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The dog dies: use of animal death as an emotional pull in film

A number of movies, tv shows, and other pieces of fiction use animal death for one main reason. Generally, it’s to show a particular character is evil, and to pull on the viewer’s heartstrings by showing the death of an innocent creature (most often, a dog).

This technique is often very effective, and many viewers feel very emotional at the death of animals on screen, to the point that sites such as ‘Does the Dog Die’ exist simply to warn viewers who find animal death (among other things) to be too much. But due to being effective, some find it over-used, a bit of a cliche.

So, why is it used so often? Is it just so effective that it’s worth the cries of unoriginality? Is it just such a simple way to portray a character’s cruelty? And why is it so effective, anyway? Why is the death of an animal more effective than that of say, a child?

  • This topic is so refreshing and alluring. It reminds me of "Bad Moon" (1996), a movie about a werewolf who attacks a family, but the family dog, a German shepherd--the hero of the story--confronts the beast and saves the day (sorry if this qualifies as a spoiler). I wonder how many movies there are out there where the death of a dog is the main part of the plot and not just an excuse to sympathize with the main character or to trigger the journey, as in "I Am Legend" or "John Wick." – T. Palomino 4 weeks ago
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  • Building off of T. Palomino's comment, I feel like this topic could be fruitfully contextualized by unpacking the duelling tropes of "kick the dog" and "save the cat" as screenwriting techniques that are specifically poised as shorthands for modulating the audience's which characters are innately evil vs. inherently good. – ProtoCanon 4 weeks ago
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  • What I've always found funny about white America is that a dog dying on film was always viewed as more heartbreaking than seeing a black man attacked and maimed by dogs on film. On a different note, Cujo provides an interesting look into the death of an animal. Because we are introduced to Cujo before he is fully rabid, we see that he is a gentle animal. His eventual 'going insane' is not his fault. Thus, although we do not root for Cujo to be victorious in his pursuit of humans, it is somewhat tear-jerking when the animal dies. This also begs the question, are these innocent animals really innocent just because they don't act based on evil intentions in the same way as humans? – Montayj79 3 weeks ago
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  • yeah yeah – woodworkers 3 weeks ago
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  • I've often wondered why I'm so affected by the death of a dog in TV and movies. I love dogs, but I'm also a mom. When a child dies on a movie, I'm horrified and feel deep sympathy for the parent characters, but it doesn't affect me the same way as the death of a dog (ONLY speaking about media, of course!) I'm also widowed, so when a spouse or partner dies, I find it sad. Still...that deep, hurt, sad feeling after the death of a dog on TV is more affective. My thought is that it's because dogs are: 1. Totally innocent. 2. Completely loyal. 3. Totally trusting 4. Helpless 5. Unaware of mortality So, when you have a character who can do no wrong, who's entire personality is based on being loyal, trusts almost anyone, is mostly defenseless (they can bite, yes, but their loyalty toward people usually tells them to hold back) and especially is unaware that it is can die (or is dying, or about die) it completely tugs the heart strings. – brandy 5 days ago
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  • A couple things I'd like to point out. In this article please clarify that this hook is mainly used with dogs (even the article title can be reworked). You don't see turtle, rabbit, or cat deaths. The "dog" is a symbol not just a pet. It's a symbol of friendship and companionship, so is it just a way to restate "death of a companion" much like death of a wife - a construct overused already? Second, does it REALLY allow filmmakers to put less work into having to build that "I lost someone dear" empathy for the character? Losing a father, wife, or girlfriend is extensively overused and might have lost its touch. You see a movie with the lead having lost his wife and going on a revenge-killing spree is redundant, but doing the same for a dog is fresh (until it becomes mundane). Is that the sole purpose? I'd wager it is, but the piece needs to have at least 3-4 examples and the importance of the animal clearly marked out for reference and comparison. For example, how much screen time did they get? Did we see any bonding moment or did the movie start from "dog dead now, dust off your shotgun"? If there was no bonding moment (basically if the dog was not a character in the movie but a hook symbol), have we truly become that shallow or is this device such an ingenious shortcut to gaining sympathy and must be celebrated or at least respected? A lot to unpack here, but we really need at least 3-4 good examples. – Abhimanyu Shekhar 16 hours ago
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