Lose yourself in these cinematic celebrations of all things canine as documentarians salute man’s best friend. Where would be without their companionship, guidance, resilience or large hearts? Here are films that explore the impact dogs can have on our lives and the impact a few kind people can have on them.
1. Heart of a Dog (2015)
Artist and musician Laurie Anderson offers, unsurprisingly, an abstract and deeply philosophical reflection on her late rat terrier, Lolabelle.
Footage of her dog playing music and painting (yes, she encouraged her dog’s own artistic leanings) are included with Buddhist meditations on life and death. If all that sounds unbearably pretentious, it isn’t. And it’s also not unbearably sad. Anderson, whose previous films include 1986’s Home of the Brave, doesn’t dwell on her other recent loss: A song by late husband Lou Reed plays over the closing credits, but his ghost is mostly absent from this moving and thoughtful documentary. (HBO Go)
2. Through a Dog’s Eyes (2010)
What could be more heartwarming that watching puppies being trained to become service dogs for the handicapped people who so desperately need their help?
In this PBS documentary about the Canine Assistants program, we watch the future service dogs learn to open doors, turn light switches on and off and pick up things from the floor as they prepare to become someone’s service dog.
We also meet the people waiting for a service dog, including a 6-year-old boy with cerebral palsy; and 11-year-old Destiny, whose epilepsy results in severe seizures.
The film follows the often arduous process of matching up dogs with people and how they bond. (Amazon)
3. Dog Man (2015)
The dog training world has rarely seen a character as colorful as the late Dick Russell, who trained an estimated 30,000 dogs during his 50-year career.
Another trainer calls his “large field socialization,” where he let several dogs loose on his more than five-acre ranch, “practically miraculous” for problem dogs. As Russell said, “I do not teach socialization class. I conduct it. The dogs teach it.”
Russell’s legacy extends far beyond his impact in his home state of Louisiana, where he was a local legend. His easygoing approach to both dogs and their owners won him countless fans, as did his policy of never charging someone who could not afford his services.
The film, which is chock full of dogs having the best time ever, is a glowing tribute to Russell and his own love of dogs. Have some tissues ready for the end of the film, when we see him noticeably slowing down.
Russell’s gentle brand of dog training lives on. If you live in Louisiana, you can take classes from Russell’s successor, Larry Benoit. (Amazon Prime, Vimeo)
4. Unleashed: A Dog Dancing Story (2014)
It’s hard not to compare this real documentary—in which extremely dedicated Canadian women mount a dancing show with their dogs—to the famous mockumentary Best in Show, but filmmakers Justin Turcotte and Benjamin Mallin have taken it as seriously as the participants.
“People go into [the film] wanting to laugh at it,” Turcotte told Vancouver Metro News, “but you come out of it with sort of a genuine admiration for what they do and for how much passion they have for it, how much respect they have for the art and the time they put into it.”
The show they’re putting on is not just any old dog dancing routine, but one that also involves indoor kite flying theatrical performance.
“You couldn’t have written an odder story,” Turcotte said of filming the Langley, British Columbia dog group. “Nobody would have believed it. They told us about this idea, that it was going to be like Cirque du Soleil with dogs and kites, and we were like, ‘Alright, this is what we will be capturing.’” (Amazon)
5. Second Chance Dogs (2016)
Like a particularly uplifting episode of Animal Cops or Lucky Dog, this documentary follows a group of severely neglected dogs as they receive extra care and attention at the ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Madison, N.J. It’s the first-ever facility dedicated solely to providing behavioral rehabilitation for dogs suffering from severe fear and under-socialization.
We follow three skittish Malamutes that have been rescued from a puppy mill and some adorable, but terrified, dachshunds who were in a hoarding situation as the ASPCA trainers work to socialize them and get them used to human contact.
Kristen Collins, director of the rehab center, says, “These emotional wounds can be the most debilitating and can cause needless euthanasia for these animals.” She says of the center, “it’s a place where abused animals can come and recover and be dogs.”
We cheer for each small step made by the dogs, especially when two of the Malamutes discover their love of play for the first time. And when all the dogs go to loving forever homes. Now that’s a feel-good dog doc. (Netflix)