Controversy Surrounds ‘A Dog’s Purpose’

By Theresa King
Managing Editor

Films with animal leads are meant to attract animal lovers, so when the mistreatment of them is accused during production of the film, it leads to controversy.

On Jan. 18, TMZ leaked footage from on-set during the filming of “A Dog’s Purpose,” based on W. Bruce Cameron’s best-selling novel, showing a dog appearing to nearly drown during a stunt. In the video, the German Shepherd, supplied and handled by Birds & Animals Unlimited, is allegedly forced into raging waters and later submerged underwater, apparently struggling.

Almost immediately, filmmakers claimed the clip was edited to make it appear that the animal was in more danger than it truly was. The film’s producer, Gavin Polone, said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that he reviewed all footage from the incident and determined that it was not the water that frightened the dog, but a change in position.

“In footage of the rehearsal for the scene, you can see the dog not only unafraid of the water but desperate to jump in,” Polone said. “The dog did the scene in rehearsal without problem, though it was from the left side of the pool, not the right side, which is where the dog is in the TMZ video.

“Before the first real take, the handlers were asked to change the start point of the dog from the left side, where he had rehearsed, to the right side. That, evidentially, is what caused him to be spooked. When the dog didn’t want to do the scene from the new position, they cut, though not soon enough, and then went back to the original position. The dog was comfortable and went in on his own and they shot the scene.”

However, animal rights groups have since protested the film’s release and have called for a boycott of the movie. The distributor of the movie, Universal Pictures, canceled the film’s red carpet premiere and promotional press junket, but still released “A Dog’s Purpose” in theaters across the country this past week.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested the film in front of theaters from New York to Los Angeles, holding signs reading “For dog’s sake, don’t see ‘A Dog’s Purpose’” and “A dog’s purpose isn’t to be a prop.”

“This film was made to appeal to dog lovers,” Lisa Lange, SVP of PETA told The Los Angeles Times. “None of us enjoy seeing a dog tormented the way this dog was in this scene. You can feel and see the dog’s fear and imagine his terror when he was submerged underwater. There is no excuse for this abuse or for the filmmakers defending it.”

Universal Pictures said they maintained “an ethical and safe environment for the animals” during the filming. In an interview before the video was released, Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom said he relied entirely on animal trainers to handle the dogs during filming.

“I can’t really even get involved with the dog because then I interfere with what the trainers are up to,” Hallstrom said. “These dogs and trainers were really smart. They rehearsed for five minutes and could do the most amazing things on short notice.”

Nevertheless, American Humane is investigating the incident caught on video, and the safety representative was placed on leave. According to Forbes, the film “still screened for critics, with mixed reviews, and now the film itself is headed for an $18.7 million opening weekend after a $5.2 million Friday.”

However, the controversy did affect the film’s box office run so far. According to Yahoo Movies, “The film was estimated to make around $19 million dollars for its opening weekend. Before the controversy, it was estimated that A Dog’s Purpose would bring in closer to $25 million, which was decreased to $18 million after the set video was leaked.” With investigations still ongoing and the film’s release happening in theaters across the U.S. and Canada, only time will tell if the movie will be a hit for animal lovers or if the producers barked up the wrong tree.