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Dogs, puppies and more dogs everywhere on your screen in new Netflix doc

November 24, 2018

A still from season one of “Dogs.”

I’ve always been curious why cable channels like Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild have yet to fully exploit a certain niche. I’m talking about programming that entirely centers on the relationship between humans and their pets.

You can find plenty of good series about veterinarians or animal rescue groups on these channels — but there are other stories to be told, as well. Sometimes there is drama enough simply in a story about a person and their dog.

Filling that gap is the new Netflix documentary series “Dogs,” developed by producer Glen Zipper with director Amy Berg, focusing each of its six hour-long episodes on a different story. They are all good. Full stop.

But only two stand out as exceptional examples that capture the nuances of the human-canine bond. And just as importantly, the personality of the dog in question.

Episode 1 (“The Kid with a Dog”) is primarily a story of the humans at its center. A sixth-grader named Corrine has epilepsy and soon she will be paired with a service dog who can alert others when a seizure is happening.

The episode is actually a really complicated and well-told story. It’s not only about epilepsy itself (which can affect mood and behavior) but also the family dynamics at play. Corrine is finally matched with her dog late in the episode and because of that, you get little sense of who the dog actually is.

Mom and Dad had promised their two girls this would be a family dog. But: “The child has to be the dog’s everything,” the family is told during a training session — that means Corrine’s sister can’t give the dog treats. Or play with him. Not really. He has a job and he’s Corrine’s dog only. This new piece of information does not go down well, as Corrine’s sister quietly walks out of the session and processes what this means for her. Like I said, it’s a really good hour of television — it’s just not particularly focused on the dog part. At least, not as much as you might expect for a series called “Dogs.”

Groom service

I found Episode 4 (“Scissors Down”) to be unexpectedly bracing if entirely removed from my personal philosophy, about two dog groomers from Japan who fly to Pasadena to compete in a dog grooming competition. I’m more of a “If the dog is clean and brushed and its fur isn’t matted, the rest is just humans treating pets like dolls” kind of person. All the participants seem to genuinely like and care about dogs, but something about the event feels sour.

Consider one American groomer who is exasperated with the dog that’s been supplied to him: “My dog decided that he’s too nervous to go to the bathroom around me, so I’ve had to keep taking him back to his owner to get walked, and he’s already exhibiting a couple signs of being a weirdo so we’ll see how it goes. But I’ve had weirdos on the table before and we still make ’em pretty, so … ” Yeesh.

Compare that to Tokyo-based groomer Kenichi Nagase, whose demeanor really grabbed me — he’s exceedingly quiet and gentle and sweet and calm with the dogs. It bowls you over. And he’s the only one casually being affectionate with the dog while waiting for the judge’s results.

The strongest episodes of the series are Episode 2 (“Bravo, Zeus”) and Episode 3 (“Ice on the Water”).

The former is about a young man from Syria named Ayham, now living in Berlin and desperate to reunite with his Siberian Husky Zeus. For the past two years the dog has been living with one of Ayham’s closest friends, who is also trying to leave Syria and whose temporary guardianship of Zeus is incredibly touching. The dog is playful and is a favorite of the neighborhood kids; he’s also fascinatingly watchful of the landscape as he finally begins his journey.

“Ice on the Water” is the episode that really stayed with me. Ice is a yellow lab who belongs to a fisherman and restaurateur named Alessandro. They live in a gorgeous village on Lake Como in Italy. There’s just the right balance here, in terms of story emphasis, between human and canine. And you get a good sense of their daily life together — and the importance of the dog in it.

Ice accompanies Alessandro for those long solitary hours out on the boat — “Can you see if they are there?” Alessandro asks about any nearby fish in the water and Ice actually turns around and looks over the edge of the boat — but the dog is also genuinely part of the family.

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