Skip to main content

A still from “Max”.Kent Smith

"If the dog dies," a YouTube user wrote beneath the trailer for Max, a new drama about a military-trained Belgian Malinois, "I'll burn the theatre to the ground."

An extreme reaction, perhaps. But many share the sentiment: "I SWEAR I'M GONNA KILL THE SCRIPT WRITER IF THE DOG DIES," echoed another commenter, their caps lock key indignantly jammed, as others promised riots and vandalism, a maelstrom of moviegoer wrath.

The less violent have resigned themselves to the familiar canine mortality. "The dog is definitely gonna die," someone predicted. "Typical dog movie," added another, "the dog always dies." Still, some resist what seems inevitable. ("No, just no," one demurred, "no, no, no no no no no no.") Some even attempted to compromise and plead. "Listen," a wise fellow implored. "Shoot Turner. Leave Hooch out of it."

Why does the dog have to die? I don't mean Max the Malinois, returning from his tour of duty to soothe and inspire an obstreperous child. He may well survive the movie intact (no spoilers here). I mean any dog, or cat or small animal, poised in constant, anxiety-inflaming peril every moment they slink and saunter on screen.

It seems an axiom of every genre that if a pet appears, a callous death awaits it, like some rebarbative spin on Chekhov's Gun. There are the faithful canines of the modern weepie, succumbing to surprise wounds or manufactured illness with poignant, tearful grace. There are the slapstick-cats and farce-dogs, dispatched by mistake by a hapless hero – hurled outrageously from a five-storey window, say, or impaled on something comically undignified.

Most horrible are fates reserved for the animals of horror: In the internecine war of Grand Guignol one-upmanship, it's the family pet that enjoys a slasher's least dignified slaughter. It's all an animal lover can do to squirm and cringe.

At doesthedogdie.com, which is pretty much what it sounds like, an animal lover can investigate one of the database's nearly 2,000 listed titles and steel himself accordingly. The site divides the vast sprawl of cinema into three categories: "A pet dies," "No pets die" and "A pet is injured or appears dead but ultimately lives."

Of 1997's Anaconda, for instance, one may learn that "numerous animals die," among them birds ("starvation after their owner dies"), a monkey ("shot for bait") and, alas, "two giant anacondas."

More helpfully, one might look up 1982's Poltergeist, which features a deadly house and a defenceless family dog: E-Buzz, as the mutt is called, "does not die and is never in danger," which ought to set the perennially wary at ease.

Quite a handy resource, particularly for the pet-protective heartsick and the readily unnerved. But it is a bit odd that we need it. If so many people are concerned about the well-being of fictional animals that a project of this scale had to be mounted to appease them, you have to wonder why the mass destruction of movie pets became such an ubiquitous convention to begin with.

Does anybody find this trope appealing? Are there moviegoers yearning for carnage any time an orange tabby wanders before the camera? I doubt it. So why has the device endured? Why is it that when we watch the trailer for a sentimental drama about the homecoming of a war-veteran dog like Max, we assume, with good reason, that the dog won't make it to the end of act three? Who established this expectation? Why does the dog have to die?

It was in his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, that John Updike described the mercy killing of a cat on the grounds of the Diamond County Home for the Aged, shot by rifle as its face "loomed like a china plate in a shooting gallery." "If his target had been a bottle," Updike writes of the man tasked with the job, "liquid wouldn't have spilled from it more quickly than life from the cat. The animal dropped without a shudder."

Updike doesn't treat the animal's death as spectacle or special effect. It isn't flippant, but it isn't sensational, either – like any real death, it merely is. And though the moment is understated, the pall of it hangs over the action till the end. Fiction, in other words, can accommodate the passing of an animal. Such a death only needs the tact and consideration few movies seem willing to extend its way.

And then, too, there is the pleasure afforded us when a movie pet found close to termination is suddenly and surprisingly spared. David Gordon Green's new film, Manglehorn (out on iTunes in Canada this week), saves the life of its hero's fluffy white cat, put under the knife of emergency surgery: The recovery is worthy of applause.

That audiences routinely care more about the killing of a pet than the murder of an actual person has been widely remarked upon. Our protectiveness of animals derives from an innate sense that they can't understand the danger we impose upon them. When we say that a cat or a dog is "innocent," we don't mean only that they didn't commit any crime. We mean that, unlike us, a cat or a dog isn't capable of malice or deceit.

Animals don't occupy our world of malevolence and perfidy. We are perfectly aware, watching a movie, that the pet being obliterated by the cackling villain or insidious disease isn't really being harmed. But we know how effortlessly a movie can penetrate our emotional defences with the illusion.

That's why the dog has to die: It's the easiest way for a film to rattle us, to make us frightened or make us cry. Filmmakers must understand as we do that it's a shameless trick. We all ought to know better. The dog doesn't have to die.