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Relinquish the Dog?

Study examines media messages about pet behavior

Study examines media messages about pet behavior

Hollywood produces a colossal number of films that are commonly criticized for being sexist, racist, or just plain silly. So it may be somewhat of a surprise to find that, when it comes to movie messages about pet relinquishment, Tinseltown—for once—may have the right idea.

Arguing that films can frequently be interpreted as modern fables that teach a moral lesson, researchers in the psychology departments of Indiana and Purdue Universities examined three movies and a TV show that deal with dog misbehavior. Their analysis of these works, which was published in the journal Anthrozoös (Vol. 13, No. 3, 2000), reveals that movies and TV can deliver positive messages about human commitment to companion animals.

The researchers looked at three movies (Beethoven, K-9, and Turner and Hooch) and one television show (the episode of The Simpsons titled “Bart’s Dog Gets an F”). Choice of titles was based on their contemporary urban or suburban settings and their relative lack of anthropomorphism; none of the dogs portrayed by these works talks or thinks in a human voice.

By charting negative animal behaviors (such as disobedience, house-soiling, and aggression) and positive animal behaviors (such as service to humans) alongside human responses (such as bonding, scolding, and relinquishment), the researchers determined the frequency of these acts in relation to each other. All four works portrayed human-dog relationships that were initially troubling; the human characters had problems dealing with the dogs’ inherent messiness or their initial disobedience, and the storylines portrayed moments when relinquishment was implied or imminent.

But the titles also worked on the comedic arch; they all portrayed happy endings. Though the animals had been depicted as troublesome and their places in their homes had been threatened, in the end, their value to their families was reestablished through obedience, bonding, or acts of service toward humans. The researchers concluded that all four productions, working as contemporary fables, instruct the audience to expect canine companions to behave disagreeably at times. All four works also show humans making flawed or hasty decisions about their dogs that are later proven to be mistakes. Lastly, all the titles recommend sensitivity and patience toward canines exhibiting undesirable behaviors. “The movies’ overarching moral seems clear: dogs are not to be relinquished,” the researchers wrote. “...The final scenes in all [the titles] show human social units that are enhanced by the presence of animal companions.”


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