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Contextualizing the "A Dog's Purpose" Controversy

WADTT's Blog

Contextualizing the "A Dog's Purpose" Controversy

Rachel Garner

On January 18th, 2017, TMZ posted leaked behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of A Dog's Purpose; the footage was composed of two clips of a German Shepherd struggling with filming a water-related scene and was immediately met with allegations of animal abuse from animal rights groups and social media. In the week since video was released, the author of the book A Dog’s Purpose, the producer of the film, the company that owns the dog, and the third-party investigation have all released detailed statements discussing the context in which the clips occurred. In addition to the independent investigation, the American Humane Association also investigated the film’s adherence to their animal welfare regulations and has released their findings. In order to understand the entire issue, there's a lot to look at beyond what's immediately visible in a cursory viewing of the clip: in order for the public to be able to draw informed conclusions on if they want to support the film, it’s important to discuss not only the context of the dog handler’s choices, but also how the current rhetoric regarding animal abuse influenced public perception of the clips and the political ramifications of when the video was released.

Other articles have already shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that the dog involved was clearly very uncomfortable and the choices his handler made during the leaked clips were not acceptable according to current industry or cultural standards. Statements by Bruce Cameron and Gavin Polone have made it clear that the clips focused on a single stressful moment in what had been a highly successful shoot where the dog involved was otherwise performing enthusiastically. It’s crucial to discuss why the uncomfortable moments seen in that clip occurred, examine why even an ethical trainer might make those judgement calls, and consider if intentions matter regarding animal abuse allegations. This article will also address, in light of the more recent revelations about the general emphasis on animal welfare during the shoot, how the video was presented to the public and why it was released in such an inflammatory manner, framing both how viewers interpreted the footage and the tone of the public reaction that followed its release.

Political Context

First off, the footage was from the filming of A Dog’s Purpose during November of 2015, fourteen months before it was brought to anyone’s attention. If the goal was to actually stop the way the dog, Hercules, was being treated, the footage should have broken almost immediately. Instead, the footage was sold to TMZ over a year later, less than two weeks before the film premiered - conveniently, one week after PETA and its affiliated partners launched a smear campaign against Birds & Animals Unlimited (the animal actor company that provided the dog). The sudden decision to release the footage over a year after the situation occurred is more in keeping with an attention-grab for the animal rights movement agenda (which is in keeping with PETA’s immediate call for a boycott of not only A Dog's Purpose but the use of animals in the film industry in general) than any actual attempt at rectifying the Hercules’ welfare. PETA has since been circulating the TMZ clip alongside a CGI clip from the trailer for A Dog’s Purpose, in which an animated German shepherd dives into roiling water, and another unrelated clip of a similar real dog in a metal cage. Neither of these clips portray the dog from the TMZ footage, but have been linked together to compose what PETA wants viewers to interpret as further implications of rampant animal abuse on set.

Second, the video TMZ released is composed of two different clips: one that is 45 seconds long, and another that is less than 20 seconds long. The clips both show the same German shepherd in a pool environment, but are filmed from entirely different angles, in different lighting, and with different people in the shot. It’s not possible to tell if they were filmed on the same day (there are no visual markers that include a date or things that would change with time) or even in the same location (as the background of one is simply a nondescript wall and the other appears to be a park). The two clips are shown to the viewer in direct succession with no context and are presumed by TMZ’s framing in the article - “the dog eventually got in the water -- or was forced in -- but was quickly submerged” - as being sequential, even though it is blatantly obvious that there is no way the clips could have occurred during the same take. This manipulation of the footage does not serve any actual educational purpose as it is obviously constructed to lead the viewer to a specific (and incorrect) conclusion about the scenario. Again, this is not a presentation of the clips that communicates any actual animal welfare issues in a useful way, because the viewer can’t discern what happened and if it is worth being concerned about. Publicizing clips manipulated to evoke a viscerally distressing response in the viewer only serves to create furor - it doesn’t help the dog with whatever actual incident occurred.

