I‚Äôve always been curious why cable channels like Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild have yet to fully exploit a certain niche. I‚Äôm talking about programming that entirely centers the relationship between humans and their pets. You can find plenty of good series about veterinarians or animal rescue groups on these channels ‚ÄĒ but there are other stories to be told, as well. Sometimes there is drama enough simply in a story about a person and their dog.
Filling that gap is the new Netflix documentary series ‚ÄúDogs,‚ÄĚ developed by producer Glen Zipper with director Amy Berg, focusing each of its six hour-long episodes on a different story. They are all good. Full stop.
But only two stand out as exceptional examples that capture the nuances of the human-canine bond. And just as importantly, the personality of the dog in question.
Episode 1 (‚ÄúThe Kid with a Dog‚ÄĚ) is primarily a story of the humans at its center. A sixth grader named Corrine has epilepsy and soon she will be paired with a service dog who can alert others when a seizure is happening.
The episode is actually a really complicated and well-told story. It‚Äôs not only about epilepsy itself (which can affect mood and behavior) but also the family dynamics at play. Corrine is finally matched with her dog late in the episode and because of that, you get little sense of who the dog actually is.
Mom and Dad had promised their two girls this would be a family dog. But: ‚ÄúThe child has to be the dog‚Äôs everything,‚ÄĚ the family is told during a training session ‚ÄĒ that means Corrine‚Äôs sister can‚Äôt give the dog treats. Or play with him. Not really. He has a job and he‚Äôs Corrine‚Äôs dog only. This new piece of information does not go down well, as Corrine‚Äôs sister quietly walks out of the session and processes what this means for her. Like I said, it‚Äôs a really good hour of television ‚ÄĒ it‚Äôs just not particularly focused on the dog part. At least, not as much as you might expect for a series called ‚ÄúDogs.‚ÄĚ
I found Episode 4 (‚ÄúScissors Down‚ÄĚ) to be unexpectedly bracing if entirely removed from my personal philosophy, about two dog groomers from Japan who fly to Pasadena to compete in a dog grooming competition. I‚Äôm more of a ‚ÄúIf the dog is clean and brushed and its fur isn‚Äôt matted, the rest is just humans treating pets like dolls‚ÄĚ kind of person. All the participants seem to genuinely like and care about dogs, but something about the event feels sour.
Consider one American groomer who is exasperated with the dog that‚Äôs been supplied to him: ‚ÄúMy dog decided that he‚Äôs too nervous to go to the bathroom around me, so I‚Äôve had to keep taking him back to his owner to get walked, and he‚Äôs already exhibiting a couple signs of being a weirdo so we‚Äôll see how it goes. But I‚Äôve had weirdos on the table before and we still make ‚Äėem pretty, so ‚Ä¶ ‚ÄĚ Yeesh.
Compare that to Tokyo-based groomer Kenichi Nagase, whose demeanor really grabbed me ‚ÄĒ he‚Äôs exceedingly quiet and gentle and sweet and calm with the dogs. It bowls you over. And he‚Äôs the only one casually being affectionate with the dog while waiting for the judge‚Äôs results.
The strongest episodes of the series are Episode 2 (‚ÄúBravo, Zeus‚ÄĚ) and Episode 3 (‚ÄúIce on the Water‚ÄĚ).
The former is about a young man from Syria named Ayham, now living in Berlin and desperate to reunite with his Siberian Husky Zeus. For the past two years the dog has been living with one of Ayham‚Äôs closest friends, who is also trying to leave Syria and whose temporary guardianship of Zeus is incredibly touching. The dog is playful and is a favorite of the neighborhood kids; he‚Äôs also fascinatingly watchful of the landscape as he finally begins his journey.
‚ÄúIce on the Water‚ÄĚ is the episode that really stayed with me. Ice is a yellow lab who belongs to a fisherman and restaurateur named Alessandro. They live in a gorgeous village on Lake Como in Italy. There‚Äôs just the right balance here, in terms of story emphasis, between human and canine. And you get a good sense of the their daily life together ‚ÄĒ and the importance of the dog in it.
