What the Dog Saw is the story of a troubled boy as seen through the eyes of his ageing Labrador, Baxter. While there is much that Baxter sees that worries him, there are also moments of humour and joy.
Baxter loves playing with his boy and is always ready to listen to him, but he also worries about his boy, and wonders if even the loyalty and friendship of a Labrador will be enough to help him. Baxter’s observations provide a unique perspective on his boy’s battle with mental illness.
Doris Zagdanski (author of ‘Teenagers and Grief’ and ‘Now that the Funeral is Over’) –
Everybody who is sad, lonely and misunderstood needs a dog like Baxter, because ‘a dog always knows his boy, even if his boy doesn’t know himself’. This endearing story will make you smile, cry, think and learn. A must read! –
Valerie Volk (poet and author of In Due Season”, ‘Peaches’ and ‘Bystanders’) –
What the Dog Saw views from a surprising perspective a difficult topic – the suicide of a much-loved son. The approach is gentle and tender, without sentimentality. It offers a deeply moving way of opening the subject for discussion not only with younger people, but with anyone who wishes to understand and deal with the intense pain of such loss.
Dimity Knight (poet and author of “Joined at the Fingertips-poems about autism, family and surviving”) -November 30, 2017
Anyone who has ever had a dog as a pet will know the nature of this animal’s love: generous, unconditional, forgiving and loyal. Perhaps that is why the author of “What the Dog Saw”—Mark Worthing—chose a Labrador to be the narrator of his story. These aspects of love are consistently woven throughout this poignant, sometimes-funny, and deeply sad account of one special boy’s struggle with mental illness.
Worthing has written especially for adolescents and teens with the hope that it might create a context for processing the difficult and often tragic consequences of mental illness. He writes from personal experience as the father of the boy introduced to us by Baxter, the faithful Labrador.
The foreward warns the reader that although this book will take them on a journey that contains both humour and pain, it does not have a happy ending. It is recommended that parents and counselors understand the author’s intentions (recorded at the end of the book) before it is given to a young person to read. Worthing invites those who know what its like to be in a dark place to, ‘join a wise and compassionate old dog on a journey from light to darkness—and the first steps back to light again’.
The first half of the book introduces us to Baxter, his boy and the boy’s family who live in the idyllic setting of a small farm in the Adelaide Hills. Baxter whimsically recounts his experiences from the time he is rescued from a puppy farm, through the happy years when his boy is young, to the mounting struggles that torment the boy as he tries to navigate high school and the years beyond.
Chapters are brief and written in simple, clear language. I found it engaging as an adult and believe it would also engage young people. Worthing has cleverly created a non-judgmental perspective through giving the dog a voice. We learn about what matters to Baxter: peeing on tyres, eating almost anything, sniffing out interesting smells, but most of all, spending time with his boy, listening to him talk about his joys and dreams, frustration and sadness. At the end of each chapter, Baxter summarises what he has learned from his experience, e.g. when the boy teaches him how to herd chickens (a rather humiliating experience for the noble creature), Baxter concludes: ‘Having skills is good. Having skills that are actually useful is even better’.
Through Baxter’s eyes we get to know his boy, who has a tender, kind heart, and is a talented photographer and cartoonist. We are drawn into the deep attachment that Baxter and his boy have to each other. But the boy, driven by voices in his head, has difficulty controlling his rage. When the police ban the boy from living on the farm and he is moved from pillar to post, spending periods of time in hospitals, rejected from one accommodation to another on account of his behavior, detained for four months in a prison “cage” and finally left homeless, Baxter concludes, ‘everyone should have a safe, dry place to sleep,’ and ‘no one belongs in a cage. Not puppies. Not boys.’
Baxter is curious when his boy comes back to the farm and moves into a caravan. For a while they are all happier. But then the rage reappears and a terrible event occurs. The boy’s suicide is addressed indirectly as Baxter watches the family’s reactions, people coming over with meals and flowers, a visit to the cemetery and participating in a memorial tree-planting. It does not end with the boy’s death, but rather with evidence of grieving and healing, and a new bond forged between Baxter and the boy’s younger brother, who, ‘help each other continue to live and embrace life—together’.
The impression I get when I read What the Dog Saw, is that the unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness and devotion exemplified by Baxter is a projection of the boy’s family’s love for their son and brother. Their grief is exquisitely expressed in a poem at the end of the book, “First Night”.
I highly recommend this book. It would be an invaluable resource for anyone working in areas of grief counseling, mental illness, youth and family support, or psychology.