Third, it’s important to look at how the release of the video was framed. TMZ picked a fairly accurate but emotionally loaded headline for the first release of the footage: “Terrified German Shepherd Forced to Film in Turbulent Water.” This sets up the viewer to expect to see a dog in major distress forcibly kept in roiling water before they even open the video, and already primes the viewer for an emotional reaction to presumably upsetting content rather than a logical and critical viewing of the film. In reality, an accurate headline would have been “Terrified German Shepherd is Forced Into Turbulent Water and Then is Immediately Removed.” There is a major difference between what these two headlines prime a prospective viewer to see: a dog held in frothing water while terrified, or a terrified dog placed against its will in frothing water and then allowed to get out of it when it is obvious that the distress is not going to cease. The former encourages an extreme empathetic response to the cruelty of the proposed situation; the latter, if utilized, would temper that gut reaction with knowledge that the crew were in fact cognizant of the dog’s emotional state and reacted accordingly. This was then echoed by an overuse of emotionally loaded language and misleading statements in the article that accompanied the video - all carefully coordinated attempts to create public outrage against the film. It may seem like a semantic difference after the fact, but considering how many other political factors were at play in the release and how strong of a reaction social media had to the clips, it has to be noted that the rhetoric TMZ utilized on their video was purposefully priming viewers to expect something worse than what was actually contained in the clips.

Taken holistically, there is no way the release of this footage can be interpreted as anything more than exploiting the less-than-stellar treatment of Hercules to create furor that could be utilized in drawing attention to the the animal rights movement’s current agenda. There is no way that the release of the footage from the set of A Dog’s Purpose was done with the goal of actually advocating for better welfare for Hercules - that would have required a video without misleading editing to break in November. This knowledge does not devalue the need to critically examine how the footage that broke came to exist and what implications it has for the film industry, but it shines a light on how much the conversation around the footage has been used to further an agenda that the general public has no idea it’s accidentally supporting. When examined in context, the entire “scandal” becomes obvious as well-planned propaganda, and it takes advantage of the naiveté of well-intentioned people who care greatly about the welfare of performing animals.

Defining Animal Abuse

In order to be able to accurately discuss animal welfare topics, it is important to first define the terms central to the conversation to ensure people are able to accurately describe what they’re intending to communicate. This is especially crucial for conversations regarding animal welfare, as current trends in media have unintentionally resulted in many terms being conflated with each other almost to the point of being indistinguishable. It is necessary to define for the reader how this article will differentiate the terms animal abuse, animal neglect, and animal cruelty.  These aren't legal definitions (those vary by location), but they will facilitate further discussion of the events on the set of A Dog’s Purpose.

In the general public lexicon, animal abuse is generally condemned not just because it is bad for animals but because it is considered to be associated with intentionality - so in keeping with that common understanding, animal abuse will be defined for the purpose of this article as deliberately causing harm or suffering to an animal, whether through action or inaction, either out of a desire to harm the animal or a complete lack of care for its welfare. Situations in which animals are hurt or  caused to suffer because unnecessary external objectives are being prioritized over animal welfare are considered animal cruelty. If abuse must be associated with intention, then it is necessary to describe what happens when the situation occurs through an absence of intention as animal neglect: causing harm and suffering to an animal unintentionally, either through lack of knowledge or inability to do better.

In practice this means that, for example, leaving a dog tethered outside without shelter or water 24/7 due to a lack of knowledge of why that is bad would be considered animal neglect. Upon receiving feedback that this was inappropriate, a refusal to change the situation for the dog due to other things being higher priority would be considered animal cruelty. Leaving the dog outside without caring that it is suffering, or putting it out there in the first place to purposefully hurt it would be considered animal abuse.

All of these definitions center around situations that involve harm or suffering, whether intentional or not. A nuance required for accurate discussion of any of the three terms is that stress is not generally considered harmful to an animal until it becomes prolonged or extreme; stress is a requisite part of life for all organisms that is responsible for behavioral change in response to the environment, and many positive things, such as anticipation or implementation of self control, are inherently stressful. Situations that are unfair or unkind to an animal can be stressful without qualifying as any of the terms defined above - it’s important to be able to differentiate between things that are simply not cool and occurrences that are severe enough to negatively impact an animal’s welfare. In some cases it is obvious that a situation is extreme enough to be considered cruel, abusive, or neglectful, but there are frequently situations popularized in media in which there is a large amount of grey area. How much stress is acceptable for an animal to endure before the situation qualifies as cruel or abusive is a subjective topic with no hard rules, which is why it’s so important to have accurate terminology that can be utilized to express interpretations of potentially bad welfare situations; without that, it’s hard to communicate the nuances of how and why a situation is being interpreted the way it is. With these definitions in mind, we will next study what can be objectively seen in the clips and situational context to allow readers to form their own subjective interpretations regarding the ethics of what occurred.

