A Dog’s Purpose, & The Importance of Trust Between Dogs and Handlers

By now we have all seen the unpleasant video of the German shepherd, Hercules, being forced into the water during the filming of a scene in the movie “A Dog’s Purpose”. Since we were not on set, and have no context for this video, we can only comment on what we see directly in the video.

In the beginning, we had little background on Hercules, how he was trained, or how he was feeling that day. We’ve now heard from Gavin Polone, the movie’s producer,

We don’t know what kind of motivator the trainers were using (positive reinforcement, for example) to encourage “jumping into the water” behavior. Even with Mr. Polone’s explanation, there are still many things that we don’t know.

However, the video still merits comment. As you read, try to use this same logic if you watch a similar video. Here’s what we can observe:

Hercules is clearly reluctant to enter the water. The trainer/handler has one hand on Hercules’ collar, one hand on the dog’s body. The trainer appears to be trying to reassure Hercules, petting him. (The voice-over “narration” from the person filming does not appear to be informed commentary. Instead the person appears to be guessing what is going on.)

The trainer lifts the dog by the collar and belly and tries to lower him into the water. The dog struggles against this. You can hear people offscreen yelling “Here boy! Here boy!” encouragingly. The dog keeps his forefeet on the platform and gets back up. The trainer pats him, then tries again to pull him toward the water. Hercules makes a break for it, attempting to run, and is held back by the grip on his collar.

The trainer changes his grip, and tries again. The dog struggles to keep his feet on the platform. The trainer lifts him, again by collar and belly, and tries to move the dog over the side.This time, it appears the trainer’s hand gets twisted in the dog’s collar, and he trainer has to lift the dog back out of the water by the collar. At this point, the video cuts out, and we rejoin the scene with the dog in the water, only his head visible, and humans who are in the water are calling to him and appear to be rushing to help him.

This is clearly not a situation in which we would want to find our pet dogs. We might argue that the dog trainers are not at fault simply for asking the dog to do something he would prefer not to do: Who among us hasn’t had a dog protest at the door to the vet or the groomer, and had to bring him in anyway? Sometimes we all have to do things we’d prefer not to do.

We will, however, take issue with their methods of asking Hercules to go in the water.

How to properly train certain behaviors in dogs

If we were trying to train this behavior we would absolutely start with a quiet, still pool and a giant handful of treats. In fact, at Doglando we do train dogs to enter a swimming pool just this way.

We do so in a quiet environment, with lots of positive reinforcers, and take it as slow as the dog needs it to be taken. The dog is introduced first to the quiet pool, and is eased down on a ramp or gently lowered from one human’s arms into the arms of another who is standing in the pool.

Maybe he will see other dogs go into the pool first. Maybe he will wear a life jacket. Before he is ever asked to do anything complicated, the dog learns to swim — learns for himself that he *can* swim, how to swim, how to move in the pool, and that he has the power to get out of the pool.

Only once the dog was swimming confidently in a quiet pool would we turn on whatever mechanism powered the artificial river, probably at 1/8 speed, to introduce the new variable. (For all we know, the movie people did this. The video, on its own, provides no background.)

Knowing when to stop with our dogs

We would stop, however, if anything got to the point shown in the video. If the dog reaches a point where it is frightened, where it is struggling or attempting to break free, the dog has stopped learning — or at least it has stopped learning anything positive.

What it will remember from the experience — no matter how wonderful it might find the experience in the pool, or anything afterward — is that it was scared and wanted to get away and could not. The pool will forever have a connection with that experience.

You are not building a dog who will jump into the pool next time — you are building a dog who will fight harder next time to avoid it. If we ever reached the point shown in the video (and we would back off long before), we would back down to somewhere the dog felt comfortable, and start again, even if it meant going back to the quiet pool in step one, or even further back, to a kiddie pool or a puddle.

If we were the trainers in that video, we would have stood up, backed off with the dog, changed what was going on (stop the moving water, add a person in the river to catch the dog, build a ramp…) and tried again. (It does not look — again, looking only at what we see in the video — like the trainers for the movie tried that. It looks like, eventually, the dog was dropped over the side.)

Also, we would like to note — again, not knowing how deep the water is (it looks like about 3-4 feet, over the dog’s head, based on the humans in the last clip) or how fast it is moving (it appears to be moving pretty fast) — that the handler had a lot of safety equipment available that he does not seem to be using.

There are dog life vests, slings, and harnesses with handles on the back available for purchase commercially. The movie people could have rigged a ramp to walk the dog down. There could have been a trainer in the water waiting to receive the dog. There was no need to lift the dog by collar and belly. At no point should you ever be trying to lift a dog’s full weight — Hercules appears to be in the 90-110 pound range — by its neck, especially pulling straight upward!

In addition, why was the dog not on a long line, or equipped with a life jacket, for his trip into a rushing river? We hear that CGI can mask pretty much anything out, even a bright yellow life vest or a safety line. (Why was the *dog* not CGI for this scene?)

Maintaining the bonds of trust between dogs and their handlers

We at Doglando can only express our sorrow for Hercules, and probably for his trainers too, as we find that, usually, people working with animals genuinely love their furry friends and do not want to harm them. Often situations like this are the result of pressure from higher-ups to produce behavior without investing proper time.

The temptation, when there is little time available, can be strong to take shortcuts and cut corners, and basically “throw the dog in”. That sort of training may work once, but it destroys bonds of trust between a dog and handler. It does not result in a happy dog, and we cannot condone the practice. In this particular instance, it also appears to have encouraged the handlers to take unnecessary risks with the physical well-being of the dog as well — there is no excuse for the lack of safety gear.

We are most sorry for the animals of Best Friends Animal Society, which had partnered with “A Dog’s Purpose” as a fundraising effort to help homeless pets. They are a wonderful organization, and they do so much for animals in need.

Now that you know a little more about the situation, what do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!

  • Paula Mosteller

    Teena, thank you for the explanation. I still feel uncomfortable about the situation, but don’t think it warrants boycotting the film. The scene was hard to watch and I would never want to see a film where animals were forced to perform. I would love to see how Hercules is now.

    Hopefully Hercules is not obsessing about that day. I agree that Best Friends Animal Society is a great organization and I will continue supporting them. I wish the situation were different, and as you mentioned, they would have used safety precautions and edited out the life vest. But it is what it is now and the decision remains – do we boycott the movie because of this scene or do we take into account the nature of the message and possible impact of good the film could do; however imperfect the shoot was?

    Decisions are hard but I think I will probably still see the film and definitely still promote good animal rescue organizations like Best Friends.