Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.
August 12 2014
Every dog has its day, and every day “has” its dog! So Friday August 15 has been declared as “Check the Chip Day,” by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medicine Association) and the AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association). It serves as a good reminder to make sure your dog’s microchip contact information is correct—perhaps you adopted a dog from a rescue group and forgot to change the contact info to yours, or your address has changed and you didn’t notify the microchip registry. And, if your dog isn’t chipped yet, this is also gives you the impetus to do it now—helps to ensure that you can be easily reunited with your dog if she is ever lost. A study of more than 7,700 stray animals at animal shelters showed that dogs without microchips were returned to their owners 21.9% of the time, whereas microchipped dogs were returned to their owners 52.2%. If you don’t know your dog’s chip number—a requirement to log into the registry—ask your vet or shelter to use a universal scanner to read the chip. Microchips come in various frequencies. Unfortunately there is no one frequency yet in place, so frequencies might be 125 kilo Hertz (kHz), 128 kHz, or 134.2 kHz, and only an universal scanner can read all of these. It also gets more complicated because each registry has its own database, but the AAHA maintains Universal Pet Microchip Lookup Tool linking all the registries. See this helpful video for more information about microchipping and if you have more questions these FAQs from the AVMA are useful.
August 12 2014
As everyone knows by now, brilliant actor and comic Robin Williams died on Monday. I was one of the multitudes who have fond memories of him, not just for his work in TV and film, but also because of an unscheduled performance by him at a SF comedy club. He would do that a lot, just drop in for a “visit,” get up on the stage, or in this case, just go to the front of the room, and everyone, including the other performers, were beguiled by his enormous talent in making people laugh. In one of the articles this morning in the LA Times, it was noted that his neighbors in Tiburon, Calif. took special delight in seeing him walk his dog, “The children called him “the funny man” and would greet him as such when he was out walking his pug, Lenny (after another famous comedian). He joked around easily with them, Cook said, “because they were kids.” I also think that he joked with the kids because he had such a generous heart and was known to pay special attention to children everywhere.
As for the Pug, Leonard, Williams did adopt him back in March 2010 from Curly Tail Pug Rescue. See the story behind that adoption. And in an interview with The Telegragh (UK) he talked about little Lenny noting, “I also have a gay rescue pug called Leonard, who I take for walks, because I am very secure in my sexuality. He has a boyfriend and they are planning to adopt a Siamese kitten together. We’re very modern.” He was indeed a very funny man and will be missed by all.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Vilmos Csányi talks about animal behavior and understanding the mind of a dog
July 30 2014
The internationally renowned Hungarian scientist Vilmos Csányi studies canine behavior and intelligence at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, where he chairs the department of ethology. We had the pleasure of speaking with him about his recent book, If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind (translated by Richard E. Quandt). Much of his book draws upon his astute observations of his own pet dogs, the delightful Flip and Jerry. He makes a convincing case for special social and emotional bonds between dogs and humans, and for the idea that, by observing the cognitive behavior of dogs, we can also learn much about how the human mind works.
Bark: In your book, If Dogs Could Talk, you write that dogs are excellent human ethologists, what do you mean by that?
Vilmos Csányi: A family dog constantly observes human behavior and always tries to predict interesting actions in which he could participate. Dogs can learn any tiny signal for the important actions and is always ready to contribute.
B: You also say that dogs can show empathy, especially toward their owners. Are you familiar with any cases in which a dog has been empathic to a species other than humans?
VC: They are also empathic with each other. On one occasion Flip wanted to go out in the middle of night but I slept too deeply and was not awakened by his murmur; Jerry came and started to bark loudly, which instantly made me awake. I believed that Jerry had the problem, but he went back to his sleeping place and Flip was the one who enthusiastically ran to the door to be let out as soon as possible.
B: You write about the similarities between dogs and humans, including that both species seem to have a genetic imperative to follow rules. What evolutionary advantage does this bestow on our two species?
VC: Following rules is a very important human trait, which is shared with dogs to some extent. In animals, behavior in a group is regulated by aggression and rank order. In humans, in-group aggression is very mild and the rank order is of a mixed type. Not only persons but rules also get a place in our rank order. Our behavior is influenced by persons who have authority over us and rules that regulate certain conduct. Even “alpha persons” have to obey rules, which makes human social groups very complex and adaptive.
