A Labrador retriever perches on a wooden prow, watchful, alert, calm. He is slightly grizzled around the eyes, which betrays his age but also gives the impression of an innate wisdom.
"Ice is always concentrating when he's on the boat," says Italian fisherman Alessandro in episode 3 of the Netflix show Dogs, available to stream now.
The original series, released at the end of November, features six beautifully shot films about dogs around the world and how humans interact with them. They provoke a never-ending stream of feel-good tingles and provide a compelling support for the hypothesis that dogs do indeed rule, while other species drool.
Ice is Alessandro's perpetual companion, whether he is casting nets in the dawn light or sitting down to dinner at his family's restaurant in a small village on the shores of Lake Como. It's hard to imagine Alessandro without Ice. Yet a question lingers.
"He's now over 10 years old," says Alessandro. "That's already pretty old for a dog." Alessandro is going to build a shelter on the boat to keep Ice warm as he gets older, but it's clear Ice won't be around forever. We can't help but wonder how Alessandro will handle Ice's death.
On the surface, Ice and the other dogs might appear to be the stars of the show, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are peripheral characters in this series. The cliche is true, and their role here is that of the lovable, loyal companions.
The dogs in Dogs, it turns out, are a lens through which we can understand facets of humanity and society that are otherwise hidden. We discover, for example, the loneliness of professionally successful single women in Japan and how the dwindling fish supplies in Lake Como are changing a way of life Alessandro and his ancestors have known for centuries.
Saving the dogs, shedding a tear
I'd bulk-bought Kleenex ahead of watching Dogs in anticipation of free-flowing tears. I was surprised and relieved to discover that I only cried during episode 2. The rest of the time my face was mostly occupied by a wistful smile.
In episode 2, Ayham, a Syrian, tries to rescue his husky, Zeus, from war-torn Damascus and bring him to Germany. Buoyant, photogenic and friend to all the neighborhood children, Zeus is the kind of dog that people will willingly risk their own safety to protect.
Part of the magic of dogs is how they can increase our empathy toward other humans. Their influence on us doesn't just make us better individuals. It also makes us better to one another -- as we see when people come together to rescue Zeus and heal Ayham's heartbreak over leaving him behind.
Perhaps the best example of all is how the dogs serve as a conduit for viewers to emotionally invest themselves in the stories of the humans on screen.
But there does come a point where the series seems to question whether there can be such a thing as having too much empathy for dogs. In spite of poor resources, Alvaro and Lya (who feature in the penultimate episode) seem to be trying to rescue every stray dog in Costa Rica (and there are a lot) and let them run free at their sanctuary, Territorio De Zaguates.
They might not always go about things in the most sustainable way for their existing canine population of several hundred dogs. But the way they put the animals first, even when they can't -- or perhaps shouldn't -- feels impossible to argue with if you're an animal lover.
There is no explicit call to arms in Dogs, but viewers are gently nudged via Alvaro and Lya's example in the direction of considering what they can do to help.
Then there's the final episode, which is set in New York, a city seemingly rich with dogs. You meet New Yorkers who will rescue at-risk pooches from kill shelters across the country. It also shows how normal people with busy lives and full-time jobs like you and me can do something practical to make a difference in the lives of dogs.
Consider my heartstrings tugged
I didn't have to wait until the last episode to feel that urge. I felt it from the very first.
In episode 1, Corinne, a girl with epilepsy, and Megan, a tiny ray of sunshine who has trouble walking, meet and learn to work with their service dogs.
As someone who has long thought that the only thing I'd ever want to do for a living other than writing is training dogs, this episode seemed designed specifically to try to persuade me to quit my job and go back to dog-handling school. Ultimately, this fantasy is borne of pent-up frustration that at age 30, I don't have a dog yet. (Thanks, London rental market.) I foster cats instead.
When I was a child I genuinely believed that a dog would understand me in a way no human ever could and would be a kind of soulmate for me. I had no physical needs that would have required a service dog, but I felt deep in my soul that a dog would be a balm for my debilitating shyness and social anxiety.
As I lay awake in bed at night, I used to ponder how it would feel to fall asleep with a dog, with all its warmth and heaviness, resting on my feet. Maybe it would be uncomfortable, but it would be the kind of discomfort I'd be willing to bear. I could imagine no greater comfort than knowing a trusty companion was waiting and ready to chase away the phantom figures that crowded around my bed. A dog would lick my face and bring me out the cycles of sleep paralysis that gripped me.
Most of all, I wanted a friend who would love me without reason. A companion who -- no matter what petty squabbles were controlling the social dynamics of the girls at school -- would greet me when I got home the way golden retriever Shadow greets Peter as he limps over the hill at the end of my favorite film, Homeward Bound.
Watching Corinne bond with her service dog, Rory, lie face to face with him and let herself be calmed by him, I couldn't help but mourn the lack of that specific kind of companionship I'd so desperately craved but never had at her age.
The series is book-ended by Corinne and Megan at the start and another child, Julia, at the close, all getting dogs. This confirmed my theory that there are lots of kids who have a very specific need for canine friendship in their lives. It warmed my heart to the knowing that these particular girls would receive all of the joy, pleasure and comfort of having a dog.
A love story that cares not for science
I no longer have a need for such intense companionship and reassurance in my independent, full and privileged adult life, but that doesn't mean my aspirations regarding dog ownership have changed. Netflix's six-episode meditation on the nature of dog/human relationships has only crystallized my belief that one day I need to experience that bond for myself.
The timing of the series is interesting, given that a study published last week in the journal Learning & Behavior claims that dogs' intelligence isn't unique in the animal world. "There is no current case for canine exceptionalism," the authors of the paper conclude, seemingly in direct contravention of everything any dog lover knows to be true.
But the thing that science doesn't account for is that even if dogs aren't exceptional when compared to other individual species, they are undeniably exceptional in the context of humans. For millennia, humans and dogs have't just coexisted. We've bonded.
Netflix's Dogs is perhaps the greatest original romance the streaming service has produced and proves exactly what science in this case has overlooked: There is no interspecies friendship quite like that between humans and dogs. Domestication is more than just humans living in harmony with dogs. It's a case of us loving them too.
: What it's like to live with Sony's robot dog.
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