In this guest article, animal behaviorist and author Amy Shojai examines the peril novelists face if one of their murder victims has four legs.
I’m a dog lover (and a cat lover) and I adore reading fiction that includes unique pet characters or animal plots interwoven in a creative and believable way. But don’t you dare, kill the dog…or I’m liable to lob that book into a dumpster and cross you off my TBR list. And I’m not alone.
My perspective isn’t purely emotional, either. As a certified animal behavior consultant, I deal every day with pet owners who desperately need help understanding and solving their pet peeves. I address these issues directly in my nonfiction pet books, and in my thrillers, animal behavior remains intrinsic to the plot.
My September Day thriller series features an animal behaviorist and her service dog Shadow, a German Shepherd Dog with his own viewpoint chapters. Both September and Shadow go through hell. Shadow even has his own story arc and has such a presence, the series would die should he become a victim of the antagonist. There are other animal characters introduced peripherally, along with veterinary or animal welfare plots, and in the real world, I know all too well bad things happen.
Including pets can be lazy writing
Killing pet characters is a furry line I won’t cross, not just because it hurts my heart. It can be bad business, and too often is simply a lazy shortcut to demonstrate the antagonist’s level of “evil.” At the other extreme, writers may be advised to give their hero a pet to make the protagonist more likeable.
Honestly, I have to argue that it’s not owning the pet, but the relationship with that animal (or any other character) that makes the hero likeable or the antagonist unlikeable and unsympathetic. A pet character in a story opens an opportunity to show a relationship, and that, indeed, will broaden a character’s depth and the reader’s engagement.
But when pets are used as a prop, interjected simply as a label like “red headed killer” or “dog loving taxi driver” or the tired old ploy “serial killer starts by killing pets,” there’s no relationship. You want that relationship, so readers care, and good writers ensure that readers are vested in what happens to their story characters including the pets. Killing the pet, however, after the reader becomes emotionally invested, betrays the reader’s trust in a horrific way. Done purely for shock or as a shortcut, killing pets in novels is a cheap shot pet-loving readers rarely forgive. Here’s why.
Why killing pets backfires
Today, pets are considered to be members of the family, in some cases surrogate children. Just as many readers become offended by fiction that details “on-stage” murder/mayhem directed at children, so too, are they offended by the same directed toward pets.
Children—and by extension, pet surrogates—are considered innocents. Readers feel more emotionally vested in rooting for those who have no means to defend themselves. Human adults can run away, call for help, drive a car at the attacker, steal/shoot a gun. Dogs come wagging up to the bad guy expecting a cookie or scratch behind the ear, and instead are betrayed—and the human reader who loves pets gets that.
Put yourself in their paws
In my “real life” world, I see more than enough of the horrors and heartbreak surrounding pets. I suspect that a goodly portion of the 79.7 million plus pet lovers in this country, representing 65 percent of households, have their own personal stories of sad pet endings, and aren’t interested in reading about them for escapist entertainment. That’s a sore spot with pet lovers, and there’s a bunch of us who love to read. So if authors wish to connect with this segment of the reading public, simply be aware of what reaction your “kill the dog” scene may create.
In my third thriller, Show and Tell, the plot revolves around dogfighting and the horrors that involves. It’s my mission, in both my nonfiction and thrillers, to edu-tain my readers about all-things-pets. I’ve managed to do that, covering issues of autism, children and off-label drugs, without ever killing the dog…or kid or a cat. After all, September and Shadow have many more adventures to come!
Amy Shojai is a nationally known authority on pet care and behavior, a certified animal behavior consultant, a spokesperson for the pet products industry and the author of more than 30 nonfiction pet books. She also writes the mystery series, Thrillers with Bite, including the dog-viewpoint thrillers Lost and Found, Hide and Seek and the just-released, Show and Tell.
Shojai addresses a wide range of fun-to-serious issues in her work, covering dog and cat training, behavior, natural and allopathic health care, nutrition, first aid, aging pets, “the bond” and cutting-edge medical topics. Her nonfiction books have received more than three dozen awards.
She has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and in USA Weekend, The New York Times, Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, Woman’s World, and many other newspapers and magazines. She has also been a featured pet care expert on Animal Planet Dogs 101, Cats 101, Petsburgh USA/Disney Channel program, Good Day New York, Fox News: Pet News, NBC Today Show, WGN-Chicago “Pet Central,” “Animal Planet Radio” and many others.