The Video

In the first clip, Hercules is clearly uncomfortable with what he's being asked to do. His body language indicates that he does not want to go in or near the water, and the trainer overrides that by picking him up and putting him into the pool. As soon as the dog is in the water and obviously still uncomfortable, he is immediately removed. The handler is "in control" of the dog at all times - a phrase which here means that the handler never lost contact with the dog while he was in the forcefully moving water. It is not known from the footage what happened after Hercules returned to land. In the second clip, Hercules is already in the water and is only seen for a couple seconds before going underwater. There is already someone in the water as backup, and the people nearby respond immediately and are able to reach and assist him within four seconds. It is not known from the footage how long it took to get the dog above or out of the water, nor the situation leading up to the beginning of the second clip. Here’s how it looks second-by-second, for those who want detail or aren’t up for watching the clips:

0:02 - When the video starts, the dog, Hercules, is pictured on the side of a pool filled with frothing water. He's leaning his whole body into his handler, tail low but ears erect. There is a wall some distance behind the pool that appears to run the length of the pool.

0:09 - As soon as the handler leans over to begin moving Hercules toward the water, the dog immediately attempts to back out from under his arm.

0:11 - When he is unable to back out of the hold, Hercules then starts moving forward and around his handler, away from the water. He is stopped from leaving by a hand on his flat collar and his handler's arm around his flanks.

0:13 - Hercules' handler attempts to pull the dog back to him with the arm around his flanks. When that does not work, the handler picks him up with the arm under his body (and by his collar) and moves him 90 degrees, appearing to be preparing to place the dog on the handler's right side.

0:16 - At this point, it is clear that the handler is maneuvering the dog's body off the edge of the floor and into the pool. Hercules is resisting - his weight is low and back, and his feet are stretched out looking for purchase on the floor. The video is low-quality, but his ears appear to be back.

0:17 - As the handler maneuvers Hercules' back end off the edge, the dog turns his upper body so he is able to get his front legs back on the floor to the left side of his handler. He then braces his back legs on the wall of the pool and climbs out.

0:20 - Hercules has all four feet on the ground around the pool and is attempting to move away from his handler - his posture is low to the ground and all of his weight is thrown into his movement. The handler continues to use a hand on his collar to inhibit his forward movement and taps the dog's hip with an open hand to get his attention. (Upon close inspection, it is clear this interaction is not the handler hitting the dog. It's a short, quick motion with barely any momentum.) After a couple of seconds Hercules ceases straining forward and moves to stand at the handler's side, at which point the handler pets him on the head.

0:28 - It looks like at this point, the handler slips his arm around the dog's flanks again - it's out of view behind their bodies, but the next visible action is the handler attempting to lift Hercules' body while Hercules begins attempting to move away from him again. The handler swings the dog's body around his own, placing the dog back at the edge of the pool.

0:34 - The handler begins to attempt to lower Hercules into the pool again. The dog is straining hard to get out of the handler's grip for a number of seconds before the handler gets a hand under both of Hercules' rear legs and uses that leverage to lower his hind end into the pool.

0:40 - The handler remains in physical control of Hercules as he lowers him into the water through a grip on the flat collar. The dog has one foot braced on the top of the pool and is trying to maintain contact with the edge, but eventually loses that contact and slides more into the water.

0:45 - The handler immediately pulls Hercules out of the water to the side of the pool, using leverage from the flat collar until he is able to get a hand under the dog's chest. The video cuts out at 0:46 before Hercules has all four feet back on the ground. First clip ends.

0:47 - The second clip in the video starts at an entirely new location that appears to be a different point around the side of the same pool as the first clip. There is no longer a wall in the background - behind the pool appears to be a park of some sort. It is not possible to tell when this clip was filmed in relation to the first one. There is one person with a flotation device visible in the pool who does not appear to be the same handler as in the first clip. The water is still turbulent and frothy. The dog is not visible for the first 5 seconds of the clip, although the camera appears to be following something on the far side of the pool from where the clip is filmed.

0:52 - Hercules is finally visible (It is not possible to confirm the dog's identity visually through this clip, but it has has been confirmed to be the same dog by multiple sources.) He is mostly underwater with its head and nose pointing out of the water. He turns to follow the short end of the pool and swims towards the person in the water.

0:54 - After only a few moments of visibility on the video, the dog's head slips under the frothy water. The person in the water is already moving towards him. Someone can be heard yelling "cut."

0:56 - Within a couple of seconds the person in the water has already reached where the dog went under. Another person is crouched on the edge of the pool ready to assist the person with the flotation device, and another person has jumped in and is most of the way towards the dog. Someone walks in front of the camera at 0:57 and the video cuts to a TMZ logo at 0:58.

