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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