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A Dog’s Purpose
Training of dogs for movie under scrutiny

The movie “A Dog’s Purpose” is suffering what can only be called a PR disaster after footage has surfaced showing unacceptable treatment of one of the dogs during filming. In response to the treatment of the dog, many people have vowed to boycott the film, which will be released next week.

In the clip that is causing the controversy, a German Shepherd is being forced into turbulent water to film a scene in which the dog rescues a child from drowning. The dog is being physically pushed into the water despite clearly resisting, and even climbing back out using the side of the pool and the trainer as footholds. The dog looks panicked, and is making obvious efforts to avoid being tossed in the water, even clawing at the edge. You can hear someone say, “Don’t worry, it’s warm water at least,” and “He ain’t gonna calm down till he goes in the water” and “You just gotta throw him in,” all of which show complete disregard to the well-being of the dog, who is truly terrified. At one point, you hear someone say, “I think he wants to go in,” which is clearly wishful thinking. The next thing you hear is the more truthful, “He wants to get away! Just throw him in,” which is exactly what happens, to the chagrin of most viewers. Once he is in, he goes under, and it turns frantic on set. You can hear someone yelling, “Cut it, cut it!” and people are running towards the submerged dog.

The one bright spot in this clip is the boy in the water, who about halfway through is calling out cheerily, “Here boy, here boy” at which point the dog looks calmer and more relaxed than at any other point in the 60 seconds of footage. Additionally, it is this child who rushed first and fastest to the dog when he is submerged. I don’t see evidence that the filmmakers are concerned enough about the safety and feelings of the dog, but the child actor is, and I give him credit for that.

The American Humane Association (AHA) is responsible for the No Animals Were Harmed program, which is supposed to insure the well-being of animal actors on set. However, they have a history of ignoring poor treatment of animals during moviemaking. In response to this recent controversy, the AHA has suspended the safety representative who was on set that day and say they will investigate the incident.

The behavior of entering turbulent water in the chaotic situation associated with making a film needed to be approached step-by-step so that the dog was trained to do this ahead of filming. It would take a lot of work and a considerable amount of time to help almost any dog feel comfortable in this situation, and based on this clip, that investment was not made, and it is the dog who suffered. Another option if a dog is unable to handle the scene without distress would be to use a stunt double—a dog who is more comfortable with water.

What’s your take on the treatment of the dog during the filming of this scene?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

photo by Ronoli/Flickr

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