It is undeniable Hercules is definitely very stressed during the first clip. (There is not enough footage of him in the clip where he goes underwater for any accurate interpretation of his behavior or internal state. While it is obviously not good that he went completely underwater while filming, with zero context as to how long he had been in the water, four seconds of him being underwater, and no further information about how the situation played out, this article will not pass judgement or attempt to draw a conclusion based on such minimal data.) Nobody wants to see a dog displaying such obvious signals of discomfort, especially not while in the hands of a professional who is responsible for the dog’s welfare and safety. The clip definitely shows that the trainer made a bad choice when deciding to follow through with forcing Hercules into the water.

However, the situation is much more complicated than simply being able to condemn the trainer for his actions - context is everything, and there are numerous variables that likely influenced the handler’s decisions in this scenario. The realities of all these variables are not details that are possible for anyone who was not present for filming - or inside the handler’s head - to know for sure, but some further information released by the studios involved and the author of the book the film is based on allows for a good amount of reasonably credible extrapolation. Below, we’ll discuss the information that has come to light since the video broke and put it in its correct context, as well as discuss other industry-specific practices that likely influenced how Hercules was handled during the film shoot that have not been covered in official press releases. The goal for the next section is to provide readers with an understanding of complexity of the situation without devaluing or excusing the obviously negative experience of the dog.

Industry Context

Animal actors are always highly trained for the specific behaviors needed for a shoot before arriving on set, because from a purely pragmatic stance their ability to get the needed shot is the product that their companies have been paid to provide. This means that companies like Birds & Animals Unlimited invest a lot of effort into identifying the correct animal for each job and making sure the team is well prepared to provide the requisite behaviors. Despite the misinformation spread by animal rights groups, the animal film industry has made a dramatic shift towards utilizing positive reinforcement-based training methods with their animals in the past couple of decades. It is in their best interest to train their animals with the most humane methods because stressed animals don’t work well and it looks bad on film; by making training voluntary and enjoyable for their animals, companies are able to produce the best possible product. This means that Hercules was picked for his role in A Dog’s Purpose because he was a strong swimmer and was reliably able to perform behaviors related to being in and around water. The book and its movie adaptation both called for a dog able to swim in deep and turbulent water - an animal that was not a strong swimmer or had a fear of moving water simply would not have been cast for the role. BAU confirmed this in the statement they released on January 23rd, saying that the two-year old Hercules “had been in training for months to perform the swimming scenes for this film. He was chosen for the film based on his love of the water.”

The fact that an animal actor with months of training under his belt was so uncomfortable during filming says that something out of the norm had to have been going on: there is no way that Hercules would have been brought to set if he was that fundamentally uncomfortable with what he was expected to do for the film. Not only would doing so be a massive welfare violation in the eyes of the American Humane Association regulations, it would damage the reputation of the company. So to a critical eye, it becomes apparent without any supplemental information that the reason Hercules is reacting so strongly to getting in the water is because something has changed from what he has been prepared for. Before looking at the information subsequently provided by those involved with the film, it’s worth brainstorming theoretical examples of things that could have led to the amount of stress seen in the first clip. For instance, the water could have been more turbulent than Hercules trained for; the film crew could have decided to change the amount of turbulence in the water during the shoot; the way he was supposed to enter the water could have changed; the camera apparatus could have been moved to a new location and become an extra visual stimulus; or it could have been even something as simple as a random unrelated loud noise putting him on edge. Any single one of those things could have easily produced that sort of stress response even from a highly trained animal who is used to the pressure of a frenetic film environment.

A few days after the original video appeared on TMZ, A Dog’s Purpose author Bruce Cameron released a statement saying that he had since reviewed the footage from the day the first clip was filmed, as he was shocked by the contrast between what the leaked clip portrayed and what he had personally observed on set. In his statement, Cameron provided new information that confirms the theory that the dog had been stressed by a change: Hercules had been doing the behavior happily multiple times earlier in the day and was fine with it, but was discomfited when the producers asked for the stunt to be filmed on the other side of the pool. According to Cameron, “the water wasn't his issue, it was the location that was the issue, and the dog happily did the stunt when he was allowed to return to his original spot." Cameron also confirmed that the stunt Hercules was being asked to perform involved him voluntarily jumping into the water, rather than being placed in it by his handler, and echoed public sentiments in expressing the view that it was a mistake for the handler to have attempted to place Hercules into the water when he was obviously balking at the switch.

