relation to getting what she wants.
  • Karma Houdini: Gloria lives to be an astoundingly ripe old age, implied to be in her eighties or nineties, and CJ even kindly puts her in a good hospice center so she can have a good end to her life without pain, which she most certainly doesn't deserve. The only slight comeuppance she gets is having dementia but all it does is enhance the traits that already made her such a heinous, bitter bitch throughout the whole book already.
  • Love Dodecahedron: The brothers in the third book engage in this to an almost comic degree. They keep dating and falling in love with the same women, breaking up with them, and dating them again. One of them even lampshades this as he points out the ridiculousness of the situation. By the end of the book, it's all resolved, but not before a lot of do-see-doing with their several partners has already been done.
  • Mature Animal Story: A Dog's Purpose is about a dog with Past-Life Memories as it goes through several reincarnations. It's predominantly clean but does contain some sex references, some violence, and dark themes. The film is Lighter and Softer than the book. The book's sequel A Dog's Journey ramps everything up with eating disorders and suicidal characters being present. Both books have Lighter and Softer kid's spinoffs focusing on protagonist's puppyhoods.
  • 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.
  • Not His Blood: Bailey bites Todd after he sets fire to his house and gets covered in his blood. The cops initially think Bailey got injured but they soon notice it's not his blood. Todd's Revealing Injury gets him arrested.
  • A Pet into the Wild: Briefly in his fourth life, the protagonist is kicked out of his home and becomes a stray. The book deconstructs the trope by portraying it as anything but fun. He becomes a starving Broken Bird but ultimately reunites with a now-elderly Ethan.
  • Pets as a Present: Deconstructed; A man surprises his girlfriend Wendi with a puppy when their relationship is on the rocks. Wendi's lease doesn't allow for pets, so she has to keep Bear a secret. She's also clueless about how to raise a puppy. Wendi ended up giving Bear to her parents when he grew too big for her. Her parents abused and neglected Bear, ultimately releasing him onto the streets when they didn't want to deal with him anymore.
  • 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 many times throughout each book. By the end of "A Dog's Promise", it also turns out humans can do this as well, as Bailey's machinations with the family he's focused on allow Ethan, his master from the first book, to be reincarnated as a new baby at the end of the book as well.
  • Reincarnated as the Opposite Sex: 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.
  • Seen It All: By the end of "A Dog's Journey", Bailey has been through so many lives and experienced so much he's completely zen. Nothing surprises or makes him react with extreme emotion. It's because of this trait the nuns realize he's the perfect therapy dog for those in hospice.
  • Shipper on Deck: Bailey is one for Ethan & Hannah and then Trent & CJ in the sequel.
  • The Sociopath: Todd from the first book might be one. There is something about the kid. He tortures animals and sets fires, which are two of the three main criteria that fit serial killers in their childhood. He also shows Disproportionate Retribution, trying to kill a whole family by setting their home on fire simply because of how he and Ethan butt heads.
    • Gloria is implied to be one in the second. Her one goal in life is to get what she wants when she wants it and she doesn't care who she has to step on to get it. This sadly includes her own daughter CJ. Her treatment of her includes emotional abuse like leaving her alone at home as a child for days at a time and spending the entire trust fund that had been set up to help CJ on frivolous things like cruises and designer clothes.
  • Tomato Skunk Stink Cure: While out at Ethan's grandparents farm, Bailey meets a skunk for the first time and gets sprayed. He's bathed with tomato juice and isn't allowed inside the house for a few days. Not recognizing the skunk as the reason for the smell, he nears her again and gets sprayed a second time. After being bathed again, Bailey realizes that maybe he should stay away from skunks for now on.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: When "A Dog's Promise" is set, though it's downplayed to show the realism of the setting by having it mostly just be advanced tech that's mentioned. There's technology advanced enough to fix a boy's condition which was described as being one which would have permanently kept him in a wheelchair in previous decades. There's also a lot of advanced tech for farmers to get bigger and better harvests without needing to expend as much time, effort, or hire as many people as before.
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): A Dogs Journey