High school junior Ben McDowell doesn't fit in anywhere, not at school and not with his family. He thinks that if he only knew how to talk to girls, he'd be able to get a reasonably attractive girlfriend and win the respect of his wrestling teammates. But his family doesn't make it easy. His mother Diane communicates more openly with Rosie the dog than with him. His older brother Johnny is autistic and has OCD. And his younger sister Elizabeth and his father Keith have their own problems.
Dogs Don't Talk contains examples of:
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Ben wonders if this is why his douchey wrestling teammate, Blake Barker, is so popular with girls.
- Annoying Younger Sibling: Elizabeth, who's two years younger than Ben, is a huge tattletale.
- Baby's First Words: Johnny's were "She loves you, yeah, yeah," sung perfectly on key, at about age six.
- Ban on Politics: Keith has to be banned from discussing politics at family gatherings, since he's very conservative and some of his relatives are very liberal.
- Black Sheep: Keith's sister Monica was a rebellious feminist in The '70s and told her mother during a particularly nasty argument about abortion, "You were never a mother to me!" As an adult, she's never invited to any family gatherings besides funerals, and she's the only one of Keith's five siblings Ben hasn't met.
- Character Tics: Johnny grunts, flaps his arms, rocks back and forth to music, and jumps when he's happy.
- First Friend: As a young child in Oakwood, Texas, Ben's best friend was a boy named Travis. They used to pretend to be Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, even though they were too young to read the book. Their friendship ended because Ben's mom didn't approve of Travis's other friend's meanness towards Johnny.
- Holding Both Sides of the Conversation: Diane talks to Rosie this way, saying Rosie's lines in a Southern accent.
- Instant Humiliation: Just Add YouTube!: Ben finally has had enough of Blake's bullying and beats him up. Then Diane and their two dogs show up, and the dogs start climbing all over Blake. A girl films the fight and uploads it to Facebook, resulting not only in comments like "Blake likes it doggy style!" but also in both boys getting in trouble with the principal.
- Kitschy-Themed Restaurant: Sergeant's, which is decorated with pictures of sergeants from old TV shows.
- Long-Distance Relationship: Ben and Emily attempt one for a few months after she's moved, but in the end she breaks it off, saying they need to move on without each other.
- Military Brat: Emily's dad is a Marine. Her family Really Moves Around very irregularly, sometimes staying in one place for only a few months. She copes by sticking her nose in a book. Just as she's starting a relationship with Ben, she's moved again.
- Over-the-Shoulder Carry: Ben does this to Blake Barker during their fight.
- Poster-Gallery Bedroom: Elizabeth's room is covered in dance posters.
- Sir Swears-a-Lot: Philip, one of the boys in Johnny's autism classroom, used to swear constantly and say that everything was fucked up. The teacher, Ms. Smith, taught him to say that everything stinks instead, to his mother's great relief.
- Speaks In Shoutouts: Most of Johnny's speech consists of song lyrics, mostly by the Beatles.
- Title Drop: When Diane is pretending to speak for Rosie, Ben says, "Dogs don't talk, Mom." Diane insists, "Rosie does."
- Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Diane spent years in denial about Johnny's autism, convinced that his silence meant he was a genius like Einstein. After he was diagnosed, he spent years in therapy meant to "fix" him, as Diane believed he could potentially be normal.