In dog years, you’re dead

What dogs dying in movies tell us about our own mortality.

What is the mean­ing of life? Are we here for a rea­son? Is there a point to any of this?”

Over the glow of gold­en bokeh, a young man’s voice pos­es these exis­ten­tial ques­tions. They’re not the words of a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor or a pre­co­cious teenag­er, but that of Bai­ley, our canine hero from A Dog’s Pur­pose (2017). Through­out two film adap­ta­tions of dog ora­cle W. Bruce Cameron’s nov­els – the oth­er being 2019’s sequel, A Dog’s Jour­ney – Bailey’s soul trans­fers from one dog’s body to anoth­er, pro­pelled by a desire to dis­cov­er and hon­our his life’s pur­pose, tran­scend­ing the phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of a dog’s lifespan.

Bailey’s spir­i­tu­al jour­ney is not unlike Bella’s, the Pit­bull-mix star of A Dog’s Way Home (2019), anoth­er W. Bruce Cameron adap­ta­tion. Bel­la lives just one life, but she knows what she was put on Earth to do: pro­tect her own­er, Lucas, and over­come the steep chal­lenges that sep­a­rate her from her human. It also mir­rors Enzo’s unwa­ver­ing loy­al­ty to his own­er, a race car dri­ver named Dan­ny, and his karmic aspi­ra­tions in the adap­ta­tion of Garth Stein’s best­seller The Art of Rac­ing in the Rain, grac­ing our screens on 9th August.

Bai­ley, Bel­la, and Enzo’s sto­ries fall into a long lin­eage of dog movies that explore life and death through the eyes of an ani­mal. Sport­ing an adorable face and dri­ven by loy­al instincts and uncon­di­tion­al love, a dog is a hero that can build an instant emo­tion­al con­nec­tion with ani­mal-lov­ing audi­ence mem­bers. They’re also uncom­pli­cat­ed blank slates, their per­son­al­i­ties untar­nished by divi­sive polit­i­cal opin­ions, ques­tion­able ethics, or mali­cious inten­tions, which means that a dog nev­er deserves to die; their on-screen lives always bring joy, and their deaths are noth­ing short of tragedy. 

The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019)

In Cameron’s cin­e­mat­ic uni­verse, a good life includes tiny pieces of cheese, acro­bat­ic games of fetch, run­ning through sprawl­ing fields on a Michi­gan farm, and qual­i­ty time with your humans. A bad life stems from lone­li­ness. Being alone might be the worst thing that can hap­pen to you,” Bailey’s nar­ra­tion laments while liv­ing in the body of Ellie, a police dog, who sad­ly stares at her own­er as he tear­ful­ly regards a pho­to­graph of his deceased wife.

Through­out the wide range of films, lone­ly humans suf­fer from depres­sion, alco­holism, and abuse. They’ve become unsure of their place in the world. As they hit rock bot­tom, dogs appear in their lives, act­ing as mag­ic charms that sud­den­ly rein­vig­o­rate hope. In A Dog’s Pur­pose, for exam­ple, Bai­ley, now in his fifth life, uses his super­nat­ur­al abil­i­ties to pick up scents to reunite his sin­gle, mid­dle-aged own­er, Ethan, with his teenage sweet­heart, Hannah.

Though dog films tend to be sac­cha­rine, whole­some, and try to end on a good note, the dogs face plen­ty of adver­si­ty to show that life isn’t always snug­gles and play­time. The most har­row­ing exam­ple comes from A Dog’s Way Home, when Bel­la finds her­self chained to the corpse of a home­less man, starv­ing and dehy­drat­ed. A cou­ple of boys find her on the brink of death and release her, and while Bel­la sur­vives this close call and makes it to the end of her movie, oth­er dog pro­tag­o­nists aren’t so lucky. As Bai­ley pass­es through his myr­i­ad of lives, we see him die from old age, can­cer, a car crash, and a gun­shot wound. The onslaught of mis­ery in the sequel prompt­ed film crit­ic Tom­ris Laffly to ask, Is A Dog’s Jour­ney one of the sweet­est canine films out there, or one of the meanest?”

There are peo­ple who go to great lengths to avoid watch­ing dogs die on screen and web­sites like Does The Dog Die? exist to shield peo­ple from this trau­ma, but we do under­stand that dogs have sig­nif­i­cant­ly short­er lifes­pans than humans, rep­re­sent­ing a life stage rather than a life­time. With this in mind, it’s rel­a­tive­ly easy to accept and move on from their death, which gives cin­e­ma the oppor­tu­ni­ty to use the puri­ty of dogs as cat­a­lyst for exis­ten­tial ques­tion­ing, help­ing peo­ple of all ages come to terms with death, grief, heal­ing, find­ing their pur­pose, and the afterlife.

A Dog's Way Home (2019)

Unlike human vio­lence, audi­ences tend not to be desen­si­tised to ani­mal suf­fer­ing. When a dog dies, an emo­tion­al view­er crit­i­cal­ly inter­ro­gates why the dog’s death was nec­es­sary to advance a movie’s plot or char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. Some­times the animal’s fate is a warm up, a small step before fac­ing the inevitable loss of a beloved human; or it’s a moral­i­ty les­son about loy­al­ty, com­mit­ment, pro­tec­tion, love, or inno­cence – or any oth­er trait inher­ent to a canine. 

These fam­i­ly films are espe­cial­ly illu­mi­nat­ing to chil­dren who may not have processed such dif­fi­cult emo­tions yet, but they can be cathar­tic for adults as well. A dead dog is a cypher, an excuse to process a greater per­son­al tragedy pro­ject­ed onto the events on screen. Sob­bing every time Bai­ley pass­es is a chance to mourn the real life loved ones that have passed, and maybe this is why Bai­ley meets so many dif­fer­ent end­ings. We under­stand the inevitable death in old age, but we are less accept­ing when his life is sud­den­ly cut short in a car crash or shootouts. View­ers who lost peo­ple in these sce­nar­ios have a path to address the unfair­ness of the uni­verse and see their sto­ries rep­re­sent­ed. In a twist­ed way, there’s some­thing for everyone. 

The films avoid point­ed ref­er­ences to reli­gion, care­ful­ly avoid­ing dog­ma that could divide an audi­ence with a uni­ver­sal love for dogs, but it’s clear that the Bud­dhist prin­ci­ples of kar­ma and rein­car­na­tion are dri­ving Cameron and Stein’s sto­ries. This gives view­ers a win­dow of hope that’s lack­ing in the deci­sive fates of oth­er famous Hol­ly­wood dead dogs like Old Yeller. Bai­ley and Enzo’s spir­its may not be gone from our screens for­ev­er. Anoth­er life – and anoth­er sequel – is always on the horizon.

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