Just before Halloween, some friends entered their dog, Lucy, in our neighborhood’s annual puppy costume contest. Lucy’s getup as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg easily won the crowd and, after I shared it on Twitter, the internet. That’s where Dogs creator and executive producer Glen Zipper saw the costume, prompting an exchange of pet pictures and pleasantries. “Kisses and pets to Molly,” he said of my dog’s lion mane. “Likewise,” I told Zipper of his boy Anthony’s “sher-ruff” outfit.
For anyone who spends a healthy amount of time scrolling through images and videos of other people’s dogs on social media, conversing with pet owners in such a manner is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, aside from seeing the pictures and clips themselves, it’s the best part of it all. Sure, looking at disgustingly cute puppies and adorable adult dogs is absolutely squee-inducing, but connecting with people over a mutual love for these creatures can be just as rewarding. Hence Zipper teamed with executive producer Amy Berg to create Dogs, which is now streaming on Netflix.
On the one paw (see what I did there?), Dogs is pretty much what you get when you take scrolling-through-social-media-for-dog-pics and transform it into a fully-fledged narrative. Each of the six episodes highlights a particular kind of human-dog bond in a wildly different array of places. Episode two, “Bravo, Zeus,” details an attempt by Syrian refugee Ayham to get his husky out of war-torn Damascus, while episode three, “Ice on the Water,” digs into an Italian fisherman’s long relationship his aging Labrador retriever.
On the other paw, Dogs‘ episodes aren’t just a collection of images and videos strewn together in order to fill 50 to 60 minutes. Instead, each and every one of them is a unique and complex story that tries to get at the heart of what its participants, canine and otherwise, are experiencing in their lives. They also give the filmmakers a platform with which to address a much bigger picture.
Like in the fifth episode, “Territorio de Zeguates,” which focuses on a famous stray dog sanctuary in Costa Rica. The volunteer-run effort to save the region’s hundreds of strays from a harsh life on the streets and certain death became a viral sensation in 2016. As heartwarming as the videos were, however, the countless stories they initially triggered in the United States largely looked over the no-kill sanctuary’s struggles to survive with constant government interference. Lindsay and Martin’s deep dive does the opposite.
Then there’s the incredibly sweet “Ice on the Water,” which takes place in the village of San Giovanni off the Lago di Como, just south of the Italian border with Switzerland. Ice is an older Labrador retriever who has been with the same family since he was a puppy, though because of the village’s small size and the intimacy that results, he’s basically the entire village’s dog. While this dominates the story, however, “Ice on the Water” is also about ecological redemption. Generations of over-fishing and human-caused climate change have severely decreased the fish populations of Lago di Como. To combat these effects and save their livelihood, Ice’s family and other local fisherman help a biologist with his efforts to artificially repopulate the lake.
These are not the kinds of stories you usually find in your dog-filled Instagram feed, of course, but that’s the point. Zipper, Berg and company didn’t want Dogs to simply be an extended version of our social media skims. Nor, for that matter, do they want the documentary series to be considered as such. These are six hour-long narratives that, while they do focus on the series’ titular subject, are primarily concerned with a number of very human struggles. War, the environment, health care, cultural differences and appropriation — these and more all come up.
And that’s what makes Dogs so doggone special. Yes, it’s rife with lots of cute puppies, and sure, it occasionally uses This Is Us-like manipulations to pull at the viewers’ heartstrings, but these are enough to distract from its stories. Stories of stressed parents hoping for help with their daughter’s seizures. Stories of refugees trying to reunite across international borders. Stories of newcomers trying to make it big in America. Behind all the dogs highlighted in Dogs are humans, humans whose struggles with life in the modern world make their bonds with dogs so necessary.
All six episodes of ‘Dogs’ are now streaming on Netflix.