I‚Äôve long wondered why cable networks such as Animal Planet and Nat Geo Wild haven’t yet fully exploited a certain niche: programming centered on the relationship between humans and their pets.
The networks offer plenty of good series about veterinarians or animal-rescue groups, but they’re missing the compelling stories to be found in the relationships between people and their dogs.
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 hourlong episodes on a different story.
They are all interesting, but two in particular stand for how they capture the nuances of the human-canine bond ‚ÄĒ and, just as important, the personality of the dog in question.
Episode 1 (‚ÄúThe Kid With a Dog‚ÄĚ) tells the story of Corrine, a sixth-grader with epilepsy, who will soon be paired with a service dog who can alert others when she is suffering a seizure.
The episode tells a very complicated story very well. It isn’t only about epilepsy itself (which can affect mood and behavior) but also about the family dynamics at play. Corrine isn’t matched with her dog until late in the episode ‚ÄĒ which means viewers get little sense of who the dog is.
Mom and Dad had promised their two girls that the dog would be a family dog.
And then:¬† ‚ÄúThe child has to be the dog‚Äôs everything,‚ÄĚ the family is told during a training session.
That means Corrine‚Äôs sister cannot give the dog treats, or even really play with the dog. 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.
Episode 4 (‚ÄúScissors Down‚ÄĚ) is unexpectedly bracing. It focuses on two dog groomers from Japan who fly to Pasadena, California, to compete in a dog-grooming competition.
One American groomer shows exasperation with the dog that has 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 of 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 themm pretty, so …”
Compare that with the demeanor of Tokyo-based groomer Kenichi Nagase, who is exceedingly quiet, gentle, sweet and calm with the dogs. The approach 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 2 (‚ÄúBravo, Zeus‚ÄĚ) and 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, 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 has stayed with me. Ice, a yellow lab, belongs to a fisherman and restaurateur named Alessandro; they live in a gorgeous village on Lake Como in Italy. The episode strikes the right balance between human and canine in its story emphasis, allowing viewers to get a food sense of the their daily life together ‚ÄĒ and the importance of the dog in it.
Ice accompanies Alessandro for 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: ‚ÄúI can concentrate because he makes me feel safe.‚ÄĚ
Periodically, Ice goes off to patrol the village, where viewers can truly sense his personality. He charges through the woods; stops to smell the air, revealing an alert look on his face; and then heads offagain.
Ice has a purpose, and he knows it.