Netflix’s Epic 'Dogs' Documentary Series, Reviewed by a Cat Owner

'Dogs' is six straight hours of immersive cinema verite stories about pups and their humans. Could I, an obsessive cat dad, resist their charms?

|
Nov 16 2018, 3:17pm

L: Image courtesy the author R:Image courtesy Netflix

I am an obsessive cat dad. If cats come up in conversation—and sometimes even when they don't— within seconds I’ll whip out pictures of my fur son, Rajah, either on a leash at the park (yep, I take my cat to the park on a leash), wearing a Halloween costume (yep, I do this too), or in his incredibly Instagram-friendly cat backpack (yep, I own one).

I rejoiced when Bruno, the extremely extra, 25-pound shelter cat found a forever home. I love cat art and stan Félicette, the first cat in space. I weep for the cats that have been unwillingly shaven, stranded on telephone poles, forced to take acid, or castrated by the state of Israel. I don’t believe the propaganda about cats being mean-spirited, or creating hellish living environments for easily-manipulated humans. I grew up with one dog and many cats, and I’ve always felt more allegiance to the species that can’t be trained to heil Hitler.

However, Netflix’s new six-hour docuseries about man’s best friend, simply titled Dogs, has tilted the scale a tad. In it is beautiful footage of human connections to dogs that's moving in a way the bite-sized dogtent that's all around us—the copious Twitter accounts of adorable doggos, the Instagrams of dog influencers and canine-facing product hawkers—can only touch upon. Each episode is an hour-long cinema verite deep dive into how dogs make human life meaningful; a barrage of wholesome, impactful moments, one after the next.

The source of the wholesomeness is obvious. As for the impact: the show is much more complex than you might expect, and wades into issues like mental health, the environment, poverty, nationalism, and class in ways that are thoroughly profound and completely disarming. All of it told with expert care and considerable heart...through the lens of adorable dogs.

One episode follows a Syrian refugee who escaped to Berlin, but had to leave his dog Zeus behind. (No spoilers but your heart will shatter and be stitched back together over the course the hour). Another follows a family whose eldest daughter suffers from epilepsy. A seizure-detecting dog is her best hope for a normal life. One of the later episodes soars across the world to visit a socially-awkward Japanese dog groomer who has trouble connecting with other humans until a canine companion is in the room. He’s an artist with shears, fur is his canvas, and it’s mesmerizing to watch him work.

1542313490369-Dogs_S01E04_1m30s2171f
“I’m not very good with people. I have a hard time talking to them. But when it comes to dogs, I can communicate well. I’ve noticed that when I talk to people, our conversation goes much better if there’s a dog in the room,” said Kenichi Nagase in an episode of 'Dogs.'

By far the most bittersweet episode in the whole series focuses on the Territorio de Zaguates (Land of Mangy Dogs) in Costa Rica, a sprawling tropical sanctuary named for the low-class, abandoned dogs founder Alvaro Saumet and his wife Lya Battle have been looking after since 2007. It’s a 300-acre free range paradise on Saumet’s family farm, revealed in sweeping drone shots that make the swarm of residents look like ants.

Funded through donations, this haven for dogs is always on the precipice of collapse. And there are always more dogs to rescue. “People get a doggy, a puppy which makes them smile, that smells great. The whole family loves the puppy. And later on, we lose the connection, the love for the little animal, and we abandon it,” he says. “The incidence of abandonment, it’s an everyday thing.”

1542313459476-Dogs_S01E05_42m23s60992f
A rainy day at Territorio de Zaguates in Costa

Elsewhere you'll find an Italian dog helping his owner fish in an ever-more-depleted lake and a high-powered lawyer who spends her free time trying to save homeless and injured dogs from being euthanized. Each hour packs a wallop.

Much as I love them, I cannot imagine this documentary being made about cats. Films like Kedi, the stunning deep dive into Istanbul’s stray cat population, are about how these creatures are individuals equal to—if not superior to—humans. They affect other people mostly by adding spice to their otherwise dreary lives. The drama comes from how cats are idiosyncratic iconoclasts. Even Lil Bub and Friends, a documentary which explores exactly why cats are so popular on the internet, paints a picture of the animal that sees them fully live up to their reputation for being, at times, aloof and independent—wholly unconcerned with the human caretakers in their midst.

The dogs in Dogs, on the other hand, are the pillars of their families. Their stories are tied up in the central drama of the humans who feed and house them. Their businesses, their medical issues, their interpersonal relationships all are dependent on and tied to these hairy beasts—they are inextricably linked, impossibly bonded. (Meanwhile, my cat rests purring on my legs and I can’t tell if he sees me as family, or just a large, bony pillow).

1542313518054-Dogs_S01E05_12m25s17883f
Land of Mangy Dogs

The bite-sized stories and pictures of Very Good Boys that populate much of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are perfect for just that—tender, funny moments good for a smile, a share or a bit of our attention. Dogs goes deeper. The series is complex carbohydrates, where everything else is refined sugar. It’s a 12-grain whole wheat loaf next to Wonderbread.

Six hours of full immersion in dog love is refreshing, and I get dogs now in a way I hadn’t before. Don't hold it against me, Rajah. Though I have a new understanding and appreciation of dogs, I still love you most, and will forever remain Cats 4 lyfe (yep, my cat has his own Instagram).

Dogs premieres on Netflix on November 16, 2018.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Beckett Mufson on Twitter and Instagram.

Stories