On January 23rd, Gavin Polone, the producer of A Dog’s Purpose, published an article in The Hollywood Reporter in which he provided much more detail about how the situation occurred during filming and reiterated previous statements that Hercules should never have been pushed so far beyond his comfort zone, even briefly. While he was not present on set during that shoot, he was so appalled by how the clips released contrasted with the careful welfare considerations he had witness for the animal actors that he visited the studio to review all the footage shot that day. Here’s his description of what he learned:

“In footage of the rehearsal for the scene, you can see the dog not only unafraid of the water but desperate to jump in. In fact, he had to be held back by the trainer from going in too soon (the dog was trained to retrieve a toy sewed into the hoodie of the stunt woman and give the illusion that he was pulling her to safety). 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. Also, in the rehearsal footage, it’s clear that there is a safety diver and a trainer in the pool to protect the dog in case of a problem, as well as two trainers, a stunt coordinator and a safety officer on the deck, and that there are platforms built into the pool where the dog can swim to and stand, if need be. The pool was heated to between 80 and 85 degrees, causing it to steam.
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. The TMZ video only shows the unfinished take of when the dog was on the right side.”

Polone also offered insight into the second clip from the video, which Cameron did not, saying that “from a front angle, when they shot the scene, you can see that there is a calmer path in the artificial water turbulence for the dog to move through. This is not visible in the TMZ video. You can also see, at the end of the scene, the dog going underwater for four seconds, which never should have happened, and then the diver and handlers lifting the dog out of the pool. The dog then shook off and trotted around the pool, unharmed and unfazed. They only did one take of the full scene and then ended for the day.”

Even though the first clip in the video was a single problematic instance that was not indicative of the ethos of the rest of the filming process, and many people involved with the film have already stated they believe the welfare representative present should have prevented it from occurring, it’s worth discussing why Hercules’ handler might have decided that trying to place the struggling dog into the pool was a viable option in that scenario.

Why Might The Trainer Decide to Continue Filming?

There are a number of reasons Hercules’ trainer might have chosen to try to place Hercules in the water to make the shot work even though the dog was clearly resisting. Every released statement has echoed the sentiment that the trainer should not have pushed past Hercules’ comfort zone, but none provide information on why he may have chosen to continue attempting the behavior. The first and most uncomfortable answer is because it was his job to “get the shot”. Movie producers pay well for well-trained animal actors and expect that they’re able to get the job done when they arrive on set. Since Hercules had been performing his duties easily on the other side of the pool in rehearsal, it makes sense that his unwillingness to enter the water after the location change at the start of the actual filming might have been a point of stress with a film crew not well versed in animal behavior. This is never a comfortable professional situation to be in, and the handler may have felt it was necessary to at least attempt to get Hercules in the water once. None of the released statements from Cameron, Polone, or BAU have addressed how the crew responded to Hercules balking at jumping in (although the voice on the clip heard stating “they’ll have to throw that dog in the water” may be indicative of it), so this potential influence is probable but unconfirmed. Polone does note, however, that he believes the welfare representative from the American Humane Association should have intervened as soon as the dog appeared stressed - the fact that this did not occur may speak to situational pressure to just “get the shot” now that it was being filmed for real.

From Polone’s statement, it sounds like Hercules had to enter the rougher water but would immediately swim into a slower channel where he would be performing his “rescue” behavior - but even though he’d been jumping into turbulent water during the rehearsal, changing sides of the pool meant that the behavior was now effectively needing to be performed backwards from the original muscle memory. It’s plausible that the trainer may have assumed that the issue with entering the water from a new location could be resolved once Hercules was actually in the water and realized everything else was going to be exactly the same. Since the trainer immediately removed Hercules from the water when it became clear that getting in the pool wasn’t calming him down, this implies that the trainer was attempting to troubleshoot stress regarding entering the water rather than forcing the dog to perform the entire behavior while under stress.

It can be hard for people who don’t regularly train animals to understand why a trainer would think it’s acceptable to push an animal to do something when it is clearly past its comfort zone, even with the hope that it would help calm the animal back down. Doing so is not a great practice, and many animal trainers have spoken out since TMZ released the clips condemning any professional who would ever choose to do it at all, but there are instances in animal management where doing so is useful and might be necessary. The ideal for animal training is to use positive reinforcement techniques at all times, but the reality of training is that it’s hard to have that be 100% of interactions. There are times when it is necessary to make an animal do unpleasant things (such as vet trips), or do unpleasant things to an animal (such as having to forcibly medicate them, or bodily restraining them to keep them from a dangerous situation). The question of if doing so is acceptable/appropriate is always situational and often defined by subjective emotional context - for many people the differentiating factor is whether the stress is induced for the animal's overall benefit - making the same amount of stress acceptable if it serves the animal's needs but unacceptable if it's part of a human agenda that is unrelated to the animal’s welfare.