An important task for a group can be prescribed by rules, and group members do not have to exert any aggression to fulfill the given task, just follow the rules. It is a human-specific trait and the basis of complex human societies. Its importance is shown by the fact that dogs also acquired the rule-following ability. If a dog recognizes a rule created by the master, he follows it. Sometimes the problem is how to explain the given rule to a dog. They are not able to perceive rules above certain complexity
B: The bond between humans and dogs exists because dogs acquired traits that resemble those of humans in many respects; could you give some examples of this? Also, can the same be said about the humans “acquiring” canine traits, or, at least, evolving differently because of dogs, such as the reduction of our olfactory senses.
VC: Dogs have indeed acquired behavioral traits that have human analogues. For example, dogs form an attachment relationship with their owners, and very likely (to some extent) with other members of their group, that resembles the way human children are attached to their mothers. Moreover, we have shown that even adult dogs [living in dog shelters] can very rapidly form attachment to humans [after only approximately 30 minutes of interaction]. The development of attachment between adults is again a human-specific trait.
There have been suggestions that dogs and humans co-evolve, but at the moment there is little clear evidence for this. One could suppose that at some point of human evolution, human groups sharing their life with dogs had some advantage over groups avoiding dogs. Dogs could have been helpful, for example, in removing [eating] garbage, providing protection during cold nights or alarming people in case of potential danger. Some of these functions can be still witnessed in tribes living at remote places in Africa and Australia.
It is, however, more difficult to provide evidence that such association was the cause for any behavioral or other changes in humans. Such evidence should rely on showing that, for example, there is a progressive trend in the difference in human remains over a long period of time when they are found together with dogs.
B: Your investigations into dogs’ ability to “read” us and having a greater aptitude than chimpanzees to comprehend human signals seem to have been conducted well before those that were reported in Science, which were conducted by Brian Hare in 2004. Why do you think that your studies did not receive the same level of recognition in this country?
VC: We started our research program in 1994. At that time nobody was working with dogs in the ethological community, so we had to develop our research methods basically by trial and error. Our first paper on human–dog communication was published in 1998 after being rejected by a leading journal because they found it “unbelievable.” In other words, the results were “too good to be true.” The editors probably never had dogs. Further, we had a far-reaching research program in mind that took time to develop, and was aimed at finding parallels for various human-specific behaviors, not just in the case of interspecies communication.
We have some connections to Hare’s group in Germany and his team was faster to get an interesting aspect of this work into Science in 2002. We, however, were more careful in our experimental design and analysis (and consequently slower), but were able to publish our observations and provide a behavioral basis for dog-wolf differences in another high-profile journal, Current Biology with our tame wolf “Minka” on its cover-page. (Current Biology 13, no. 9 : 763-767)
B: You believe that dogs ask questions. Could you give some examples of canine questioning? How do you think a dog ponders an answer to a question about a future action—the example you give is asking your dogs “Which way?” while taking them on a walk.
VC: Questioning is very important in human group behavior. To pose a question is to show interest in the thoughts of someone else. Young dogs also question us: Where do we go? Which way? Who is coming? Who goes down with me? Is it permitted? And so on. If people are careful and answer the questions, it can soon become a regular method of communication with the dog. If questions do not get attention, dogs give up, just like human children.
If I go for a walk with Jerry, at a crossroads I frequently ask a question: “Which way?” If I ask, then he carefully sniffs in both directions and selects the “better” one and starts to go. If I am not posing the question, then he just follows me.
B: I also took delight in your “do as I do,” dogs imitating their humans—could you suggest an example that our readers might try with their dogs?
VC: When I tried it first with Jerry, I put a chair in the middle of my room and placed a rubber toy behind him, then I performed one of three possible actions: put the toy on the chair, go around the chair, or stand on the chair. After each performance I asked him to follow. With some help, he was successful after three to four days, three to four trials each day. After this, I moved the chair somewhere else, and requested only one action each time. When he performed the action well, I showed him new actions: place the toy into a bucket, for example. Dogs usually learn this after a week. However, the rigorous scientific training procedure is not so simple. We will have a published paper about this research soon explaining all the “tricks” in detail.
B: What do you think of Rico, the Border Collie in Germany who made the news last year because he could differentiate the names of so many different toys?
VC: In my view, the Border Collie represents a very interesting case, suggesting that dogs indeed have the potential for fast “word” learning. Of course, this does not mean that they could acquire language like children, but they might have some skills for recognizing the connection between a novel vocalization (“word”) and the presence of a novel object.
