The story revolves around Buck, a large and powerful St. Bernard-Scotch Shepherd, and portrays his transformation from being a pampered pet to a feral beast after being separated from wealthy owners and sold in Alaska as a sled dog.
The novel begins in 1987 with four-year-old Buck, a half St. Bernard and half Scotch Shepherd, and the beloved pet of the affluent Judge Miller and his family. However, Buck’s indulged life in California’s Santa Clara Valley is short-lived. Men have discovered gold in the Klondike region of Canada. Hence, the demand for strong dogs to pull sleds across the perilous journey is rising. This is a fact the gardener’s assistant, Manuel, plans to exploit for his own personal gain.
One day, when the judge is away, Manuel takes Buck for a walk and brings him to a train station where he is sold. Buck tries to attack his kidnapper, but the man beats him till he loses consciousness and throws him into the baggage cart of the train. When he finally gains consciousness and sees his kidnapper reaching for him, he bites down on the man’s hand. Buck is then locked into a cage-like crate and starved for two nights and two days until he arrives in Seattle.
Once in Seattle, Buck meets his overseer, referred to in the novel as “the man in the red sweater.” As soon as he is released from his cage, Buck attacks his overseer but quickly gives up when the man beats him repeatedly on the head with a club. When Buck finally submits, his overseer pats him on the head and gives him food and water, thus teaching him the first lesson of the wilderness: might makes right.
Buck learns to obey his overseer and is eventually sold to dispatchers of French-Canadian origin—Perrault and Francois—from the Canadian government. They are boarded on a ship headed North to Klondike along with several other dogs: Spitz, Dave and a female dog named Curly.
In the cold North Buck learns yet another lesson in cruelty when Curly approaches a husky in a friendly way, only to have her face ripped open. Soon, thirty or forty other huskies attack her too, and although the men come and fight off the dogs with clubs and axes, but it is too late: in only two minutes, Curly has died, much to Spitz’s amusement. Buck learns immediately that in order to survive in this new, harsh environment, he cannot go down in a fight.
The dispatchers teach Buck how to haul a sled, and Buck, who never had to work hard during his time with the Millers, tries his best and begins to regain the predisposed skills of his ancestors: fighting, hunting for food, sleeping beneath the snow on cold winter nights. Soon, a rivalry forms between him and Spitz—the team’s lead dog—and as Buck continues to challenge Spitz’s authority, the two dogs get into a fight. Spitz, being an experienced fighter, fends off all of Buck’s attacks. Within minutes Buck is dripping with blood while Spitz remains unharmed. However, Buck manages to trick him by faking a rush against Spitz’s shoulders, but hitting his leg at the last moment, thus crippling him. Spitz goes down and Buck kills him, and therefore becomes the team leader.
Buck proves to be a better leader than Spitz had been as his dispatchers’ sled makes record time with him at the head. They cross the Thirty Mile River in only twenty-four hours, whereas before it had taken them ten days.
However, the dispatchers receive new Canadian government orders and the dogs are soon turned over to a mail carrier who forces them to carry much heavier loads. Yet, despite his new laborious life, Buck realizes that he does not miss his previous privileged life in California, and finds that his primitive instincts are growing stronger: everything about the wilderness seem strangely familiar to him, and sometimes at night he has visions that seem to come from the past, back when humans used to wear animal skins and lived in cages.
By the time the dogs reach their destination, they are exhausted and allowed to rest. One of the dogs, Dave, appear to be ill, but when the men try to pull him out of his position Dave protests and the men realize that he wants to die working for the men. The next day, Dave becomes even weaker, and the men are forced to shoot him dead.
A month later, Buck and his team are sold to a group of American gold hunters: Charles, Hal and his wife Mercedes. Soon Buck realizes that his new owners are inexperienced and unaccustomed to the wilderness. The dogs are overfed, forced to starve when there is food shortage, they overload the sleds to the point where they cannot even be pulled and plan poorly until eventually the weaker dogs begin to die of starvation and exhaustion.
