Dogs in Where the Red Fern Grows

Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

This lesson will explain how the dogs in the novel, ''Where the Red Fern Grows'' develop one of the main themes that demonstrates the relationship between man and dog.

The timeless image of a boy with his dog.
Boy Dog

Man's Best Friend

If you have ever owned a pet, you are probably aware of the intimacy and connection that a pet owner can feel. Their pets are often a comfort in rough times and provide unconditional love; a love that many of us have difficulty finding with other humans.

In the novel, Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls tells a story of a boy and his two dogs and develops a theme showing the importance of such a relationship. There are a few other dogs in the novel that are important in their own way, and help develop the theme.

A redbone coonhound, the breed of Old Dan and Little Ann.
hound

Buddy

When we first meet the protagonist, Billy, he is an adult who has happened upon a dog fight. Coincidentally, a coon hound comes home with him with a homemade nametag that reads, Buddy. After Billy takes care of Buddy, he sends him on his way because he knows that the dog will not be happy living in the suburbs with him. This interaction shows us that Billy has had firsthand experience with this particular breed.

This interaction is the precursor to the entire story of young Billy and his dogs Old Dan, and Little Ann. Billy states: 'Although the hound had no way of knowing it, he had stirred memories, and what priceless treasures they were...Memories of a wonderful love, unselfish devotion, and death in its saddest form.' It is here that we understand that the story is going to be tragic, but will tell us about the rare and unique love that Billy experienced with his dogs.

The Nighttime Hound

Young Billy loves hunting and wants two dogs to hunt with. He tries to persuade his parents to buy them for him, but the family does not have the money to do this. Billy has started to give up hope that he will ever get the dogs after asking his parents numerous times.

This is when he begins hearing a single coonhound baying outside every night during hunting season: 'Even on nights when I couldn't hear the hound, I couldn't sleep.' Billy stays awake to listen and worries that he will miss the baying if he falls asleep.

This single hound that haunts Billy is representative of his dream. To start, the hound is only heard at night, much like a dream. Also, this hound serves reminds Billy of his desired pups; had the hound not bayed outside of his window, Billy may have moved on to another object of desire. The hound reminds Billy of his obsession and gives him the determination to keep fighting.

Old Dan and Little Ann

Billy works hard and finally takes home two coonhound puppies, Old Dan and Little Ann. They are perfect foils of one another. A character foil is when two characters contrast one another to highlight certain character traits. Old Dan is very strong and brave while Little Ann is very smart and cautious.

Together, they make the perfect hunting pair. These characters are so entwined that they are described as one dog later in the novel and we find out that they cannot live separately from one another.

Loyalty is a common motif, or recurring idea in the novel that contributes to the theme. The two dogs are extremely loyal to one another. Old Dan even waits patiently for Little Ann to eat. Billy tells his grandfather: 'They've always been that way. They won't take anything away from each other, and everything they do, they do it as one.' This loyalty is also shown in the end when Little Ann perishes because she cannot live without Old Dan.

The dogs also represent loyalty to Billy, which demonstrates one of the central themes. He takes them everywhere and they will only hunt with him. In the end of the novel, they sacrifice themselves attacking a mountain lion for him: 'I never saw my dogs when they got between the lion and me, but they were there. Side by side, they rose up from the ground as one. They sailed straight into those jaws of death, their small, red bodies taking ripping, slashing claws meant for me.'

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