Alistair MacLeod Short Story: Winter Dog (1981)

As MacLeod has proven before in his stories, he does not shy away from the harsh realities of life. And, as Marcie has already pointed out, Winter Dog is not an easy story to read. But there are so many great reasons you should read it anyway.

Like the tender telling of the excited children playing in the snow. The first snow of the year and they are up before the sun because they can’t wait to get out in it. “They are half crazed by the promise of Christmas, and the discovery of the snow is an unexpected giddy surprise.” The narrator–their father–tries to shush them so as not to wake the baby, but they reply that the baby is already awake and that she’s happily listening to their singing.

As the narrator watches them out the window, he sees the neighbouring dog run over to play with them, reminding him of the dog he had as a boy, long ago in Cape Breton – the one that saved his life. This dog, that his family had ordered specially from Ontario to help on the farm, was said to be “worse than nothing”, because he often damaged the livestock as he tried to herd them. But to the narrator he was not “worse than nothing.” As he thinks about his present concerns–the illness of a loved one far to the east and the possibility of having to travel in the bad weather–he remembers that “Had I not been saved by the golden dog, I would not have these tight concerns, or children playing in the snow or, of course, these memories.”

And now, as the sun comes up, he watches his children play in the newly fallen snow with the neighbour’s dog: “He [the dog] sits quietly and watches the playful scene before him and then, as if responding to a silent invitation, bounds into its midst.” A very happy scene indeed.

Photo by Naomi Salome on

13 thoughts on “Alistair MacLeod Short Story: Winter Dog (1981)

  1. wadholloway says:

    I’ve read yours and Marcie’s reviews and this is obviously a powerful story. But, it just feels so old fashioned. The noble animal. Man surviving a hostile bush. Tropes Australian (male) writers have done to death – though I’m willing to accept, not half as well. Even in a North American context you have to think Jack London has already done this.

    • Marcie McCauley says:

      I think the way that MacLeod’s version of this story stands out is that the bulk of the pain resides in the boy and his backward-glance of understanding. It feels like a story about responsibility (the boy’s) rather than heroism? I know the stories you mean though, I think they’ve likely lodged in my mind and affected me more than I’d’ve guessed….

      • wadholloway says:

        The hundred or so books I owned and read and reread over the course of my childhood, are firmly lodged in my mind and so of course must be a part, maybe even an important part, of the intertext as I read now 50 or 60 years later.

    • Naomi says:

      I can see why it might sound that way, but I found it more to be about memories and how the past is connected to the present and future.
      But, you’re right, it does feel old-fashioned. That’s one of the things I like about his writing. Also, he wrote it in 1981, which doesn’t *seem* very long ago – but I was only 6 years old!

  2. madamebibilophile says:

    I’m always wary of a story with an animal in it. I can’t take any trauma! Despite the lovely passages you’ve highlighted I think I’ll have to skip this. I do want to read more MacLeod though.

    • Naomi says:

      You do have to be careful with some of his stories if you’re trying to avoid animal sadness – they’re so grounded in reality.

  3. annelogan17 says:

    Aww this sounds so lovely – the stillness of it all. I’ve never had a dog so I could stomach a story like this, I don’t think I’d get too emotional.

  4. Marcie McCauley says:

    It’s funny, but I feel as though each of us had the opposite kind of reaction to this story and to the one about the Christmas presents (which I thought was much more beautiful than painful, overall, in that reading moment, but possibly not in another reading moment). Maybe that’s one of his strengths, the capacity to put all those emotions into the story, so we can pull on the parts we need in a single given reading?

    • Naomi says:

      I think, too, it has a lot to do with our own experiences. That winter-y scene at the beginning of the story stands out to me because it’s so familiar. Much more familiar than almost being lost in a snow storm with a dog. I didn’t ever have an experience like that.

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