Are Dog Films Giving Us Unrealistic Expectations Of Our Companions?
The 1961 Disney film One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a story of adventure, love, and family loyalty. But the heroes of this story, Pongo and Perdita, are dogs. Pongo and Perdita rescue their family from danger and risk their own lives in the process. They show devotion, intelligence, and determination. In the five years after the film was released, there was an increase in registrations for Dalmatians, presumably as consumers wanted dogs like Pongo and Perdita. But is it reasonable to expect a real dog to be like a Disney character? And how might these expectations harm our companion dogs when they aren’t met?
In this study, two researchers analyzed 95 dog characters in 40 U.S. movies between 1930 and 2004. They wanted to understand how the dog characters were portrayed in film and how these portrayals affected American Kennel Club (AKC) registrations for the characters’ breeds. They took into account four pre-established “themes” common in dog characters:
- Dogs as heroes: These dogs are brave, loyal, and value human life above their own. They often “save the day” and demonstrate popular societal values.
- Anthropomorphized dogs: These dogs demonstrate human characteristics. They seem to understand humans completely, and some go as far as speaking, reading, and showing other human skills.
- Dogs with Western values: These dogs (especially pedigree breeds) embody traditional Western concepts of Whiteness and heteronormativity. For example, dogs may be portrayed as surrogate children, upholding the nuclear family unit.
- Dogs as a boundary between society and wilderness: These dogs are formerly “wild” and taken in by humans only to become more domesticated. Such portrayals represent the human desire to establish dominance over nature.
After scoring the characters according to these four categories, the researchers looked at changes in AKC breed registrations up to ten years after each film was released.
Importantly, movies with heroic dog characters were followed by significant increases in breed demand for up to five years. This suggests people want their companion animals to be loyal, well-behaved, and ready to protect their family — just like in the movies. On the other hand, movies with anthropomorphized dogs were followed by significant decreases in breed demand for up to five years. The researchers were surprised by this finding, but they note that many anthropomorphized characters are geared toward children who don’t always make purchasing decisions. Finally, although some of the 40 films showed dogs embodying Western values and representing the boundary between society and wilderness, these themes did not significantly affect AKC breed demand.
There were other interesting findings in the study. For example, 75% of characters portrayed in the films were male, while 24% were female. Female dogs were portrayed more often with Western values. Meanwhile, dog characters in animated films showed higher levels of anthropomorphism.
Different dog breeds go in and out of fashion, and it’s no surprise that movies, like other forms of media, have a big impact on these trends. The researchers discussed three concerning effects that film portrayals could have on our relationships with companion dogs.
First, the unrealistic portrayal of dogs could make people unprepared for the realities of animal guardianship. The heroic dogs in movies were obedient, could communicate easily with humans, and showed affection and loyalty to their families. But the movies gave very little attention to how to meet their daily needs, how to train them, or how to look after them generally. If people buy a dog as a companion without understanding what they are getting into, they might not treat the dog properly. Furthermore, while German Shepherds and Dalmatians are often portrayed as hero dogs, research has found that these breeds are frequently reported as showing “undesirable” behaviors. If people expect their dog to behave like the characters in the movie and they don’t meet those expectations, it may lead to relinquishment.
Second, the authors note that movies often glorify situations that are distressing or dangerous for dogs. Especially when dogs are shown as heroes, there is little consideration given to how such situations can impact their welfare. For example, ‘separation anxiety’ is often depicted as devotion to the dog’s guardian rather than as a very stressful experience for the dog. Movies make these experiences seem admirable without educating guardians of the importance of addressing them.
Finally, if unhealthy or vulnerable dog breeds are portrayed as heroic, then people may seek them out despite the obvious problems associated with breeding and breed-specific illnesses. Such unhealthy breeds often suffer from bone deformities, reduced heart and lung function, and other problems. The movies almost never show these problems, so people miss an opportunity to learn. If dog guardians don’t base their decision on breed health, then their companion animals are more likely to suffer.
Heroic dogs in movies and the changes to breed popularity that happen as a result could be harmful to our companion animals. It’s fun to watch dogs save the day in movies, and it’s difficult to imagine a world where dogs aren’t portrayed on screen. However, animal advocates can educate consumers about the importance of looking beyond the film industry when choosing their companions. How a dog appears in a movie doesn’t tell us anything about the animal’s health, behavior, and needs. Understanding this is an important step to reducing the suffering of companion dogs and strengthening the human-animal bond.