Moving Documentary on the Humanizing Influence of Dogs
DIRECTORS: BREAN CUNNINGHAM AND DOUGLAS/2014
STREET DATE: JANUARY 17, 2017/KINO LORBER
I am a dog person, and the mother of a 12 year old self-proclaimed Crazy Dog Lady. We only have one dog (Gilly) but we are absolutely over the moon for her and would have more dogs were it not for the sensible influence of my husband. My daughter and I watched Dogs on the Inside together, and I grant you that we are easy marks for any documentary featuring our favorite animals. But it wasn’t simply the adorableness of the dogs that won us over: Dogs On the Inside had something important to say about how we treat each other – all of us, humans and animals alike – and the power of loving and being loved, even in a place as cold and harsh as prison.
Dogs On the Inside explores a program that places rescued dogs (most of them abandoned or abused) in the care of inmates in a minimum security unit in Massachusetts. For 8 weeks the prisoners live with, nurture, and train the dogs to prepare them for adoption. Their diligence in training the dogs was a reproach to me, frankly. More than once, seeing the dogs obey commands my daughter said, “We really should train Gilly better.” The training is a great gift to the families who eventually adopt the dogs, but even more vital is the emotional healing that takes places between the assigned trainers and their dogs. Many of the dogs arrive at the prison fearful of humans, having experienced cruelty or neglect at human hands. Under the tender care of the inmates the dogs begin to relax, become playful, learn that there are people in the world who can be trusted.
But what about the inmates themselves? They, too, benefit from the program. Over and over, both the trainers and prison employees stressed how helpful it is for the inmates to have something to care for, something to love unconditionally, a way out of the hardness that prison often demands as a defense mechanism. Researchers have long known that simply petting an animal can help to lower blood pressure, and that pets are good for emotional health. There’s a special connection between these dogs and the prisoners, though: the prisoners relate to the dogs past experiences. A muscular, cornrowed inmate named Candido begins to weep as he explains that he knows what it feels like to be abandoned as his dog was, because he was abandoned as a child. The U.S. is the world leader in mass incarceration and our prisoners are perhaps the most unwanted, outcast, and abandoned members of our national community. The degree to which these men can identify with the suffering the dogs have experienced is both heartbreaking and hopeful. They don’t just see connections in the past, but in the future. These dogs are being “rehabilitated” for a better future, and if a new life is possible for them perhaps it is possible for their trainers, too.
The U.S. is the world leader in mass incarceration and our prisoners are perhaps the most unwanted, outcast and abandoned members of our national community. The degree to which these men can identify with the suffering the dogs have experienced is both heartbreaking and hopeful.
Dogs On the Inside confirmed my belief that there is no sharp divide between humanity and the rest of creation. The darkness that causes some of us to treat animals with contempt can easily be transferred to our fellow humans. Conversely, caring for animals cultivates a kindness that encompasses all of us. In short, animals can make us better people, if we let them.
Directors Brean Cunningham and Douglas Seirup follow a handful of dog trainers and their dogs through the training period and up to the day the dogs go home with their new families. The subject of the documentary is so ripe for emotion that it could easily have seemed cloying or manipulative. It’s surprisingly restrained in that regard, and the tears I shed felt like they’d been honestly earned by watching the trainers invest wholeheartedly in helping their fellow creatures make a new start.
Make sure you watch the special features on Kino Lorber’s DVD, which include updates on one of the prisoners, Candido, and one the dogs, the sweet sad sack, Sadie.