I can’t say that I looked forward to watching One Nation Under Dog. I had seen a small clip of HBO’s new documentary a few weeks ago, and I had a feeling that the viewing experience would be difficult. The clip I had watched on YouTube was by far the most disturbing of the 73 minute movie—a three minute segment in which we witness the extermination by gas chamber of a large group of adult dogs and puppies at a rural animal shelter in the U.S. These few minutes are almost too much to get through—I felt physically ill and had to plug my ears when the dogs started howling. And, I highly recommend the movie.

The documentary offers us an exploration of the human love affair with dogs, in three parts. Part One is called “Fear” and focuses on the issue of dog bites. We hear the story of a man and his five Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and the neighbors who felt “terrorized” by dogs. The telling is ambiguous—we are led to sympathize with the neighbors, but also with the owner and his dogs. As you might guess, things don’t end well for a particular dog named Duke. Part II is called “Loss” and offers a fascinating window on pet loss and bereavement. We witness a canine funeral at Hartsdale Cemetery—the oldest pet cemetery in the country, and meet a couple who spent $150,000 to have their Labrador cloned. Part III, “Betrayal”, is about the problem of pet overpopulation. We go along with animal rescue volunteers as they raid a puppy mill, we are reminded of the fate of millions of unwanted dogs in the U.S., and we meet one very dedicated rescuer.

If you love dogs, the documentary will definitely be hard to watch. So, why torture ourselves? Because it is really important for those of us who love dogs to be reminded that no matter how well we care for our particular dogs, the larger cultural structures of pet ownership cause a great deal of misery and suffering to our canine companions—and there are things we can do to help.

The take home points are ones we are all familiar with: 1) don’t ever acquire a dog from a puppy mill: these places are the canine equivalent of Dante’s lowest circle of hell; 2) DO please provide a home for a shelter animal—they desperately need our help. Right now, only 20% of pet dogs are acquired from shelters (… see segment three on “Betrayal”); 3) spay/neuter, spay/neuter, and spay/neuter. 

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