The performance of this dog resembles that of a 14- to 16-month-old baby; this is in general agreement with what dogs can achieve in other faculties of mind [relative] to human cognition. This study also hints that in the case of “talented” individuals, with special training or “education,” dogs can show an even higher potential for social cognition than has been appreciated so far.
B: Are you familiar with Dr. Temple Grandin? She is the autistic animal scientist, and in, Animals in Translation, she compares the way she thinks and feels to that of animals. Because of her autism she thinks in “pictures” and not in “language,” similar to the way dogs and other animals perceive the world. The perspective she brings to this subject is quite amazing. Can thinking in pictures rather than language explain many of problems that researchers are faced with when they develop language-based testing for animals?
VC: I do think that dogs are thinking in pictures, and even many people are able to do that, not only [those who are autistic]. My best scientific ideas come from thinking in pictures. To some people this is very strange, they feel they can think only in the medium of language. I hope that understanding our thinking processes will get us closer to understanding animals, especially dogs, which are already “more” than animals in the area of thinking.
B: I agree with you about the importance of social intelligence and that the mind needs to be exercised—how can dog people best exercise and enrich their dogs’ minds?
VC: As a result of their unique evolution, dogs have the potential to be humans’ best friends. However, this is not an automatic process, it depends crucially on the human partner. Just as we have a responsibility for our children, dogs require the same attention on our part. They are very much social animals, like humans, and depend in their development on continuous and variable social input from the environment. This means that they do not only need to be walked twice a day, but strive for substantial social interactions, which can take the form of play or joint sporting or even training.
B: What do you consider to be the most exciting research currently in progress about cognitive abilities in dogs?
VC: In my view, the study of dog cognition could still reveal some interesting secrets. Our work on imitation is far from over. At the department we have now a couple of young dogs who are able to imitate simple body movements, so now we can investigate in detail what they really understand from each other’s and their own body movements. We also study their barking, how they express vocal signals and how they interpret such signals.
July 16 2014
Here’s an innovative idea from The Lost Dogs’ Home shelter in Australia. In their “Human Walking Program” campaign they are putting a spin on who is adopting whom in the dog+human equation. So at this event it was the dog who is “walking” the human, in this case office workers, in Melbourne’s business district. The campaign was aimed at getting desk-bound people out at a park away from their computers, and out being walked by lovely, adoptable dogs. The shelter was hoping to change the public’s perception of shelter dogs! Very effective campaign, don’t you think?
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Round two in the urban debate
July 15 2014
This is a follow-up article to our political primer on dog park campaigning. We hope that you found some of the information helpful and that you are now ready to sit down with town planners and design that perfect dog park.
Let’s start by suggesting a different term for dog park. We know it’s an easy term to use, but it often evokes irate comments like: “What do you mean you want to spend my taxes on a bunch of dogs?”; “What about safe playground equipment for my kids?”; “Drinking fountains for dogs, you gotta be kidding!” Play it safe—try using terms like “off-leash” or “multi-use area,” stressing the human component at all times. The acronym-clever COLA people (Citizens for Off-Leash Areas in Seattle simply call theirs OLAs (a convention we’ll adopt here). In Berkeley, “multi-use area” refers to the multiple legitimate uses, including our leashless dogs, that are allowable in sections of the park. In Indianapolis they refer to their recently inaugurated area as a Canine Companion Zone.
In doing the research for this article and in talking with many of you who have contacted us for more information or to share your wisdom and experience, we realize that this material cannot be easily condensed into just two parts. So we will be turning this into a regular feature, with future reports including case studies from your parks.
A recap from last time: because most cities have leash laws that outlaw dogs running “at large,” you’ll need to change this policy.
But few policymakers or administrators are risk-takers; they’ll need reassurances that they are not the first to be confronted by a citizenry asking to use public land to recreate with a pack of off-leash dogs. This is to be followed by gentle and constant reminders that your request isn’t coming out of left field and you have the numbers to support your proposal (with signed petitions in hand), that you do pay taxes supporting everyone else’s recreational activity and, lastly, that you regularly consult with your dogs before voting. By doing most of your homework online you can find many excellent examples of successful programs (see resources) to bring to your town’s decision-makers. Now that you have piqued their interest, the next step is to lead them to the drawing table with design guidelines and planning criteria.
