Almost every apocalyptic story you can think of features a dog as a key element in the story. In One Second After, a pair of dogs needs food, just like the people struggling to survive. In Oryx and Crake, the evolved equivalent of dogs have adapted to changing circumstances. In I Am Legend, The Dog Stars, and The Wall, a dog provides the only companionship the main character has. And in The Man Who Watched The World End, a dog gives the main character reminders of life before the apocalypse. So, why are there so many dogs in end-of-the-world stories? The answer is that they have benefits from both the reader’s perspective and the writer’s.
For the reader, dogs act as a sort of anchor, a reminder that while the main character may have lost the world around them and everyone they love, they haven’t lost their humanity as long as the family pet is still there. It’s a way of allowing readers to connect with the character because even if the apocalypse has occurred, the protagonist still loves his/her dog like we all love our pets. It makes the character more human, more relatable.
This is critical because no matter how bleak the scenario in the apocalyptic setting, no matter if the story can’t have a happy ending, the relationship of the protagonist and their dog brings the entire story back to something simpler and more pure. Zombies or a plague are causing human extinction? The author provides a scene of the main character talking to their dog, taking care of their dog, etc., and then the next time the scene switches back to the cause of the apocalypse, it seems even more horrific because you’ve just seen the innocence of man’s best friend. The reader becomes more invested in the struggle by way of seeing the core innocence of the animal.
For the writer, the dog gives them a chance to use dialogue with a character who might otherwise be all alone in the world. With this approach, it doesn’t matter that the animal can’t talk back. The author can convey thoughts/ideas/moods by “showing” them in the things the main character says to the dog. Without the dog there, the writer would either have to come up with a much more complicated way to offer this stuff, thus slowing the story down, or else just “tell” it.
Authors can use dogs as a tool to make the next plot point arrive (think of a dog running outside and the main character having to sacrifice his/her own safety by chasing after it), or let the audience know exactly what the main character is thinking without switching perspectives (think of a main character explaining their situation to his dog), or the author can have a dog add suspense to a scene by having it be more adept than its owner (think of a dog growling after getting a sniff of something it considers to be a threat while the owner is still oblivious).
For as long as there have been stories about the apocalypse, there have been dogs in those stories. And now you know why. Man’s best friend gives the reader a more relatable story and it gives the author a way to tell the story more effectively.
*Originally posted in the ‘Apocalypse Whenever’ Group on GoodReads.*