Review: James Herriot’s Dog Stories

Like many children, I grew up absolutely obsessed with animals. I would happily have filled my room with a menagerie of furry, four-legged friends, but my terrible allergies and small urban living arrangements put an end to my Dr. Dolittle dreams.

One of my favourite means of filling the animal-shaped void in my life was through books, and few were as well-loved as the semi-autobiographical animal stories of James Herriot. Oh how I loved to explore the Yorkshire Dales with Herriot as he visited charmingly ornery farmers and sweet old cat ladies, treating sick cows, injured dogs and persnickety cats. Herriot’s short stories were filled with colourful characters and infused with real love, and were as likely to inspire laughter as they were tears.

Being part of a family of book-loving readers, most gift-giving occasions include the giving and receiving of books. My family exchanged Christmas presents before my partner and I left for Japan, and my parents gifted me a copy of James Herriot’s Dog Stories. 

“James Herriot’s Dog Stories is a very special curated collection of stories about dogs great and small, in which Herriot tells us about his own dogs and all the wonderful people and animals we have come to love so much.”

What a wonderful book. Herriot truly loved and deeply respected both the animals and humans he worked with, which shines through in each of the fifty stories in the collection. Herriot isn’t afraid to gently poke fun at some of the eccentric characters he interacts with, but he’s even happier to poke fun at himself, and shares both his failures and successes with equal honesty. Like any vet (or medical professional), for every miracle, there is a heartbreaking loss, and Herriot shares both with respect, warmth and love.

While there are plenty of hilarious and heartwarming stories, some of my favourites from the collection are in fact the heartbreakers, the tearjerking tales that are sure to melt even the hardest of hearts. In one story, for example, Herriot treats the elderly dogs of an elderly, invalid woman. The woman, who is nearing the end of her life, admits to Herriot that she’s worried that when she dies she won’t be reunited with her beloved companions, as she has been told that animals have no souls. Herriot’s response echoes what many of us animals lovers firmly believe:

” ‘Well I don’t believe it.’ I patted the hand which still grasped me. ‘If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans. You have nothing to worry about there'”

When the patient pushes Herriot to explain his own religious beliefs, he responds simply,

” ‘Miss Stubbs, I’m afraid I’m a bit foggy about all this,’ I said. ‘But I’m absolutely certain of one thing. Wherever you are going, they are going too.'”

The scene, which could easily become maudlin or emotionally manipulative, is handled with such respect, warmth and genuine care that it is instead deeply moving. The woman eventually passes away, and her beloved animals find a loving home with an owner who will cherish them until they too eventually pass on and are reunited with their mistress. It’s a simple story, beautifully told and quietly powerful.

Another deeply moving story features a young boy from a troubled family, who longs for stability and love but expresses his anger and hopelessness through acts of petty crime and vandalism. The boy is written off by the rest of the community as a bad kid, and a hopeless case. When the boy discovers an abandoned puppy, though, an entirely new aspect of his character is revealed, until a terrible tragedy strikes them both.

“As I closed the lid he screwed his knuckles into his eyes and his body shook. I put my arm across his shoulders, and as he leaned against me for a moment and sobbed I wondered if he had ever been able to cry like this – like a little boy with someone to comfort him.”

Though the story is ostensibly about a little puppy, it is even more about a little boy who is just as abandoned, and who is sadly allowed to fall between society’s cracks – “Nobody knew where he went and most people forgot about him.” Though the tale ends sadly, there is also the faintest glimmer of hope in the idea that no one is without merit, and that few people are naturally “bad eggs”, but are all too often let down by the world around them, and by the very people who are supposed to love and care for them. Having someone to love and who loves you, even if it’s an animal, can sometimes make all the difference.

While this collection of dog stories is perfectly suited to dog lovers, even those of us who are just mildly fond of dogs will find much here to appreciate and enjoy. The characters, the setting, the dialogue are all simply wonderful, and each short story provides a perfect momentary escape from the everyday. Highly, highly recommended.