Guidelines can help move the process along but keep in mind that, as Mencken noted: “For every complex, difficult problem, there is a simple, easy solution … and it is wrong.” One of the first things we learned in gathering this information is that while it is tempting to use guidelines from other cities or even from other parks within the same city, they should be used judicially and only as outlines to help shape the planning process and not as across-the-board standards. As Judy Green, a veteran of off-leash planning in Virginia, cautioned, “it is important to remain as flexible as possible,” leaving room for “fine-tuning afterwards.” Site-specific and community-specific needs must be addressed. A fifty-acre area within a five-hundred acre park might be too small for one city, but in a dense urban area like New York it could be positively palatine.
It is beyond the scope of this space to write about macro-level planning issues or site analyses—we all know that a city should provide a series of neighborhood parks accessible to the daily needs for all its citizens, including those with dogs, with major municipal or regional parks available for special jaunts. In the ideal world, dogs would be welcomed to share the total park experience with us, as they do in Australia, and not only be limited to permitted sectors. Taking these limitations into consideration, we’ll concentrate on some guidelines for a prototypical off-leash park, if only in the abstract. Operational topics, such as sponsoring groups, user-permits and maintenance issues will be discussed in the next issue.
Some suggest that the auxiliary (i.e., neighborhood) off-leash parks be a minimum of three to five acres. Even though we agree with the larger end of this range, in many urban areas this is probably unattainable. For smaller parks or for the ones that can’t be easily “divided” into specific usage zones, a “time share” arrangement might be possible, with the park available to dog use in the early mornings and early evening hours. If this is your only option, as it is for many New Yorkers, try to obtain a liberal frame of permitted times (perhaps before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.), factoring in seasonal day length changes. The town of Petaluma, north of San Francisco, reports very successful results with a time-share program that is operational in all of its parks.
We disagree with policy papers that suggest that OLAs be restricted to a maximum of five acres. The rationale behind this limit is that a larger area would make monitoring more difficult. But there is abundant and convincing long-term evidence to ameliorate these concerns, coming from larger dog-friendly parks such as Pt. Isabel in Richmond, California (with nearly a million visits a year), Fort Funston in San Francisco, Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington, Shawnee Mission Park in Johnson County, Kansas, and others. Ideally, OLAs should be large enough not only to accommodate human-with-dog recreational activities, like walking and jogging, but also to provide enough space where some of us can spend private time away from the fetch-and-chase set. Also, the larger the park the less likely that its resources, such as turf, will suffer from overuse.
Other design considerations:
• Available parking that will not interfere with or disturb neighbors
July 10 2014
This is another amazing rescue video from Hope For Paws and Eldad Hagar, one of its founders. In this one an exhausted dog, who had been living on the streets in LA and who had avoided other rescue attempts, was simply too tired this time. And while he was definitely stressed by the net, soon after, as you will see on this video, the adorable pup was basking in the love and attention given to him by his rescuers. Kudos to Hope For Paws once again.
July 2 2014
We have World Cup fever big time here at The Bark. And, while we were sad to see the USA team beaten yesterday, we applaud them for getting as far as they did and for inspiring us to learn more about that gorgeous sport. Tim Howard’s play as goalie was masterful, each of his 16 saves had us whopping it up with our dogs. Looks like many on the USA team are also dog lovers—we salute them and all their teammates and can’t wait to see them again in 2018. Matt Besler's & Graham Zusi's dogs are sisters, see more in the video below.
June 19 2014
Now it is summer and its long, warm days have arrived, we hope to catch up on our reading. To encourage you to do the same, we’ve compiled a roster of some of our favorites from newer to recent classic shelves. We would like to suggest our picks for a well-versed “dog culture” reading roster. These 10 books will enhance your understanding of your dog, along with entertaining and inspiring you. Enjoy!
Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell (Crown) explores what researchers have discovered about the mental and emotional lives of animals ranging from trout to dogs, and many others. She went in search of the “minds of animals to better grasp how the other creatures around us perceive and understand the world.” Her journalistic storytelling skills makes for a compelling read.
Edgar Award-winner Theresa Schwegel’s newest book, The Good Boy (Minotaur Books), includes an unforgettable character, Butch, a Belgian Malinois/German Shepherd mix trained as in drug-detection work. Butch and his K9 officer partner, Pete Murphy, navigate some of Chicago’s bleaker byways in this story. Both Joel, Murphy’s 11-year-old son, and Butch qualify as the “good boy” of the title. Joel is bright and innocent and loyal; Butch is honest, and honestly portrayed by a writer who knows dogs and their behaviors (she even knows why dogs’ feet smell like popcorn, an intriguing bit of trivia). Put this one on your reading list!
