I finally got up the courage to do it, and how appropriate that it would come the same day as I finished my blog series on rescues.
I’d heard that One Nation Under Dog, HBO’s documentary of the dog culture in America was challenging and difficult to bear. I had no idea how difficult it would be until I got halfway through the film.
The documentary starts in rather odd fashion. It begins by giving the statistics of dog bites in the United States each year (4.7 million dog bites each year). Then it launches into a complicated story focusing on an owner of five Rhodesian Ridgebacks with some serious behavioral problems. As we watched, Joe commented that, “These dogs make Panzer and Shelby look like freaking gems.” I couldn’t agree more.
As the segment wore on, I found myself becoming more and more enraged at this owner. Yes, he loved his dogs, that was a sure thing. He spent a fortune on attorneys while he tried to keep his dogs from being labeled “vicious” and euthanized. But the first thing I noticed was that each and every one of his dogs was wearing both a choke chain and a shock collar, and the wife of the family after one near attack apologized and stated, “I guess I need to up the zapper.” I cringed when I heard that, and Joe shook his head and said, “Yeah, that’s it.”
I couldn’t help but feel disgusted. Joe, too, was yelling at the TV saying, “They’re doing it all wrong! They’re going about this the wrong way!”
Yes, these dogs had above and beyond behavioral issues, but the family was willing to fight for their lives in court. What the family never once mentioned was finding help for the dogs. This family didn’t need fancy attorneys. This family needed a dog trainer, and a damn good one.
The other thing we noticed was that the males were all intact, and when describing the relationships between the dogs in a court hearing, the owner described them as familial. These dogs, which were showing high levels of aggression, were being bred.
Now, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me that aggression can be genetic. There is a lot of skepticism, and the research hasn’t been going on long enough to be absolutely sure. Still, it seems to me that when you have a dog who has bitten the ear off of a three year old child, you should consider getting the dog neutered in the off chance that aggression is genetic. Just saying.
An oddity to the segment was the fact that these owners apparently kept allowing neighbors to be alone with the dogs, which was when the dogs would bite. I kept furrowing my brows and wondering, “At what point do you realize your dogs have a problem and stop exposing them to problem situations like being alone with guests?” I reached that point a long time ago with Shelby. Until we can get her fear under control, she is always kenneled when we have company. I reached that point with Panzer last weekend. Both of my dogs have been seeing behaviorists for the fear aggression since the first time they barked at someone. They are making progress and slowly but surely, they’ll come around, just like Smokey. But how many times do your dogs actually have to bite someone and inflict serious wounds before you start taking some personal responsibility for their actions? Obviously a lot for this family. By the time the segment was over I was so angry I had to get up and walk away for a moment. This man did not deserve to call himself a dog owner.
Sidenote: Kudos to the crew and HBO for not once mentioning pit bulls in this entire segment.
The second segment of the documentary, entitled “Loss” focused on the suffering of the people left behind after a dog passes away. As soon as the owners in the pet loss group started talking, Joe looked over to me and said, “Thanks babe, thanks for making me watch this horrible movie.”
The group voiced thoughts that many of us feel but never express. They talked about how their relationships with their dogs were distinctly different from their relationships with people but never less important. One owner described how after his dog had died, he would go to the store and buy dog food, and it wasn’t until he came home that he realized he didn’t need to.
Joe and I paused and talked. We talked about Smokey and Dusty. Joe said he felt these people were dwelling too much, and that as much as he loved Smokey and Dusty, he knew he had to let it go at some point. I made the argument that it sounded like many of these people only had one dog. Both of the losses we’ve had in the past year, we had another dog to keep us company in our suffering. I argued that when we lost Dusty and then Smokey, our routine never changed much, there was a big presence in the house missing, but our routine was the same because there was still a dog who needed to be walked and fed and cuddled and played with. I was extremely grateful to have multiple dogs. I also think a lot of those people would really benefit from getting a new dog. I couldn’t help but feel like it was a little bit ironic that these people were attending a pet loss support group at an SPCA where they were surrounded by adoptable dogs who just want and need a home.
I won’t comment on the people who spent $155,000 to clone their lost dog except to say that Joe’s jaw hung wide open the entire interview. Then he said, “That’s actually kind of cool, I mean, if you have the money, why not?” I just rolled my eyes, but the levity was a welcome break.
The film then gears you up for what is to come by warning you that the next three minutes of the film are disturbing and graphic. I gritted my teeth. I had read about what I was about to see, but there are no words that could ever do those three minutes justice. I can’t remember a time when I cried that hard at an image. I actually started crying just thinking about it on my way into work today. And yet, I have a desire to watch it again, not for cheap thrills or some twisted expression, but because it is so relevant.
While I watched, Shelby heard the screams, and ran to the TV. Quietly, she cocked her head and started to whine, then she ran over to me, frantic, and pawed my lap, something she rarely does. From somewhere inside of my horror, I pet the spot on the couch next to me and allowed her to lay her head in my lap while she tried to tuck herself further and further into my embrace. No one will ever be able to convince me that my dog didn’t know what was going on during those three minutes.
The story twists its way through the south and soon you find yourself following a group of rescue workers who are raiding a puppy mill. The signs outside are foreboding, no entrance allowed and do not pet the dogs without the owner’s permission. I gulped, dried my tears and grit my teeth.
“Is this a puppy mill?”
Joe nodded, “Yep, I think so. Again, thanks babe, I’m really glad we’re watching this.”
The puppy mill segment was brutal and left me feeling tired and empty. I looked at the picture of Smokey on the wall and couldn’t help but feel guilt wash over me. How was the short time we gave him good enough to make up for all that?
The film ends on a somewhat positive note. A rescuer and trainer goes to high kill shelters to pull the dogs that are aggressive or otherwise unadoptable. From there, he rehabilitates them and adopts them out when they’re ready. I smiled and shed a happy tear; I liked this guy. He also focuses on using positive reinforcement, as an aside, which makes me like him more. Joe cracked a joke and said, “Hey, this guy is like us!” I rolled my eyes, but have to say, he was…a little, except better at it, and he actually puts the dogs up for adoption after he’s rehabilitated them.
I have to admit, I kept wondering how you get that gig. Ah, retirement plans.
All in all, I was moved by the film. It got me thinking and it got me feeling, and I think that’s what documentaries are supposed to do. I can’t in good faith recommend it for those who have weak stomachs or are faint of heart, but I really think anyone who owns a dog should see it, however painful. I also think it speaks volumes for the rescue effort and the lopsided, dirty little secret that is the American pet industry.
It asks important questions without ever voicing them. How far is too far in the name of your dog? What is it, to love and lose a pet? Why do we allow puppy mills to continue to exist? What is the best shelter model? How do we stop all the senseless deaths? And above all, what can I do?