Everyone wants to know what I thought of the movie ‘A Dog’s Purpose’. And honestly, I’m not quite sure. I really enjoyed many of Lasse Hallstrom’s movies including The Hundred Foot Journey, Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – in which themes such as purpose and belonging were explored.
A Dog’s Purpose follows these themes, albeit lightly, through a dog (voiced by Josh Gad) who goes through various reincarnations and owners: as a Red Retriever named Bailey, a German shepherd police dog and as a Corgi (the reincarnation theme comes up quickly in the movie so it’s not a spoiler).
I’m going to break down my review based on two aspects – me as the dog trainer and me as a movie goer.
The movie goer in me would summarise it as the feel-good Lassie movie for the noughties. It’s not complicated, complex or taxing. Great for children. My friend who watched it with me loved it and is still talking about how much she enjoyed it. She works with some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in society as a chaplain and found the light relief and positive messages very refreshing. She says she sees enough heartbreak in her daily life to want to watch a movie about it. Me – well I both laughed and cried in spots, and if a movie can get those reactions from you, I always think you’ve got your money’s worth. But it was too sugary sweet for me to thoroughly get into and I often had to work hard at suspending my disbelief.
As a positive dog trainer, I’m not so sure. Why? There wasn’t too much anthropomorphism, as the narrator doesn’t extend far beyond the believed experiences of a dog – so that wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t just the use of terms (albeit once off except for “boss dog”) such as ‘Alpha’, ‘pack’, ‘dominant’ and ‘boss’. I feel that, while acknowledging that this wasn’t a documentary, there was a missed opportunity to change the way we view dogs. As objects of entertainment. Of ownership. Of responsibility as puppies grow into older dog and they lose their soft, squishy cuteness.
Recognising that the major part of the Bailey scenes were set in the 1960s, when we viewed the world in a very different way, I still felt myself cringing at the way the dog was handled by the actors in many scenes. Not in an overtly abusive way. I’m not even talking about the controversy around the scene during the filming when the German Shepherd dives in after the drowning girl. It was more around the rough handling of collars. Of kicking at the dog by the dad under the dinner table. Being ‘hounded’ by children who wouldn’t leave him alone. At how it was trained in the story – based on expectations of ‘getting it’ through attrition, osmosis or even telepathy, rather than through slow, methodical techniques that reward the right thing, doused with loads of patience.
Fundamentally, for me, it was about a missed opportunity to reset the baseline about how we view dogs in society. Not just as “amazing” when they save lives but also in the day-to-day respecting of their rights. To be respected and trained in a humane way that helps them learn and integrate into our lives and homes. And not to be left outside in the cold, chained in the snow to a tree in the yard, without any real repercussions for the humans.
So when the dog’s purpose is revealed at the very end of the movie (and for the sake of spoilers I won’t say what it is), expect to get a lesson on humanity. Not about how to better treat and respect dogs, but to, once again, take from them rather than shift the broad public’s perception about the rights of dogs and the responsibilities we have towards them.
All in all though, I will say this: Zac is having a pretty good life this time around!