There's a great Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson about what we name our dogs "Rex," for instance and what dogs name themselves: "Tybor Stalker of Cats" or "Queen Thickfur of the Stained Rug." Larson is making an important point: as much as we think we know about our domesticated companions, a lot remains hidden. I think children's author Avi would agree. Certainly his new novel The Good Dog reflects this belief.

Avi tells the story of McKinley, a malamute who is sheriff, mayor and psychologist all rolled into one to the canines of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He's also "raising a human pup" named Jack and protecting the boy's family. McKinley's world is changed forever when a she-wolf named Lupin comes from the mountains in search of recruits for her decimated pack, and he's faced with some hard choices. Should he stay or should he go? And if he stays, how will he handle the threat that Lupin presents to his town? When an abused greyhound escapes his master to join Lupin, McKinley must somehow find a way to balance the good of the pack, the fear (and respect) he feels for Lupin and the responsibility he has for his human companions.

On the premise that dogs probably know more than we think, Avi has crafted a detailed and realistic world for his characters. McKinley and the other dogs in this story have a simple grasp of some (but not all) of what the humans around them are saying, and consequently the dogs' understanding of why humans do what they do is limited. This can be amusing, like the dogs' concept of garbage trucks as being human donations of food to one another. Within the dogs' own world, the rituals that humans are familiar with marking territory, howling and submission all take on new meanings. The Good Dog also reveals parts of a dog's life that humans generally aren't privy to, like the animals' secret nighttime gatherings.

Avi sustains a balance in his tale. He doesn't present Lupin's life in the wild as superior to McKinley's existence as a domesticated animal. When Lupin is wounded, McKinley helps her in the only way he knows using man-things. Though superior to McKinley in a canine sense, Lupin is definitely out of her element in the human world, and she comes to respect McKinley as a result.

Young readers will find The Good Dog intriguing. Avi has won two Newberry Medals, and it's easy to see why.

James Neal Webb has a 13-year-old Keeshond.

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