Here’s one way to make us hate a character: Have them kill a dog. It’s how we meet malevolent political monsters like House Of Cards’ Frank Underwood and The Dead Zone’s Greg Stillson (in the book, at least); it’s how we know Alfie Allen’s rich brat villain has gone too far in John Wick; and it’s how we realize the depth of Mark Wahlberg’s madness in Fear. That scenes such as those can serve as potential deal breakers for some sentimental consumers (this writer included) has prompted the (admittedly logical) response from cranks who just don’t get it: People die in movies all the time, so why is the death of a dog so upsetting?
Well, much of it has to do with the fact that humans and dogs are not equal combatants (dog-on-dog death is at least a little more digestible). Also, no dog chooses to be mean or evil (even Cujo had rabies!); they are simple creatures whose violence is borne out of self-defense and paranoia (almost inevitably caused by humans), thus giving them an innate purity. People are born flawed; animals are not.
Author Tim Grierson refines his take by looking at a study on the subject by Northeastern University, a 2013 Hollywood Reporter roundtable with some TV showrunners, and a variety of other sources. His most intriguing takeaway concerns the ways in which “Hollywood has taught us not to value those lives as much.”
“In a sense, we’ve been conditioned to view random human deaths as merely a plot point — a cold, efficient story beat that doesn’t actually register as emotional,” he continues.
And it’s true; Grierson cites the trend in big-budget action fare like Man Of Steel and the Transformers movies to decimate cities during the films’ climactic battles, causing a scale of destruction that would no doubt result in multiple fatalities. Another recent example is a movie like American Assassin, which finds random bystanders routinely gunned down as a means of escalating the action. The same goes with any number of pre-9/11 action movies; Face/Off, in particular, is notorious for its unnecessarily astronomical body count.
So maybe dog death is such a devastation because of the infrequency in which we see it happen? Maybe, but, dear lord, please don’t kill a dog in a movie ever again, please.