“One Nation Under Dog” chronicles our complicated relationship with canines

As anyone who has ever owned a dog knows, as rewarding and loving as that relationship can be, it isn’t always as fuzzy and idyllic as what is portrayed on a greeting card or in one of those Disney Buddies movies — for either the owner or the dog. Most friendships and relationships encounter bumps, hard truths, friction and dark times as they run their course, and the partnerships between humans and canines have been no different over the centuries. Tonight, a new HBO documentary film called One Nation Under Dog: Stories of Fear, Loss & Betrayal, looks at several of these situations as seen through the personal stories of various people and their dogs.

The film chronicles the challenges of dog ownership, care and commerce that many may not want to look at — it’s more than just buying a cute pooch. Part One of the film is called “Fear,” and it primarily follows the story of a doctor who has a hard time owning up to his responsibility in enabling his Rhodesian Ridgeback to get loose and bite several people, in one case seriously. He fears what may inevitably happen to his dog if it continues hurting people, yet he also seems to fear taking the steps needed to truly control the animal — in the process leading to fear throughout his neighborhood, with people not wanting to even leave their yards for concern that the dog may be loose.

Part Two is called “Loss.” It features a number of segments on how different people cope with the losses of their dogs. We listen in at a pet-loss support group where people lay bare their emotions about what their departed dogs meant to them; we visit the oldest pet cemetery in the United States, where a woman grieves at an intimate ceremony for her dog (which we see lying at rest in a small casket) before it is buried among the countless others; we meet the Florida couple who became the first to have their departed dog cloned from its DNA, they missed him so much.

In one of the most gripping segments of Part Two, we meet Julie Adams of Missouri (pictured at top), who has over 100 stray dogs on her farmland, and continues picking up more that get left behind by people. She just can’t seem to say “no” — especially when she knows the dog will be killed if she doesn’t– and when she talks about her past, we see some of the guilt that underlies her reasoning. She recalls how, as a child living with her grandmother and two dogs, she was forced to abandon those dogs when her parents took her away following the grandmother’s death. She talks about being driven away, watching the dogs simply left in the driveway. She also describes a childhood incident in which her father, who mainly had hounds for hunting, got mad at her for being too kind and overly feeding some of the puppies — which he believed ruined them for hunting. He ended up killing the puppies, and in the film, Julie somberly explains that she believed that somehow her love and kindness led to the puppies’ death. “So I’ve got that to make up for too,” she says. Between her apparently innate sense of kindness toward animals, and these formative experiences, she cannot seem to leave any dog behind. Some live out their lives on her farm, others she rehabilitates enough to adopt out, as we see her do with one in the film (Cherokee, the dog in the picture).

The film concludes with Part Three, “Betrayal,” a look at how humans have regularly broken their bond with “man’s best friend” by not taking care of them properly (there’s a scene of a raid on a sickening puppy mill in Tennessee); not regulating them through spaying and neutering (an animal shelter employee tells a story of the same family that brought in several litters of dogs — a total of 21 puppies — in to the shelter over a span of six months), leading to overcrowding of shelters, and eventually, the unfortunate euthanizing of many animals; and abandoning them (at one shelter, we meet a pit bull that was simply left by the side of the road, its fur and skin nearly eaten away by mange).

I’ll warn you, as the film does, that the very start of Part Three is extremely tough viewing (the film is rated TV-MA). Its first three minutes are graphic and disturbing, and show groups of dogs at a shelter being euthanized in a gas chamber, with the camera holding nothing back from the agonizing sights and sounds. It’s perhaps necessary viewing, however, for people like the family that the shelter employee mentioned, who keep dropping off unwanted animals every few months as if it was no big deal, instead of spaying and neutering.

But Part Three is not all gloom and doom, despite the horrific scenes and situations. We meet rescuers and trainers who do what they can for the shelter dogs, and we see some of the animals being rescued, rehabilitated and delivered to new homes, better owners and more hopeful lives. A scene with a dog named Crystal is particularly inspiring. When a dog trainer named John Gagnon meets her in a shelter, she is in a cage with a sign warning people to stay away, because she bites. In fact, when John gets anywhere near her, she begins baring her teeth. Looking in Crystal’s eyes, we can see a deep distrust of people, and we have to wonder what sorts of humans she has encountered to turn her off that primal bond. But when John gets her outside, that bond begins to return, and after a few months, dog and human are partners again, and eventually, Crystal is delivered to a much better, new life. Crystal’s example shows how strong the bond between dog and human can be, even after the toughest of circumstances, under which people might have held grudges, while canines are ready to move on.

One Nation Under Dog is fascinating viewing for all dog owners, people thinking about getting a dog, and for anyone just generally interested in human behavior. For while dogs are at its center, it’s really a strong look at how far some people will go for their pets, and also how far we have yet to go in order to treat dogs humanely and live up to the bond we first established with these creatures thousands of years ago.

One Nation Under Dog premieres on HBO June 18 at 9pm ET/PT.


Photos courtesy of HBO