Nine year-old Chance Watson is lying, cheating, stealing, and flunking out of school. Then, one night, a wonderful, magical sheepdog appears and promises to make his dreams come true, if he can follow “The Rules.”
Soon, with the help of his talking, sometimes invisible dog, Chance has changed his life and the lives of many of the students at his school. But there are those who are out to stop him and prove his furry friend is not real, but only a figment his imagination! Even Chance begins to wonder: is he crazy?
Six-year-old Abby is worried about her first day at school tomorrow, so her teenaged brother tells her a story. “It’s a little sad and scary to start, but then it gets magical and fun and wonderful! And it’s absolutely true…”
Nine year-old Chance Watson’s mom is at home, dying. His father, needing to escape the pressure one night, flees the house, leaving Chance, “in charge.” Chance falls asleep, and during that time his mother passes. He is wracked with guilt for having fallen asleep and blames his father for not being there. His father, torn apart by the loss and his son’s anger, withdraws into himself. The two of them are barely speaking.
When neighbors realize that Chance hasn’t eaten in days, they contact Social Services, blaming the father. While Jenny Johnson, the nice lady who works for Child Protection, checks out his dad, Chance is sent to live with his grandparents in a small town. But all is not well in paradise; the boy begins acting out: lying, cheating, stealing, and flunking out of school.
One night everything changes: a large, talking sheepdog appears beside Chance’s bed and offers to make the boy’s dream come true. What Chance wants more than anything is to have a dad and a mom again. The dog, whom Chance names Abba, says that dreams only come true when we follow “The Rules.”
Side by side, the boy and his dog embark on a journey of hilarious and poignant life lessons. Chance learns not to steal, lie, cheat, be jealous of what other people have, or kill – not even people’s dreams. He learns to lean on the dog’s strength not his own to handle the school bullies. He learns not to judge people by their appearance. He learns to share – not only his stuff, but these life lessons – and in doing so makes new friends. Most of all he learns to love, especially his dog.
But forgiveness is the hardest lesson of all. When the school guidance counselor forbids him from talking about his magical dog at school, he grows angry and bitter again. And when he realizes he is the only one who can see his dog, he concludes he must be – as the counselor suggests – mentally unhinged. He sends Abba away, refusing to believe in him any more and, in spite of Miss Johnson’s encouragement, he refuses to see his father. With his dad’s custody hearing approaching, that’s a decision that can have life-changing consequences.
Chance reverts to being moody and difficult to deal with.
One night a few weeks later, as Chance is crying himself to sleep, Abba reappears. He gently explains to Chance that his dad had nothing to do with his mom’s death – was, in fact, torn apart by not being able to stop it. He also brings Chance to visit his mom… or was that just a wonderful dream?
At a school board meeting the parents are engaged in a debate on the issue of the invisible dog. Some say the lessons are wonderful and the kids are benefitting from them, others insist they are based on the ranting of a delusional boy and should be banned. Jenny Johnson gives a passionate speech about how the dog is every bit as real as love is – the proof being the positive affect he’s had on the children. Chance loves her for her faith in him, but the school board doesn’t see it that way. Finally, prompted by Abba, Chance tells them the lessons he has been passing on to the other kids were all taught to him by his father. The school board accepts that and dismisses the issue.
After the meeting, for the first time, Abba appears to the other kids and they finally know that he is, indeed, as real as love is. When the school guidance counselor also sees the magical dog her heart thaws and her life is changed forever.
Realizing how hard it was to be surrounded by people who are deciding your fate, Chance decides to go to his father’s hearing. Miss Johnson tells the judge that she believes Chance should be with his father, who was merely overcome by grief and seems to be a truly wonderful man. It becomes clear, as she speaks, she has feelings for him.
Chance’s dad gives a heartfelt speech taking responsibility for his poor parenting and explaining how his wife’s death left him feeling empty and desperate and he coped badly by withdrawing, but now he simply wants more than anything to be reunited with the only person he loves as much as he loved his wife.
Chance runs into his daddy’s arms, crying out that he forgives him.
The judge, whose daughter goes to school with Chance, was at the school board meeting and heard the boy say that everything he had been teaching was learned from his father. She believes only a good parent would teach such things and reunites father and son.
Back in Abby’s room, the little girl is pleased the story has a happily-ever-after ending. She realizes the boy in the story is her brother and she is named after a magical sheepdog! She asks her brother if he ever sees Abba any more. He answers, “I don’t have to. I know he’s always there.” John and Jenny come in the room to say goodnight to their daughter and she tells them she’s not afraid to go to school now.
After Chance leaves, and Abby is snuggled into bed thinking about this magical story, a scratching noise comes from inside the closet! She sits up tensely, staring at the door, afraid of the closet monster… then she breaks into a wide smile. A cute little puppy version of Abba peeks out and gives her a little wave of greeting.
- I’m your dog. You can’t have any other dogs, and you have to love me.
- Rest is important.
- No lying.
- No stealing.
- No cheating.
- Do what your parents tell you to do.
- No killing – not even people’s dreams or hopes.
- No being jealous of other people’s stuff. Learn to share.
- The way people look has nothing to do with whom they are inside.
- Forgive those who hurt you.