Ice accompanies Alessandro for those long solitary hours out on the boat ‚ÄĒ ‚ÄúCan you see if they are there?‚ÄĚ Alessandro asks about any nearby fish in the water and Ice actually turns around and looks over the edge of the boat ‚ÄĒ but the dog is also genuinely part of the family, sitting on a chair at the dinner table when they eat meals.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs my lookout while I do the heavy work, keeping an eye on anything suspicious,‚ÄĚ Alessandro says. The man is quietly but absolutely besotted with this dog. I get it. ‚ÄúI can concentrate because he makes me feel safe.‚ÄĚ Periodically, Ice will go off and patrol the village and it‚Äôs here you get a sense of his personality. We see him charge through the woods. Stop to smell the air. An alert look on his face. And then he‚Äôs off again. He has a purpose and he knows it. There‚Äôs no doubt Ice has an inner life.
Episode 5 (‚ÄúTerritorio de Zeguates‚ÄĚ) is filmed at the Costa Rican dog rescue of the same name, which translates into ‚ÄúLand of Strays‚ÄĚ and it is free range ‚ÄĒ the dogs aren‚Äôt kept in kennels, but allowed to wander the 300 acres of farmland allocated to the rescue.
You might be familiar with the group ‚ÄĒ there are viral videos of hundreds of dogs at Territorio de Zeguates seen happily running through the hilly green acreage. Those clips don‚Äôt capture just how daunting the work is. The founders are absolutely overwhelmed, with more than 1,200 dogs at the shelter at the time of filming.
Money is a constant concern, as are the challenges of keeping the grounds as clean as possible and giving adequate medical care to that many dogs. The human component focuses primarily on two hired workers who experience major health issues while on the job; all of it is tough. So tough. But I had so many questions that went unanswered: What are the logistics of caring for 1,200 dogs? Is there feces everywhere? How do they ensure that the dogs mostly get along?
The physical, emotional and financial demands of running a rescue are also at the forefront of an excellent new documentary film from director Ron Davis called ‚ÄúLife in the Doghouse‚ÄĚ (available starting Nov. 20 on iTunes, Amazon Prime and Google Play) about Danny and Ron, a longtime couple who run a dog rescue out of their home in South Carolina. At the time of filming, they are caring for 71 dogs in their home.
It‚Äôs a lovely 4,400 square foot brick house that sits on a huge plot of land. The house itself has been sectioned off into zones. The front bedroom is for puppy litters. The living room is for larger dogs. A sun porch has been turned into a quarantine room. And though it appears many of the dogs sleep in crates at night, they‚Äôre mostly free to wander about as they please during the day. ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt blame the shelters,‚ÄĚ Ron says of the euthanasia that inevitably befalls unclaimed dogs in municipal shelters, ‚Äúblame the community that doesn‚Äôt neuter or spay their pets ‚ÄĒ or abandons them.‚ÄĚ
The guys have employees who help run things and they all work hard to keep everything clean, which means everything you‚Äôd expect ‚ÄĒ plus 18 loads of laundry mainly consisting of pet bedding that‚Äôs tossed in a commercial-grade washer everyday.
Ron is originally from Chicago. He‚Äôs the taller of the two and has the deep sonorous voice of a newscaster. Danny is the former horse show champ who is quieter and more noticeably introspective. He is also allergic to dogs and horses. Doesn‚Äôt stop him. They‚Äôve been together 27 years; their rescue has been around for the past 15. It has completely engulfed their lives (it‚Äôs overwhelming just to see it) but they‚Äôve adopted out more than 11,000 dogs in that time.
As a couple, they are terrific screen company ‚ÄĒ so much so that they should be anchoring their own TV series. They‚Äôre photogenic but they aren‚Äôt performing. They don‚Äôt try to please the camera. They‚Äôre just themselves.
And their dogs ‚ÄĒ both their personal pets and their rescue denizens ‚ÄĒ seem awfully content with their surroundings. Director Davis goes with the perhaps on-the-nose but wonderfully lump-in-your-throat choice of Cat Stevens‚Äô ‚ÄúI Love My Dog‚ÄĚ for the closing credits.