If you’re a longtime A.V. Club reader (or maybe just one who just enjoys scouring the archives), you may recall an Inventory we did about five years ago which offered up 24 Great Films Too Painful to Watch Twice. I’m not necessarily going to tell you that the documentary One Nation Under Dog: Stories of Fear, Loss & Betrayal, which makes its HBO debut this evening, should be deemed a must-include in any future revisal of the list, but the fact that the list immediately leapt to mind as I watched the documentary should at least give you some idea of what a harrowing viewing experience it can be.
Inspired by the 2009 book by Michael Schaffer (if apparently not officially connected to it, since Schaffer doesn’t receive a production credit), One Nation Under Dog was directed by the trio of Jenny Carchman, Ellen Goosenberg Kent, and Amanda Micheli, each of whom helms a different segment of the film. As suggested in its subtitle, the proceedings are divided into three sections—“Fear” (Carchman), “Loss” (Micheli), and “Betrayal” (Kent)—which cover various aspects of dog ownership but as often as not come back to the key point that people really, really need to spay and neuter their pets. Yes, it’s a phrase which became an easy punchline after it became Bob Barker’s signature farewell on The Price is Right, but you’d have to be a pretty sick bastard to be laughing by the end of some of these stories.
“How far would you go for a dog?” That’s the question asked at the beginning of the film, and it’s one that really hits home during a segment about Julie Adams, a Missouri woman who’s dedicated her life to saving “dumped” dogs from possible euthanasia by Animal Control by bringing them onto her property. It sounds a little disconcerting at first when she says that she has 110 dogs as of the time of filming, but to see the situation on camera, it really isn’t: She’s got a farm, and she has the area segmented off so that there are only a certain amount of dogs in each area. Meanwhile, as she takes in strays either by finding them herself or having them brought to her (she tells a thoroughly disconcerting story about a man who arrived with a beagle and a shotgun and said, “If you don’t take the dog, I’m gonna take it down the road and shoot it”), she uses PetFinder to help find them new homes.
Why has Adams dedicated her life to doing this for dogs? Well, aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do (at least from her perspective), she admits that it might well stretch back to her childhood, when one of her family’s hunting dogs had puppies, and because she spoiled the puppies by playing with them and treating them sweetly, her father said they were “ruined” and promptly took them away and killed them. When you see the look on her face and hear the crack in her voice when Adams tells the story, it’s no surprise that she concludes the harrowing tale by saying, “I’ve got that to make up for.”
Adams’ story comes in the midst of the “Loss” segment, which is arguably the most effective segment of the film, covering topics that also include pet loss support groups, pet cemeteries, and a couple that cloned their dog, rationalizing the expense by saying that the cost of bringing back their beloved Lancelot was “less than the cost of a Bentley.” The fact that each segment of One Nation Under Dog is under the creative control of a different director, however, results in the very serious message of the film coming off in a slightly schizophrenic fashion.
“Fear” focuses on the 4.7 million Americans bitten by dogs each year by putting a face on the problem with Dr. Robert Taffet, a New Jersey physician who is finally taken to task—and to court—for repeated incidents of his dogs biting neighbors. In the case of one victim, Taffet reportedly offered to fix up her wounds himself in order to avoid any possible prosecution, pleading that the dog would be put down if the biting was reported. One is left a bit uncertain as to the intent of the segment, but the question asked seems to be, “Did Taffet go too far for his dogs?” After listening to the report of how one poor little girl had her ear ripped from the side of her head in the midst of an attack, there’s little question that Taffet’s dogs needed to answer for the actions, but it must be said that there’s still a certain amount of pathos to his emotional reaction to the euthanizing of one of the beasts.
“Betrayal” is the hardest segment of all to watch, to the point where I’m hard pressed to recommend that anyone who thinks of themselves as a dog lover actually watch it. After starting with the factoid that dog overpopulation has led to 2 million dogs being destroyed in shelters annually, the film offers footage—albeit with an on-the-money warning that it’s gonna be disturbing—of shelter dogs being put down. You don’t actually see it happening, per se, but thanks to an employee of the facility, plenty enough is seen and heard to inspire nightmares. There are interviews with animal control officers and other employees of their facility, one of whom admits outright, “It’s just depressing to come to work here,” then tells tales of repeat offenders who come in with bunch after bunch of puppies which have resulted from refusal to spay or neuter their pets. (See? It’s all back to Bob Barker again.) And don’t even get me started on the puppy-mill footage…
Thankfully, One Nation Under Dog wraps up in comparatively upbeat fashion, highlighting the work of John Gagnon, a rescuer-trainer with PAWS New England who helps rehabilitate dogs which have been described as “biters” by the people who’ve brought them in to Animal Control. There’s also a nice sequence about an artist who, in addition to working directly with a rescue service, also takes in donations at her art auctions to help with rescue efforts. But while the film certainly serves a valiant purpose and leaves its mark when it’s over, it’s hard to truly recommend it, per se. It may increase awareness of the problems with the current dog population, but, frankly, it’s so upsetting at times that it’s likely to scare people out of dog ownership altogether at least as often as it inspires them into saving a pooch from the pound.