To start, an understatement: human relationships are full of ups and downs. You can never know exactly what your partner is thinking, and no matter how close your bond, humans be humans: moods shift, conflicts arise, affections stray. With dogs, it’s a whole lot easier. You can never know exactly what your dog is thinking, but assuming he’s a good boy—oh yes he is, what a good, good boy—you know what you get: loyalty, affection, and long-term commitment.
I took a workshop with the poet Eileen Myles a few years back and produced a string of essays about dogs I’ve known. They were well-received by my peers, but in conference, I told Eileen I wasn’t sure the dog stuff “counted” because it was too easy to write. I wondered if writing should be more of a struggle. Eileen disagreed. “Maybe the easy stuff is what you’re supposed to do,” she said.
Eileen Myles knows from dogs. From her Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, in a passage about watching her dog Rosie take a shit:
“When you love something–someone you become attuned to their ‘invisible’ or maybe it’s faint. There’s the faintest adjusting of the butt. The muscles surrounding. She holds.
“It’s when I see the world. My dog arching about to dump a load is the lens.”
For those of us who understand what it is to know and love a dog, this makes perfect sense. There is something miraculous about the dog’s interaction with the world, driven by instinct and biological need, often in direct conflict with our socialized, sterilized lives. To watch them exist, and be part of their existence, makes us pay closer attention to the world. There is intimacy in handling another creature’s excrement.
Film rarely addresses the baser aspects of animal companionship; when I polled my friends for memorable movie dogs, the most common answers were Benji, Old Yeller, or the gang from Homeward Bound. These are noteworthy canines, touchstones for a particular kind of movie manipulation (read: tears), but they’re a bit too sappy for my taste. I’m interested in something deeper, something that may seem silly or overwrought to people who don’t have animals in their lives. I’m talking silver screen love stories between human beings and their dogs, the deep connection that makes holding a baggie full of shit an act of love. What follows are not necessarily the most famous or most lauded dogs on film, but a few of my personal favorites, the human-dog relationships that ring most true.
Spoiler alert: the dog dies.
Maybe not on film, maybe not immediately after the credits roll, but always, eventually, the dog will die. That’s the thing about falling in love with a creature with a creature whose lifespan is 1/8th our own. We always know how this story is going to end.
Summer School (1987, Dir. Carl Reiner)
Summer School stars Mark Harmon as a Mr. Shoop, a high school substitute tasked with a summer class of burnouts, wasteoids, and a pregnant Courtney Thorne-Smith. Wonder Mutt is his best friend, a Basic Brown Dog who eats peanut butter out of the jar and carries a dirty old doll head in his mouth at all times. Shoop and Wonder Mutt exemplify the easy compatibility of a dude and his dog. Wonder Mutt accompanies Shoop on long, reflective walks on the beach. He cuddles with him on the couch after a long day at school. He’s a steadfast companion through the long, crazy summer. In the final scene, Mr. Shoop gets the girl (Kirstie Allie in her prime) and kisses her passionately on the beach. Wonder Mutt is there, of course, and as the couple writhes, he bounds over, drops his dirty doll head in the sand, and gets in on the action. The final shot is of Shoop breaking away from his human love to kiss Wonder Mutt square on the lips. Now that’s true love.
Turner and Hooch (1989, Dir. Roger Spottiswoode)
Tom Hanks and a hulking French Mastiff take on organized crime, and only one of them survives. Guess which one. The depiction of Hooch throughout the film is sensual, near-pornographic, all bulging eyes and quivering jowls slick with saliva. Hanks’s Turner is a man unaccustomed to dogs who treats him callously at first. As in all great rom-com relationships, theirs starts with a meet cute: Turner flat on his back in a junkyard, Hooch’s jaws around his neck. Miscommunication and bickering ensue, then tenderness, and eventually a passionate embrace. As in most human-dog relationships, man outlives beast and is forever changed as a result. (Hanks revisited the human-dog bond to lesser effect with a Golden Retriever named Brinkley in You’ve Got Mail).
The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2001)
Royal Tenenbaum is a man incapable of selfless love, and his relationship with Buckley the Beagle speaks to the darker side of the human-dog bond: dominion. Royal tells Buckley to sit, and Buckley obeys. Royal commands without compunction, which drives a wedge between him and his family members, who have to confront their scheming, callous father. Loyal Buckley can only obey. Though there is redemption for the humans in the end, what redemption for Buckley? Crushed in Eli Cash’s mescaline-fueled joyride and instantly replaced by a firehouse Dalmation conned right off the truck. Wes Anderson’s track record with dogs is not great; consider beautiful, doomed Snoopy, killed by an arrow in Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson is likely not a dog person in real life, but in movies, he shows us something true: the good, loyal dog who lives to serve and dies betrayed.
Beginners (2010, Dir. Mike Mills)
This is a movie about falling in love and losing your parents and learning to be a better person and more. Ewan Macgregor inherits a little dog from his father (Christopher Plummer), whose death anchors the film. The dog moves in with the grieving son and gives him a reason to leave the house. He cocks his head perfectly and says things (in subtitle) like, “Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now.” His words are projections of Macgregor’s character, of course; the dog allows him to name his despair. Dog as therapist. Dog as conduit for the emotions we try to hide. Dog as reflection of what we sad and lonely humans need. When the late father’s lover, a man Macgregor has kept distant in his grief, is reunited with the dog late in the film, he buries his face in its wiry coat and cries. The dog connects him to his dead lover, to a vital part of himself. He finds memory, grief, and healing, all in the warm and able body of a hyper-intelligent dog.
I admit it: I romanticize dogs. It is too easy to project my fallible human emotions all over their animal lives. I have two of my own, Ralph the Girl (a discerning intellectual) and Radar (a blustering buffoon), and together they are the loves of my life. It’s not a substitute for human love, but sometimes it feels just as big. I picture our life together in montage: walking merrily through the rain; jogging slowly on a sunny day; a gang of three, bound by leashes and everything else. Ours is a love affair of cinematic proportion. The eyes water, the heart surges, the music swells. In this world of shit, I am grateful to hold theirs in my hand.
Eileen Myles on watching Rosie run free in the woods: “The dog was still the poet I wanted to be.”