McKinley, a malamute, is a good dog -- he's reliable and trustworthy. Whether it's watching over the other dogs of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, or taking care of his human pup, Jack, McKinley never even thinks of letting anyone down -- until he meets Lupin. Lupin is a she-wolf and she's urging the dogs of Steamboat Springs to leave their domesticated lives and join her wild pack. And though she scares McKinley, he also finds himself drawn to her and the life of freedom that she offers. For the first time, McKinley's loyalties are torn. Should he stay with his humans and continue to lead the dogs of Steamboat Springs? Or should he join the wolf and live freely, like his ancestors did? When the wild calls, what will McKinley's answer be?
McKinley had been sleeping in the front yard bushes. Hearing the familiar voice, he lifted his head and looked around with sleepy eyes. He was just in time to see Jack, his human pup, skid so fast on his mountain bike that gravel scattered everywhere. The boy leaped off the bike, raced across the place where the cars sat, and ran into the house.
Now what? McKinley wondered.
Though he would have liked to sleep more, McKinley stood, yawned, stretched his muscles until they were tight, then relaxed them until they were loose. Shaking his head, he jangled his collar tags, and then ambled toward the house.
By the time McKinley reached the door, it had already swung shut. As he had taught himself to do, he bent down, wedged a large forepaw where there was a gap beneath the door, extended his claws, and pushed. The door popped open a little.
Sticking his nose into the gap, McKinley shoved the door further open and squirmed inside. Once there, he sniffed. Smelling dinner, he trotted down the hallway, wagging his tail, till he heard Jack saying, "Dad, I'm not making it up, I really saw a wolf."
McKinley stopped short. His tail drooped. Was that the wolf word the boy had used?
When he was young -- Jack had also been much younger -- McKinley had spotted a wolf during a walk with his people. It was just a glimpse, but the people had seen it, too. They had become very excited, That's when McKinley learned the wolf word. He could recall the wolf's reek, a mix of deep woods, dark earth, and fresh meat. Its wildness had frightened him. And excited him. But that was a long time ago.
Wide awake now, McKinley hurried past the large room and into the small food place.
Jack was talking to the man of the family. Sometimes the man was called Dad, sometimes Gil. McKinley liked him and the way he always smelled of the outdoors.
"Now, hang on, Jack." the man said. "You sure it wasn't just a big old German shepherd? They can look a lot like a wolf."
McKinley stood still, his head cocked. There it was again, the wolf word.
"No way, Dad " the human pup answered. "You know how much I've read about wolves. I'm sure this was one. I mean, yeah, at first I thought it was McKinley. But it wasn't."
Wanting to understand more, McKinley jumped onto one of the sitting places near where the humans put their food when they ate. Mouth slightly open, tail wagging, he sat, turning from the pup to the man as each spoke.
"I'm not saying you're wrong," the man said. "Just, if you're right, it's pretty amazing. Hasn't been a wolf sighted around here for years. Remember the time we spotted one up in the Zirkel Wilderness? But not here in Steamboat Springs."
McKinley saw Jack look around. "Where's Mom?"
At the mention of Jack's female -- the boy called her Mom, the man called her Sarah -- McKinley barked once. The woman spent time on Most Cars Way in a place where there was lots of food, and often brought him treats -- like bones.
Gil said, "She has to work the dinner shift. So it'll be just you and me tonight. Sausages and carrots. And your mom made bread. Now keep talking as you set the table."
Jack A but threw down his eating sticks and tall, clear bowls as he chattered. I was a little scared," he was saying. "I mean, that wolf redly surprised me. I think I surprised him, too."
The human pup poured water for himself and the man into the tall bowls, then thumped down onto the sitting place. McKinley edged closer to the boy.
"Here's grub," "the man said as he brought food to the boy and sat across from him. "And I'm starving."
McKinley, eyeing the food, drooled and licked his own nose.
"I was marking trail up by Rabbit Ears Pass all day," the man said. "Fair amount of snow up there already. Promises a good season."
"Hear that, McKinley?" Jack cried. "Snow is coming!"
Snow, a word McKinley knew and loved. He barked in appreciation.
"But go on," the man said to the pup. "Tell me exactly what you saw."
Jack spoke between mouthfuls. "See -- the wolf had this thick, gray fur coat -- with sort of flecks of gold. His head was wide -- his muzzle was light colored -- and I think he had a limp."
"Was he bigger than McKinley?"
Jack turned toward him. McKinley, wishing the human pup would calm down and speak slower, leaned over and licked his face.
"A lot skinnier," Jack said, wiping his cheek with the back of a hand. "Longer legs, too. Gray fur. Not blackish."
"You didn't see a collar, did you?"
"Describe his eyes."
McKinley watched closely as Jack swallowed the last of the sausage. "Not, you know, brown and round like McKinley's. Like, sort of yellowish. And, you know, egg-shaped."
The man reached for his tall bowl and drank. Then he said, "Well, that's certainly wolflike. Where'd you see him?"
"Up in Strawberry Park."
McKinley yawned with nervousness. Strawberry Park was a small valley outside of Steamboat Springs. It was hemmed in by forested hills, and beyond, by snow-peaked mountains. Looming over everything was the great mountain, where most of the humans did their snow sliding.
There were only a few houses in the area, and the dogs who lived there ran completely free. McKinley was head dog there as well as in town.