By the time the dogs and the gold hunters arrive at the camp of John Thornton, an expert outdoorsman and gold hunter, only five out of the original pack of fourteen dogs remain.
Thornton warns Hal and Charles that the ice is melting and that they cannot continue on without falling through. However, Hal ignores his warnings and forces the dogs to move on by whipping them. Buck senses the danger ahead, and refuses to move. Enraged, Hal beats Buck with whip and club until he nearly dies—still Buck refuses to move. Thornton, who has been observing the dog’s ill treatment, cannot bear it any longer; he pushes Hal away from Buck and threatens to kill him if he hurts the dog again. Hal tries to attack Thornton with a knife, but Thornton knocks it away with the handle of his axe. He then claims ownership of Buck, recognizing Buck’s talents, and begins to treat his injuries as Hal, Charles and Mercedes leave with the rest of the dogs, only for the ice to break—the entire sled, the dogs and the gold hunters all fall through and drown.
Under Thornton’s care Buck slowly recovers and regains his strength. Buck begins to develop a strong attachment towards Thornton, who in turn treats him with love and kindness. It is through compassion that Thornton earns Buck’s obedience—once, just to test him, Thornton orders Buck to jump off a cliff. To his surprise, Buck obeys, and Thornton quickly stops him.
Despite the love he receives from Thornton, Buck has not forgotten the feral beast in him. His instincts are still strong and he is still a vicious fighter—but now he only fights to defend his new master: when Thornton stops a brawl at a bar, one of the men try to attack him, only to nearly have his throat ripped out by Buck. Soon Buck becomes famous for both his loyalty and ferocity.
One day Thornton makes a bet that Buck can start a sled weighing thousand pound for a thousand dollars with a man named Matthewson. To both of their amazement, Buck proves Thornton right and pulls a sled loaded with a thousand pounds of flour over a hundred miles. With this money, Thornton manages to pay off his debts. Thornton also gets an offer to sell Buck at a high price, but he refuses and sets off to find a fabled lost gold mine deep in the Canadian forests with his friends Hans and Pete, hoping to become richer.
Together, the men and the dogs travel through the forests until they come across a valley full of gold. The men earn thousands of dollars in one day, but the dogs have no tasks at the moment and are left to wander in the wilderness. This is when Buck begins to feel a strange, restless yearning within him, and one night he wakes up to a call from within the wilderness. He follows the call to find a timber wolf one-third his size and tries to befriend him, but the wolf backs away, seemingly afraid.
Eventually Buck manages to befriend the timber wolf, and the latter takes him even deeper into the forest when Buck suddenly remembers Thornton. Although the wolf tries to make Buck follow him, Buck runs back to camp and finds Thornton eating dinner. He showers Thornton with affection, and does not allow Thornton out of his sight for two whole days. Thus, just as Thornton had shown loyalty towards Buck by refusing to sell him, Buck shows loyalty to Thornton by refusing to leave him for the timber wolf.
At this point Buck develops two drastically different personalities: one as Thornton’s sled dog and the other as a feral hunter in the wilderness. One day, however, Buck breaks away from camp to kill a bull, which takes him four days. As he returns to camp, he is overwhelmed with a feeling of foreboding. When he finally approaches the camp, he finds his master Thornton, along with Pete and Hans and their dogs, brutally murdered by the native Yeehats. Buck avenges his master by hunting down the natives and killing them. Though he still mourns his master, he is proud of having killed armed humans.
Once again he hears a call from the wilderness, and it leads him to a pack of wolves who fight him. Buck fights back until the wolves withdraw, and one of them approach him in a friendly manner. Buck recognizes him as the timber wolf he had once encountered and joins the wolf pack. As the years pass, the native Yeehats notice a change in the local breed of the wolf pack and a legend is born: the legend of the Ghost Dog that leads the pack, a legend of a haunted valley where Thornton died, where every year the Ghost Dog comes and mourns his master by the stream before rejoining his pack.