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Shelter Me: Dogs in Need, People in Need
We all need someone we can lean on, and so do they.
Shelter Me / PBS Screenshot

Last night I watched a most wonderful documentary about the many ways in which rescued dogs can help rescue humans, each of whom needs someone to lean on. It's called Shelter Me. A synopsis of the docmentary can be seen here. A snippet should be all that's needed to get you to watch it:

"The first episode shows how shelter pets are helping our returning war veterans cope with PTSD. We go inside a women’s prison, where inmates train shelter dogs to become service animals for people with disabilities. We also see the journey of two stray dogs, from the day they are picked up on the streets and brought to the shelter until the day they become a beloved family pet. Shelter Me is about redemption, hope, helping others and making a difference

We all need someone we can lean on, and so do they (other animals). I was moved to tears of joy as I watched the bond develop between the humans and their new found companions. I think you will also be incredibly moved by this most-welcomed documentary that spills over with hope for those beings, nonhuman and human, who need help in a demanding world. While some might question the scientific data about such relationships, these stories show clearly that dogs and humans form incredibly strong and reciprocal social bonds. Each becomes the life-line, the much-needed oxygen, for the other.

Culture: Reviews
Found by a Lost Dog
The creators of the new movie Darling Companion have an eye and ear for real-life drama.
Mixed-breed rescue dog Kasey plays Freeway in the new film, Darling Companion.

Lawrence and meg kasdan wrote one of my favorite movies: Grand Canyon, a 1991 film about six people who find their lives intersecting in Los Angeles. Like other movies directed and written by Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist), it contains a number of remarkable lines of dialogue. One, spoken by Steve Martin, stands out. “That’s part of your problem … you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”

One of life’s riddles about dogs is answered in the new movie Darling Companion, also co-written by the Kasdans. The riddle is this: how do dogs remind us of our own humanity? The film also shows how dogs bring us closer to one another.

The movie tells the tale of a longtime married couple who look just fine on the outside. Dr. Joseph Winter (Kevin Kline) and his wife Beth (Diane Keaton) have it all, including a gorgeous second home in the Colorado Rockies. But under the surface we see that, obsessed by his career as a surgeon, Winter is rarely fully present for their lives. The movie truly begins when Beth’s emptiness is accidently filled by a rescued dog named Freeway.

As Meg Kasdan says, “We thought of Dr. Winter as a distracted person, in this case, by his career. Their relationship was beginning to fray from it.” Lawrence adds, “We really wanted to make it about paying attention, being present. It doesn’t matter if it’s a wife, husband or anyone else … not paying attention is a metaphor.” And not paying attention is exactly what happens when Beth’s beloved Freeway runs off into the woods and gets lost. This is based on a true story from an episode in the Kasdans’ 40-year marriage.

The couple spoke to me from their office in Los Angeles; it was a breezy conversation among three complete dog fans. As soon as I told them I believe dogs take us to our higher selves, they knew we would connect on this film … and share the joy and gratitude dogs bring to our lives. Lawrence believes that “the world changes when you love a dog, or a pet of any kind. You have a sensitivity you didn’t have before. You identify at the vet with others … you see the worry, the comfort, the control. It all opens a whole new world.” Meg, a true partner in doggie love, goes on. “We spend a lot of time with three dogs. We have our own rescue mutt — a Cattle Dog/Shepherd mix, Mack — and our son’s two dogs. We all walk together in the woods … they give us the best, fullest way to experience wilderness.”

They had their dog-centered story to tell, but how would they find just the right dog to take center stage? Lawrence realized that there’s no casting couch when looking for a dog star in a movie. “With this movie, I knew a trainer would be as important as finding the right D.P. or actor. We needed a great dog and a great trainer.” After interviewing many trainers with dogs, Meg said they were thrilled with the work done by Steve Solomon and Sarah Cole and their dog Kasey, a mixed breed with Collie and German Shepherd in his background. Lawrence looked for the quality in a dog that he most cherishes in an actor: “the ability to be in repose … to listen. Kasey can just sit or lie down and be contented to be there. He also looked so right; he is a rescue dog playing a rescue dog … He had nicks and scratches.”

With a few welcome exceptions like The Artist, Beginners or Our Idiot Brother, dogs in movies too often are exploited, reduced to props used for cruel laughter or a character’s neglect or abuse. Darling Companion not only keeps the dog love sweet and soulful, it drives both the plot and the characters. According to Lawrence, “The search in the film for the dog is a metaphor for people searching for their own connections to each other.” In the movie, Russ (Richard Jenkins) and Penny (Dianne Wiest) have found each other later in life, while the younger characters (played by Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass) are beginning the search for caring and commitment. They all are searching for the dog and for each other.

