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Netflix doco Dogs is about so much more than our canine companions

The new series delves into complex human issues with warmth and compassion.

If a dog comes into your life, declared my partner, with uncharacteristic Zen-like serenity, embrace it. So Trick, English bull terrier cross with one brown ear, saved by a son from a doomed South Island farm litter, became a member of the family for over a decade. He insisted on befriending everyone, even lifelong dog-haters, lounging against their knees panting companionably until they gave in. He shed his body weight in coarse white hair all over the house every day and cost us a fortune. When he died, we were broken-hearted.

Still, in an age awash with time-wasting YouTube animal videos, do we really need a six-part Netflix series called Dogs? It seems we do. There is any number of very good dogs in these six hour-long stories, but it soon becomes clear that this series is more about the dog-adjacent humans than it is about their canine companions. Rory is a service dog for 11-year-old Corrine, who has epilepsy. He’s trained to bark if she has a seizure. The episode tracks their evolving relationship, taking time to tease out the effects of Corrine’s illness on the family. “My life with Corrine is a little hard sometimes,” says her older sister.

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This series is honest and unsentimental, refreshingly free of tear-jerking emotional manipulation. Yet you will need a box of tissues handy. Zeus’ owner, Ayham, escaped Syria and wants only to bring his sociable, adorably photogenic companion to join him in Germany. What a mission. Meanwhile, his friend back home is risking his own chances of escape to care for Zeus. They Skype. Zeus sings. The story becomes a perfect small epic about war, love, loyalty and sacrifice. You might wonder at all this effort for a dog in the midst of such human suffering. “I want to be a dog and come to you,” Ayham’s friend says wistfully. “They will put me in a cage, and I’ll come to you.” But you’d need a heart of stone not to hope with every fibre of your being for a reunion.

There’s Ice, an old dog still bestirring himself to go fishing with Alessandro, who runs a family restaurant in a small town on Lake Como. In Scissors Down, light relief is provided by the pampered pooches of Japan. You might laugh at their, well, barking owners who dress their pets in matching fashion, but the episode reveals the needs these relationships fulfil. A woman has had to choose between her work as a surgeon and marriage and children. Her dog makes that choice bearable. Kenichi, a dog groomer with the soul of an artist who croons to his customers, is the star of this episode. “I’m not very good with people,” he explains.

There are the second-chance dogs, abandoned animals adopted by New Yorkers. The most gruelling episode involves a humane, possibly insane, couple who have turned their ranch in Costa Rica into a shelter for close to 1000 stray dogs. Big, small, young, old, one-eyed, three-legged – this exuberant, tapir-fighting posse is allowed to run free each day in the hills. The place lurches from week to week, never knowing if there will be enough funds for feed and vet bills or when animal welfare will visit.

It’s chaos. But, as is the case with all the relationships between people and their companions in this series, dogs repay those who care for them with the sort of unconditional love, endless patience and inexhaustible tolerance that seems increasingly in short supply among humans these days. This is about dogs in the way that The Sopranos is about waste management. One commentator produced the series as evidence that Netflix can make a show about anything. In fact, Dogs ends up being a show about everything.

DOGS, Netflix.

Video: Netflix

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.