The Death of the Dog and The Thing About Training Wheels

By Dharma Senn

Dogs, young children, occasionally cats: they seem to be untouchable by the gritty hands of narrative death. If a film dares to kill one of the above, all bets are off. But when has film ever cared about conventionality?

The dog dies. Tears flow. Usually.

In today’s narratives, dogs are often brought up whenever a certain natural setting is involved. In her 2002 essay, “Good Dog: The Stories We Tell about Our Canine Companions and What They Mean For Humans and Other Animals”, Karla Armbuster suggests that dogs as domestic animals are seen as existing on the thin line between nature and culture. In turn, “the dog’s perceived position on the nature/culture boundary promises modern humans a connection to nature that has otherwise largely been lost” (353).

Therefore, adventure films like The Call of the Wild (2020, dir. Chris Sanders) utilize the dynamic between human, animal and the wilderness in their narrative, as survival stands on screen as a central theme.  We fear for the dog because it is a protagonist, because its struggles are just as clearly articulated as its owner’s. The dog serves as a mediator between nature and culture, and helps its human survive. Naturally, the dog survives as well, or its death is emotionally affecting for the viewer.

 But what if the dog in question is not a helpful protagonist? What if nature is not a threat? What if it is not a narrative of survival, but one of growing up? 

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