Carmen (Ayelet Zurer) is on a discovery of self, forming and listening to her intuitive visions. Meg Kasdan found Carmen’s perceptions in their real-life story when they lost Mack for a number of days after he freaked out on a mountain trail. As Meg remembers, “we had allowed a friend to watch over Mack and they were on a walk together. A mountain-bike rider whizzed by and our dog just took off after it; suddenly, he was nowhere to be found. We conducted a massive search as you see in the film, though we’ve taken artistic and a few comic liberties. Through it all with Mack, we had a friend who kept up our spirits with the certain knowledge that the dog was all right, providing clues she somehow knew as to where he was going. When we finally found him by the river, Mack had lost seven pounds and was filthy, but he was absolutely fine.” Lawrence believes that “this search was a good catalyst about relationships, a way to fight to reach a place of what is, hopefully, inner contentment.”

Contentment, satisfying conclusions, kindness of heart and joyful simplicity are not seen in mainstream Hollywood movies these days. Lawrence knows it too well. “It’s hard to make any movie about people anymore, anything that isn’t an action-comic-book piece or extremely dumb comedies. You know, the kind of movies we loved are hard to get made. I was 14 when I saw Lawrence of Arabia and it changed my life. That was it for me. It had everything: personal details mixed with gigantic story and sweep. It made me want to make movies and tell stories that way.” Meg “flipped out” when she saw Some Like It Hot, noticing not only the warmth and wacky fun, but Marilyn Monroe’s heartfelt performance. The three of us agreed that movies have changed our lives. And that dogs enrich, inspire and connect us to each other. In fact, my dogs, Duke and Ella, are staring at me as I write this. Lawrence and Meg told me they wrote the screenplay with three dogs surrounding them.

Dogs: they are indeed our darling companions. sonyclassics.com/darlingcompanion

News: Guest Posts
Dog Saves Movie, Once Again
Hallmark channels the pet adoption message

Cut from the same pastel fabric as most Hallmark movies, Duke is a classic tearjerker-with-a-happy ending—made a whole lot better by a dog. Marine Sergeant Terry Pulaski (Steven Weber of “Wings” and “Brothers & Sisters”) plays an Afghan war veteran with serious physical and emotional injuries that drive him to leave his wife and young daughter. The bulk of the story focuses on his life ten years later, which finds him living in a trailer with Duke, a bright-eyed and endearing former stray, played by a talented, especially when pretending to be sick, 10-month-old Border Collie named Zeke. (Duke premieres Saturday, April 28, 8 p.m. ET/PT, 7 p.m. CT on Hallmark Movie Channel).

There is a lot that is predictable in this story, which is “inspired by true events,” but that didn’t stop me from sniveling my way through several tissues. I especially liked the scenes of Duke comforting Pulaski through severe bouts of PTSD, and I was moved by the attempt to portray Pulaski’s grief over Duke’s death (the rumors of which are greatly exaggerated) as deep, nuanced and lasting. In the end, I was a little embarrassed by how Pulaski seemed more enthusiastic to reunite with his canine family than with his human family—but even that had a ring of truth.

The film is part of Hallmark Channel’s Pet Project, launched in early April “to celebrate the joy and enrichment pets bring to our lives, while shining a spotlight on this country’s epidemic of pet homelessness and encouraging the public to adopt.” PetSmart Charities and American Humane Association are partners in this initiative. In addition to original movies, the Pet Project features pet-centric programming, including the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards; a microsite featuring videos, photos, pet care tips and pet-finder resources; and public service announcements voiced by Hallmark talent encouraging people to find their next pet through adoption—which is a feel-good message I can totally get behind.

Check out what Zeke’s fellow actors have to say in the video below.

News: Guest Posts
Downton Abbey Dog: Right Breed, Wrong Color
And more flubs in period films

In period movies, dog breeds, just like fabric on the furniture, should be accurate to the period. Only a few contemporary breeds look exactly as they did 100 years ago.

Downton Abbey, the early 20th century story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, with its authentic Yorkshire country house and period decor, is accurate down to thread in the costumes. But oops. No one thought to research what Lord Crawley’s loyal dog would actually have looked like. And Pharaoh (played by Roly) would not be a light cream–colored yellow Labrador Retriever.

Ben of Hyde (above), born in 1899, was the first recognized light-colored Lab—not really yellow but rather a dark butterscotch color. Prior to Ben, Labs were black, usually with white markings. The light cream–colored coat we see in every opening episode as Pharaoh trots along side his master, is a much later 20th century look.