Read the interview with Theresa Schwegel for insights into her portrayal of Butch and the choices she made in his creation.
If you haven’t read it yet, make sure that this summer you pick up, Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz a fascinating journey into the dog’s rich sensory world, providing valuable insights into what it’s like to be a dog. If you think you know your dog, think again. Horowitz peels away the layers of pre-conceived notions and gets to the core of canine-ness to reveal that Canis familiaris is anything but familiar.
Read an interview with Alexandra Horowitz here.
A new must-read, The Mountaintop School for Dogs: and Other Second Chances (Houghton Mifflin) by Ellen Cooney is due out in August. This novel is a joyous romp featuring an impulsive, twenty-four-year old, Evie, who is on a quest to untangle a troubled past by seeking a new life path as a dog trainer. Little does she know that the she has enrolled in a command center for a network of underground animal rescuers, lead by four elderly ex-nuns. This is a brilliantly crafted, uplifting book, with its message of “Rescue. Best. Verb. Ever,” being evidenced throughout its pages.
First-time book author, Matthew Gilbert goes behind the scenes of a typical dog park, in his enjoyable Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park (St. Martin’s). He’s a dog-phobic convert who falls hard for his first pup who helps him to get immersed in a whole new world at a nearby dog park. The pair discover an engaging human pack replete with all the quirks, revelations and drama that come with your average (canine) nation state. This is a witty and memorable read that will delight and enthrall off-leash readers everywhere.
See a sampling of this book here.
In August, Spencer Quinn is back with another of his widely popular Chet and Bernie mystery books. In Paw and Order (Simon & Schuster), the seventh in this series, we find the intrepid duo being swept up in a case of international intrigue. Chet, the canine copilot extraordinaire, is always the unforgettable one in this partnership. Read one, you’ll want to read them all!
Susannah Charleson’s second book about dogs, The Possibility Dogs is every bit as enthralling as her first, Scent of the Missing. In this new book she refocuses her work from search-and-rescue to training rescue dogs for psychiatric service and therapy duty. She becomes an expert on evaluating shelter dogs to find those who might have the right personality and drive for this work. This book is an informative training guide but also a truly inspiring personal story.
For an excerpt on our site click here.
Rex and the City, by Lee Harrington. First published over seven years ago, this book still is one of the finest examples of the ever-popular canine memoir genre. Rex was a “behaviorally-challenged” sporting breed mix rescued by a NYC couple, who proves a trifle more than they can handle. But when it comes to exploring what it takes for “newbies” to learn about co-existing with a canine (and with each other), this is one of the funniest and exquisite accounts of the journey. A love story at its finest. As one reviewer noted: “Harrington shows us that learning how to live with a canine is the surest way of learning how to live."
For a sample of Lee Harrington's work read this.
A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler is part Hunter Thompson part Carlos Castaneda but mostly so original that it’s difficult to peg. A fascinating examination of the “cult and culture” of dog rescue. The story takes place in rural northern New Mexico—a perfect place for the author and his wife to start their dog sanctuary, Rancho de Chihuahua—home to not very “normal” dogs: special-needs dogs who are too old or too frail or simply too “compromised” to be easily adopted. Kotler gleefully throws himself into being part of the pack, taking the big dogs and the many Chihuahuas on forays into the foothills, where both dogs and humans experience a “flow state,” defined as “a joyous and complete merger of action and awareness.” Being totally involved in the now, time flies and the ego melts away—a feeling you’ll surely share when reading this delightful and insightful book.
In What the Dog Knows, Cat Warren explores the science and wonder of working dogs, guided by Solo, her German Shepherd. To harness Solo’s energies, she decided to try him at scent work—specifically, cadaver scenting. Her own training for this field was also a challenge, one that at times was more than she thought she could handle. This is a story of how Warren discovered what the worldview of a working dog really is, and how she and Solo not only learned to navigate it but also, to excel at it. This book offers new avenues to learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of one’s own dogs, and is highly recommended by this reviewer.
Click for a conversation with Cat Warren.