"What were you doing there?" Gil asked.
Jack shrugged. "School was out. I was exploring."
"McKinley with you?"
Jack gave his dog a quick smile. "Wish he was."
Liking the attention, McKinley barked.
"Hey, how about feeding him his dinner?"
"McKinley, I'm sorry!"
The pup leaped up.
McKinley watched as jack snatched his food bowl from the floor, then reached into a food box. The boy put some bits into the bowl, added water, and set it back on the ground. As a final touch, he placed two dog biscuits on top.
McKinley wagged his tail, jumped off the sitting place, and went for the wet food, gulping down the biscuits first.
"Jack," Gil said, "if that was a wolf -- and I'm not saying it wasn't -- there are going to be lots of people in town stirred up. Generally speaking, folks don't like wolves."
McKinley stopped eating to look around. There it was again, the wolf word.
"I know, Dad," Jack said. "People say wolves are mean and vicious. They aren't. Look at McKinley."
"McKinley is a malamute," Gil said. "Not a wolf."
"Part wolf," Jack insisted.
"Well, maybe so, way back. Not now. Look Jack, the point is, this is still ranching country. If people learn there's a wolf nearby, some of them will be wanting to hunt it down. Kill it. I'm serious, Jack. Since you like wolves, be smart. Don't let anybody know what you saw"
The words hunt and kill unsettled McKinley. Hunting was not something that Jack's family did. But there were many humans in town -- and their dogs -- who hunted. For McKinley it meant danger. just the sense of it made him bark.
McKinley is one lucky dog! He spends his days roaming freely around Steamboat Springs, Colorado, but at night he can return to his warm and loving home with Jack and his parents. And McKinley is lead dog in Steamboat Springs, respected for his strength, wisdom, and charisma. But McKinley’s world is turned upside down when a she-wolf comes to town and tries to convince the dogs to join her pack. Suddenly McKinley’s leadership is challenged by another dog, and his friends are in danger. And something deep within him responds to the she-wolf and the wild life of freedom she offers. Publishers Weekly notes, “Themes reminiscent of Jack London’s Call of the Wild ring throughout this vividly imagined animal story.”
1. In The Good Dog, Avi creates an alternate world for dogs, with rules, traditions, and phrases all its own. What are some of the differences between dog life and human life? Do these canine details add to or detract from the story?
2. McKinley feels a sense of ownership for Jack and his family, yet humans traditionally feel that they own dogs. Who do you think is right? Can it be a partnership? What does each party bring to the relationship? What is Lupin’s view of “ownership”?
3. Describe McKinley’s first meeting with Lupin. Why is McKinley so quick to show submission to the wolf? How do you think their meeting would have been different if other dogs had been present?
4. McKinley goes to great lengths to protect and save Lupin. Why does he do this? Does he expect anything in return for his actions? Do you think Lupin is grateful for what he does? Why or why not?
5. Lupin feels very strongly that a life of freedom in the wild is far superior to the life of a domesticated dog. What are some of the pros and cons of each lifestyle? In what ways does Lupin’s outsider status endanger her life? Is survival worth the compromises that must be made?
6. Aspen is McKinley’s best friend. Why do they get along so well? Who is the “lead dog” in their relationship, and why do you think this?
7. Discuss the social structure within McKinley’s pack. What benefits do dogs in the lower levels of the hierarchy—like Tubbs—receive from being part of the group? In what ways is this similar to human society and in which ways is it different?
8. Which of McKinley’s characteristics qualify him for the position of lead dog? Does Redburn have the right to challenge his status? Should McKinley continue to hold the position?
Activities and Research
1. The name “Lupin” comes from a Latin word. Research these origins and find other words that come from this same root. Try to determine if the other names in the story have deeper meanings too.
2. In the story the dogs navigate their neighborhood by using common sights, smells, and characteristics (Horse Smell Way, Most Cars Way, Howl Hill). Draw a map of your neighborhood using these sorts of descriptive labels.
3. Write a report on wolves. Include their habitats, their habits, how their population has changed over the years, and any other interesting information you find.
4. Choose an animal, or perhaps even an inanimate object, and create an imagined world for them as Avi does for the dogs in his story. Keep in mind what sort of environment your animal would be in, and interpret the world and the actions of humans through their perspective.
5. Read other books or stories that contain wolves. Some good ones to try are The Call of the Wild, Julie of the Wolves, or The Jungle Book.
6. Research the evolution of dogs. How did they become domesticated?
7. In the story Duchess is abused by her owner and runs away. We have organizations that try to protect and help dogs that are in similar situations. Tour a humane society or animal shelter in your community. Consider helping the animals by doing some volunteer work.
About the Author
Avi lives with his family in Denver, Colorado, and knows Steamboat Springs well. The Good Dog is alive with the weather and the sights and smells of the mountains. The author’s other novels include two Newbery Honor Books, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing but the Truth; S. O. R. Losers; Bright Shadow; Blue Heron; The Christmas Rat, which was called “thrilling, mysterious, and suspenseful” by School Library Journal in a starred review; and the Tales from Dimwood Forest series, the first book of which, Poppy, won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Avi is the author of more than seventy books for children and young adults, including the 2003 Newbery medal winner Crispin: The Cross of Lead. He has won two Newbery Honors and many other awards for his fiction. He lives with his family in Denver, Colorado. Visit him at Avi-Writer.com.