When it comes to dogs in period films, historical inaccuracy is a pet peeve of mine. Here are some winners and losers:

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)—Set in 1757, takes place in the Hudson River Valley, includes two American Black and Tan Coonhounds pretending to be Blue Gascony Hounds.

Mrs. Brown (1997)—The story of widowed Queen Victoria, her servant, Scottish Highlander John Brown, and their extraordinary friendship that apparently left no time for any of her 88 dogs. Nary a single dog appears on screen. We don’t even hear a proxy dog barking off screen.

Howard’s End (1992)—A typical Merchant Ivory production, historically accurate from turn of the century wardrobe to wallpaper, is a tale of social class, theosophy and two poorly placed four-month-old yellow Labrador Retrievers.

Apocalypto (2006)—The story of the demise of the ancient Central American civilization features two hungry Xolo dogs that check out a smoldering campfire for leftovers. Accurate depiction, but seconds of screen time is hardly enough.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)—At a time when Spaniels were a soupy mix of similar shapes and sizes, the movie depicts Spaniels just that way.

Spaniels were a generic sort of working bird dog until the end of the 19th century.

Amazing Grace (2002)—The story of religious social reformer and abolitionist William Wilburforce. The 18 historically accurate Regency period dogs include in order of appearance: Papillion, Border Terrier, Collie, little black dog, little Terrier dog, another Collie, yellow Lurcher, grey Lurcher, little white dog, Irish Red and White Setter, and another field dog that looks suspiciously like a contemporary Springer Spaniel groomed with an electric trimmer. I didn’t say the movie was perfect.

This is what Reverend Wilburforce’s Collie would have looked like.

To read my entire diatribe about historically inaccurate dogs in period films, click here.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Street Dogs of South Central
Film about dogs in Los Angeles

The documentary film Street Dogs of South Central follows a mother dog trying to raise a litter of pups in an urban environment. Acquiring food and finding shelter are challenging for dogs living in South Central Los Angeles, and this film shows the harsh reality they face. Queen Latifah narrates this emotional film.

This is the film’s trailer:

Many found it tough to watch the film because of the dangers and hunger the dogs faced. There has been criticism directed towards the makers of the film for not helping the dogs they were filming. On the other hand, some have argued that the purpose of a documentary is to show the reality of a situation, not to interfere with it, no matter how horrible that reality is.

Originally shown on Animal Planet last month, Street Dogs of South Central will be shown on March 31, 2012, at the Atlanta Film Festival. If you’ve seen it, what do you think of it?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Awards for Promoting Animal Issues
The Genesis Awards honors media for raising public awareness

Some say that award shows are all about politics and popularity. But at least one show is about rewarding works that bring attention and compassion to those who need it. Since 1986, the Genesis Awards has honored television, film, print and radio media for raising public awareness about animal issues. One of my favorite films of all time, Finding Nemo, won Best Animated Feature Film in 2004.

The Genesis Awards were founded by Broadway actress and animal advocate, Gretchen Wyler, to encourage members of the media to spotlight animal issues. In her honor, a special award is given each year to a celebrity who uses his or her fame to bring attention to animal issues.

This year's Gretchen Wyler Award will be given to actor Ian Somerhalder. The Vampire Diaries actor blogs, tweets and talks about animal issues, such as puppy mills and shark finning. He has also addressed Congress about endangered species.

The other Genesis Award winners will be revealed at the ceremony on Saturday, March 24 in Beverly Hills. The final results are decided by a committee selected based on their personal histories in working for animal causes.

Here are some of this year's Genesis Award nominees. The full list can be viewed on their website. Which are your favorites?

Feature Film

  • Dolphin Tale
  • Rio
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  • War Horse

Feature Documentary

  • Born to Be Wild 3D
  • Buck
  • One Lucky Elephant

Sid Caesar Comedy Award

  • The Cleveland Show, “Ain't Nothin' But Mutton Bustin'”
  • The Colbert Report, multiple issues
  • Melissa & Joey, “Toledo's Next Top Model”

Dramatic Series

  • The Glades, “Swamp Thing”
  • Hawaii Five-O, “Lapa'au”

National News

  • ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, “Egg Farm Cruelty”
  • CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, multiple issues
  • NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, multiple issues

Talk Show

  • The Ellen Degeneres Show, multiple issues
  • The Martha Stewart Show, “Vegan Cooking”
  • The Oprah Winfrey Show, “Vegan Challenge”