A Dog and his Girl
June 16 2014
Could be a first for a service dog—a photo of Taxi, Rachel Benke’s seizure alert dog, placed side-by-side with her photo in their middle school yearbook. 14-year-old Rachel and Taxi have been inseparable for the past four years. Taxi came into Rachel’s life when her mother, Teresa Benke had a chance meeting at a party with Cindy Buechner, who trains seizure alert dogs. It was Cindy who suggested that a dog like Taxi would be helpful to Rachel, who was born with an abnormality to the right side of her brain and had suffered epileptic seizures since birth. As a young child she would have as many as 200 seizures a day, and when she was six years old she under went corrective brain surgeries, but prior to that she had been completely non-verbal and could only eat baby food. While her seizures were greatly reduced after the surgeries, she still has them occasionally. So it was a great relief to her family that now she has Taxi, who accompanies her to class at San Antonio's Hector Garcia's Middle School, and has been taught to alert family and teachers when she is about to experience a seizure. That is something that he can predict up to an hour and half before it happens. He also orients himself so he can break her fall if that were to happen. An example of his ability to detect a seizure was how he averted a pool accident, Teresa Benke explains:
“Once, when Rachel was swimming in the family's pool, Taxi suddenly bolted up and began slapping at the water. Rachel's parents took her out of the water, and 10 minutes later she had a seizure. On another day, when Rachel was going to play on the trampoline in the backyard, Taxi put his paws on her shoulders to stop her because he felt a seizure coming. Sure enough, one occurred a few minutes later. And as always, he was right by her side.”
It meant the world to Rachel to have a photo of Taxi at her side in their yearbook—just as he is with her every day of her life.
For other stories on how service dogs have helped their people, see:
Seizure Alert Dog Walks at Graduation Parade
Autistic Boy and His Dog
June 5 2014
From celluloid reels and family classics to foreign cinema and indie flicks, The Bark presents its list of 12 favorite dog “father” movies showcasing a father (or a paternal figure) and a leading canine character. These movies explore familial bonds, rights of passage and, of course, love. Invite your dad, son or daughter for a night at the movies—all the films on our list are guaranteed to tug at your heart. Most can be seen on Netflix, hulu or youtube. If you have a favorite that didn’t make this list, let us know! (Be sure to click on the titles for trailers and videos.)Beginners Probably the only film that garnered an Academy Award for an actor, Christopher Plummer, who plays both a devoted dog “father” but also a father to a human son. This charming, true-to-life movie also costars Ewan McGregor, as the son, and a remarkable performance from Cosmo, a Jack Russell Terrier, who steals each scene. An understated story of self-discovery, life and love. See our interview with McGregor and Cosmo’s trainer too. - Rent or Buy Beginners on Amazon The Cave of the Yellow Dog This is a quasi-documentary that concentrates on a nomadic family in Mongolia—father, mother, three small children—and the impact made upon them by a stray puppy. The acting from six-year-old Nansalmaa Batchuluun is remarkable. As Bark’s reviewer noted, “this is one of the great joys of the movie-lover: to see a soul revealed, to witness a blending of part and actor so complete that we can’t distinguish where one emerges and the other disappears.” This is revelatory story about a culture in transition and the universality of the strength of the human-dog bond. See Bark’s interview with the director. - Buy The Cave of the Yellow Dog on Amazon
Sounder Let’s not mince words, this is a tearjerker, but one that is devoid of mawkish sentiment. A story of a black’s sharecropper family in the 1930s and their trusted dog, Sounder, a great hunter and loyal companion. He’s affectionate and joyful, and the pride of the family. With amazing performances from Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson and the young, Kevin Hooks, this four-time Oscar-nominated film is a powerful story about racism and injustice, but also about how a family overcomes insurmountable obstacles and about the hope that is represented by their dog, Sounder. - Rent or Buy Sounder on Amazon
Babe While everyone knows this is the one of the two seminal movies about a smart pig so one might wonder what it is doing on this list. Babe, the piglet, not only has aspirations for sheepdogdom, but is coached along by a real Border Collie, Fly. So it has a well-deserved spot here—besides it is also one of the best movies ever made about animals. All the animals are beautifully crafted and fully realized characters, and James Cromwell as Farmer Hoggett puts in a memorable performance especially in the scene when he takes Babe to the herding trial and the pair go on to prove to one and all that you can do just about anything if you put your mind, and snout, to it. As he gently intones to Babe at the film’s end, “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.” - Rent or Buy Babe on Amazon