It’s also possible that the trainer was not actually able to see the extent of the distressed body language Hercules was displaying. While it’s obvious to the viewer watching the clip - which was shot straight-on and at a distance - it’s much harder to get an accurate read on an animal’s body language while in close contact with them. The trainer was situated at ground level and with the dog in front of him when the clip started - looking down, he only would have been able to see the top of Hercules’ head and back. He would have been able to see mostly ear position and possibly the direction of the dog’s weight shifts, but not the braced feet, tense face, or tucked tail. As Hercules attempted to move away from being lifted, the trainer would have been able to see slightly more, but the dog’s body was close to the ground and he was moving quickly - both of which would obscure the clarity of visual signalling at close range. There is also a reasonable chance that the trainer was distracted by having to situate himself differently in the new location, and that he was attempting to split his attention between Hercules, the crew, the set, and the director. This does not excuse the fact that the trainer pushed the dog past his comfort zone, but it might help explain why an experienced trainer thought doing so was okay: Hercules’ body language may have not appeared to his handler as unequivocally uninterested as it does to a viewer with a better perspective, and the handler may have been distracted by the reactions of the crew.

There is no question that, in hindsight, the handler did not make a good call on how he worked with Hercules in the new location. The overwhelming response from the professional animal training community has reflected this - it’s an uncomfortable clip, and there are a number of better ways it could have been handled. However, anyone with personal experience in training animals also understands that sometimes situational elements screw up the best training plans in ways that aren’t predictable and choices have to be made on the fly. Even the best, most ethical trainers can make less ideal choices when under pressure. What we are able to see in the clip fits with the context that has been provided in multiple public statements: Hercules’ handler made a choice he deemed acceptable at the time in a complicated situation, and then immediately reversed course when Hercules was obviously still stressed. This does not match the rhetoric that animal rights organizations are pushing, that of heartless animal abuse in the name of capitalism and human greed - Hercules’ trainer obviously cares about his charge’s welfare and was caught on film simply making a bad choice.

The clip that we now know is contextually divorced does, however, draw attention to an important question: were the choices made during filming compatible with the regulatory oversight of the American Humane Association? On January 18th, the American Humane Association (AHA) announced that the representative who had been on the set of A Dog’s Purpose during Hercules’ water scenes had been suspended for the duration of an investigation; on January 23rd, AHA published a statement in Vanity Fair stating that, upon review, “a full spectrum of rigorous safety measures was in place to protect the dog throughout this particular scene.” The representative added more detail, saying that Hercules was immediately put in a warming tent after going underwater in the second clip, and that a full dive rescue team was in the water with him at all times according to their standard procedures for water stunts. On February 3rd, a press release regarding the independent, third-party investigation into the allegations confirmed everything that had previously been stated by associated parties and added that “a veterinary checkup was performed last week at the request of American Humane, which confirmed that the dog is healthy.” It appears that all AHA procedures were followed on set - whether they are strict enough or whether it is appropriate for a regulatory body to be funded by the industry they oversee is a separate matter that cannot be covered in depth in this article.

In Conclusion

At the end of the day, it’s obvious that the way Hercules was treated in the clips was inappropriate, no matter how short a period it lasted for. As to whether it is appropriate to call that treatment animal abuse, that is a much harder call, and is something each observer needs to decide for themselves based on their personal views about when (if ever) it may be appropriate to stress animals or force them to do things against their will.

Much of the original outcry following Hercules’ treatment in the filming for A Dog’s Purpose occurred because there was no context and much of the first wave of media regarding the issue was heavily biased. When minimal amounts of context were provided by professionals associated with the film, people still weren’t sure how to apply their ethical framework to a situation most viewers would never encounter. This article has attempted to provide unbiased industry and professional context to why what was caught on film occurred, as well as give insight for the reader into what might have been going on in an ethical animal trainer’s head during the situation. It is now up to the reader to extrapolate from that exposition if they feel this situation is an instance of animal abuse or an instance of a trainer simply making a bad choice that resulted in a stressed and unhappy dog.

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