Reality Series

  • Animal Planet Investigates: Captive Hunting Exposed
  • Crimes Against Nature, “Blood Ivory” and “Making a Killing”
  • It's Me or the Dog, “Bone of Contention”
  • Vanguard, “Tiger Farms”

Magazine

  • Mother Jones, "The Cruelest Show on Earth"
  • National Geographic, multiple articles
  • O, Oprah Magazine, multiple articles
  • Vanity Fair, “Agony and Ivory”
News: Guest Posts
Congatulations, Uggie
If canines could win Oscars, he’d have retrieved a golden statuette

With Hollywood awards season over and Uggie’s big moment at the Oscars last night (receiving high profile props from Best Picture director Michel Hazanavicius), we thought we’d take one more appreciative look at the Jack Russell who chewed up the screen in this year’s runaway favorite, The Artist.

A charming Uggie helps co-star Jean Dujardin to his Best Actor win:

In the run up to the red carpet, Uggie displays his considerable talent on Ellen:

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
TV for Dogs
New station features content designed for canines

These days it seems that there are dogs in just about every commercial and television show. But now content is being created to appeal, not only to pet lovers, but to dogs themselves. Starting last week, pups in San Diego now have their very own television station. DOGTV is designed to keep dogs from being stressed and anxious when home alone.

DOGTV's content was developed using research on what relaxes and stimulates the dogs' senses. For instance, the color, contrast, brightness and frame rate is adjusted to create an ideal visual for the canine eye. The sound effects and music use specific frequencies for the canine ear.

DOGTV rotates between three- to six-minute segments that fall into three different categories: relaxation (designed to soothe dogs), stimulation (designed to encourage dogs to be playful) and exposure (designed to exercise the brain with day-to-day stimuli).

My dogs don't usually pay much attention to the television and, when I'm not home, I'm pretty sure they spend most of the day sleeping. But it's an intriguing concept. The relaxation segment is pretty soothing, but I think the stimulation segment would drive my anxious pup crazy. If a dog has separation anxiety, leaving the television on with stimulating programming might not be the best solution. But for a calm dog, I can see how DOGTV would provide a little break from the monotony of being alone.

Interested in checking out DOGTV? You can view clips of each of the three categories on its website.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A Commercial Aimed at Dogs
Directly at dogs, that is

A dog food commercial is expected to air in the UK with sounds so high in pitch that people won’t be able to hear them, but dogs will. The goal of the commercial is to attract the attention of dogs. Ideally, from the point of view of those who designed the ad, dogs will perk up their ears and even bark when the commercial plays. They hope that this will direct their guardians’ attention to the commercial. Along with the high frequency sounds, the commercial has bells, whistles and barking.

This 2011 version of the commercial does not have the high-pitched sounds in it, but the one that will air in 2012 does.

As a behaviorist, it alarms me to think of sounds that target dogs without humans being able to detect them. What if the dogs find them distressing? We would have no way of knowing that there are sounds associated with the commercial, and that can make it extra hard to find the source of trouble. There are already so many stimuli that our dogs can detect without our being aware of them, especially scents. The idea of adding triggers whose purpose is to cause our dogs to perk up and bark doesn’t thrill me.

On the other hand, I’m curious about whether dogs will react to the commercial as expected, based on the 12 dogs tested by the company. All 12 expressed some interest in the commercial and a couple of them came over to the television.

What do you think about commercials with sounds only our dogs can hear?

News: Guest Posts
Martha Speaks Turns Four
Jon Hamm, Jennifer Westfeldt and their real-life dog, Cora, star in season premier

In one of those series of events that usually only happen in dreams—Jon Hamm (the enigmatic, chain-smoking star of “Mad Men”) drives around in a purple boot with a loquacious yellow mutt named Martha in tonight’s season premier of “Martha Speaks” on PBS.

Based on the best-selling books by Susan Meddaugh, “Martha Speaks” follows the adventures of a pup whose appetite for alphabet soup gives her the power of human speech. While the stories are geared for children ages 4 to 7, with the goal of increasing oral vocabulary, you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate the verbal richness of this spirited dog.

In tonight’s episode, Hamm plays an actor who is trying to save up enough money to create vocabulary calendars (watch the teaser below). He and Martha are joined in this adventure by Hamm’s real-life girlfriend, the actress Jennifer Westfeldt (“Friends with Kids”), and the couple’s German Shepherd mix, Cora. It’s a classic Martha plot with mistaken identity, verbal gaffes, silliness—plus a very animated Don Draper.

Check local PBS listings for times.

 

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