Old Yeller This 1957 Disney classic is a coming-of-age tale set in the post-Civil War frontier. His father away on a cattle drive, young Travis must act as the man of the house, watching over his mother and younger brother. He’s initially mistrusting of a yellow stray dog who wreaks havoc and steals food, but the dog wins his affections and proves his loyalty by battling bears and boars to protect his new family. The tragic conclusion has overwhelmed generations of viewers, and the themes of love and loss resonate as clearly today as they did on the film’s first release. - Rent or Buy Old Yeller on Amazon
My Dog Skip Based upon a memoir by Willie Morris, one time editor of Harper’s magazine, My Dog Skip takes place in 1942. Young Willie has few friends and the prospect of a lonely summer, until his mother decides her son needs a dog. Skip changes Willie’s life forever. Best friend, talented performer, endearing dog-about-town … Skip introduces Willie to new worlds, new friends, seemingly the whole town. Moose (Eddie from Fraser) steals the film with his lively portrayal of Skip. - Rent or Buy My Dog Skip on Amazon
Where North Begins (Rin Tin Tin) Considered to be the first film starring Rin Tin Tin, this 1923 silent black and white reel has a the young German Shepherd puppy adopted by a wolf pack after being lost in transport across Alaska. As a grown “wolf-dog,” Rin Tin Tin comes to the rescue of a young trapper, Gabriel Dupré, who is attacked while transporting furs and left for dead. The young man and dog become fast friends, and Rin Tin Tin again proves his bravery by saving Dupré’s sweetheart when her life is threatened. Surprisingly realistic given the early age of cinema and the demanding feats asked of its canine star. - Buy Where the North Begins on Amazon
Because of Winn-Dixie One of the few “dog” movies featuring a little girl (the other is our pick, “Cave of the Yellow Dog”), in this case, a lonely 10-year-old named Opal. Having been abandoned by her mother when she was only three, finding a large scruffy dog at the supermarket, gives Opal another way to explore the world and her community and come out of her shell. Also because of Winn-Dixie, her father, played by Jeff Daniels, agrees to tell her ten things about her missing mother. Inspired by her attachment to her dog, Opal learns many things that summer. - Rent or Buy Because of Winn-Dixie on Amazon
Lassie Come Home This is the first film in the Lassie series, made in ’43 and starring Roddy McDowall and canine actor, Pal, in a story about the profound bond between the boy and his dog. When a poor Yorkshire family is forced to sell their beloved Rough Collie to a rich duke, the dog does everything to escape and make her way back to her “boy.” A lovely young Elizabeth Taylor plays the duke’s granddaughter who, sensing how much the dog loves her family helps Lassie escape. A movie classic that launched an industry, but its poignant and uplifting story is well worth your viewing. - Rent or Buy Lassie Come Home on Amazon
Umberto D This is one of the greatest films of all time and a classic masterpiece by Vittorio De Sica. This is a story about a retiree, played by a 70-year-old non-actor Carlo Battisti, who finds that the bond he has with his dog, Flike keeps him tethered to his own fading life. In fact, the dog shows him why he must continue to live. As Roger Ebert summarized it: “Umberto loves the dog and the dog loves him because that is the nature of the bond between dogs and men, and both try to live up to their side of the contract.” (This film was recently remade starring Jean Paul Belmondo, in a French version, “Mon Chien Un Homme et Son Chien.”) - Rent or Buy Umberto D. on Amazon
The Thin Man (any or all of this six-part series) Although it starred the sophisticates William Powell and Myrna Loy (as Nick and Nora Charles) it’s the performance of Asta that made this series from the ’30s all the more enjoyable. Adapted from the last novel written by Dashiell Hammett, Asta, the Charles’ dog/child was a female Schnauzer in the book, but in the movies the role went to male Wirehaired Fox Terrier(s). As a Bark reviewer noted, Skippy who played Asta in the first two movies, was “a consummate canine comedian who was the perfect counterpart to the socialites lushes the Charles.” - Rent or Buy The Thin Man on Amazon
My Dog Tulip This animated full-length feature film was adapted from J.R. Ackerley’s startling 1956 memoir that then, and even now, has a way of evoking either readers’ displeasure or intense admiration. Award winning-filmmakers Paul and Sandra Fierlinger codirected this film, and have done an artful job at bringing this eloquent study in love and adaptation to the screen. With the voices of Christopher Plummer, Isabella Rossellini and Lynn Redgrave this inimitable story of a man’s love for his dog showcases Ackerley’s determined efforts to ensure an existence of perfect happiness for his Alsatian, Tulip. See our review and interview with the filmmakers. - Buy My Dog Tulip on Amazon
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