Your Character and Their Dog

I originally wrote this for our Dog Week last summer, but our attempt to get that theme week going didn’t really work out. However, I think there’s something to this, so now that I found this in the drafts, I thought I’d flesh it out a bit and publish it. So, here goes…

I encountered this situation in Hyde Park last year. I was walking through it when I saw two women. One of them had two unleashed dogs running around playfully. The other had one unleashed dog following her intently at a set distance to her. Of course, the other two dogs tried to get this dog to participate in their games, being social animals, and the dog did, for a second, before its owner said sternly something in the lines of “Princess, that’s not like you”, and the dog returned to its spot meekly.

My reaction to this was a bunch of different emotions, but mostly I found it funny and disturbing at the same time. Of course, the dog was named ‘Princess’. What else could it possibly be? The situation just tells you so much about the person and what she thinks of her dog. To her, Princess isn’t a real living thing. She’s an accessory meant to communicate how well-poised the owner is. Princess doesn’t get to play, because her owner needs to tell the world how dignified she is.

Why don’t animal cruelty laws stop things like this? Probably because it would be too hard to define in a meaningful way, but still, one would hope people like this wouldn’t have pets. Or kids, come to think of it.

Now, due to allergies and there being enough living things in our family anyhow, we didn’t have dogs when I was a kid. Come to think of it, not many people around did either. Maybe this is a function of living in a pretty poor area, because owning a dog isn’t cheap. Still, according to the Finnish kennel owner’s association, one quarter of Finns live with a dog and about a half of all the people over 30 used to at some point in their lives. In the US, according to AVMA, over a third of all people live with a dog and quite a few have more than (the average number being 1.6).

How many characters I’ve had have owned a dog or dogs? Well, there must have been others, but I can remember one. Out of how many over almost three decades of roleplaying? I have no idea, but it must be hundreds of characters. No matter what the actual number is, its not really representative of the actual number of dogowners in the world.

Of course, one might say that the circumstances of many of my characters have been such that pet ownership isn’t something they can really do. While this is true in many cases, as many characters travel a lot or are otherwise engaged throughout their lives. On the other hand, dogs have been a great tool for humankind for thousands of years. So, why don’t more of my characters, or characters in general, have dogs?

One reason is that in many games they are sort of fragile resources. You want your characters to have resources that are easily renewable and, depending on the system, scale well with the threats the character will face. I haven’t really played D&D since the second edition, but from what I’ve heard, these things have been addressed, but since that system and its ilk, where strategy is emphasized, are not really my thing, I’d rather talk about how you can use that dog to show something about your character.

Is your hunter always stern, but fair with the dogs? Does your innkeeper let his little terrier, he keeps to catch rats, eat off the same platter? Does your impoverished noble lady still keep her dead father’s pack of hounds around? Does your housewife keep up appearances by teaching her dog to do it for her?

Whatever the case, dogs are so integral to our society, the way you treat a dog is going to tell a lot about your character. There’s an old trick in fiction: Let your bad guy pet a dog and everyone knows they have a softer side as well. On the other hand, if your villain ever kicks a dog, its a clear message that they are irredeemably evil.

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Anyhow, there’s plenty of reasons your character might want a dog around. While they were originally domesticated for hunting purposes, Wikipedia lists the following uses for dogs, besides companionship:

  • power source by turning spits
  • draught animals pulling small loads
  • service dogs for handicapped, mostly the blind, but also people hard of hearing or with mobility problems
  • therapy
  • rescue, including situations you wouldn’t first think of, such as in the water or finding elderly people who have gone missing from their nursing homes
  • herding, as they can control pretty much any cattle and some wild animals as well (bulldogs were actually bred to control bulls)
  • pulling sleds
  • performing
  • guarding
  • tracking
  • finding bodies
  • detecting many biological or chemical hazards, but also drugs and explosives
  • immobilizing people
  • laying wires for the military
  • helping kids read (really, but actually the child just reads to the dog aloud, giving him confidence)

There are also uses not listed by Wikipedia, such as the previously mentioned ratting. Terriers fighting rats was actually a big source of entertainment back in the day. Rats were plentiful in cities and they would be put in pits with a dog that would kill as many of them as possible. Of course, dog fighting is still going on today, even though its illegal pretty much everywhere. They have often been status symbols as well. Manor houses in England used to have dozens of dogs, mostly just for company, but of course for hunting as well.

Many of these uses are great reasons for your character to own a dog or dogs, but I would still use them mainly for story reasons. Of course, they can be just strategic tools as well. They might provide flanking opportunities or just pin someone down.

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