Take a second and think back to your favorite movies with dogs. All Dogs Go to Heaven, Old Yeller, My Dog Skip, the list goes on. What do all these movies have in common? The dog dies. But why is it that dogs have to die in the movies?
The answer to this changes from movie to movie; sometimes the dog dies of old age, sometimes of more sinister causes. Regardless of the situation, the theme for those left behind stays the same: loss of innocence.
Loss of innocence is a popular motif in both film and literature, often used as a driving force in a character’s “coming of age.” With this loss of innocence, a character becomes aware of evil, pain, and suffering in the world around them and they can never go back to the childlike state of innocence they had before.
Now let’s look back at some of the movies we mentioned before. The story would be quite different if the dog didn’t die, right? The dog’s death is an important part of the development of both the movie’s plot and the characters in it. That doesn’t mean it’s not upsetting, though.
This idea of innocence is actually why we get so upset when dogs die in the movies. We care deeply about creatures we perceive as innocent or helpless and when something happens to them, it triggers strong emotions.
A study conducted by Northeastern University confirmed this belief when they tracked people’s reactions to fake news stories. Participants were given four fictitious news stories about attacks that happened to dogs, puppies, infants, or adults. Their reactions were recorded and level of empathy for each story was gauged. The results of the study determined that the victims that were perceived as more innocent, in this case the infant, puppy, and dog, garnered much stronger reactions than the less innocent adult.
What’s interesting is that these reactions occur whether or not we actually knew the animal. Obviously, the mourning period will be longer after the passing of your own pet, but reading about the death of an animal in the news or witnessing it in a movie incites those same feelings of sadness. In some cases, our reactions are even stronger following the death of an animal than a human.
As upsetting as it is, a dog’s death plays an important role in the development of a movie. It forces those left behind to come to grips with their new reality and become stronger as a result. However, if seeing a dog pass on the big screen is a bit much for you, you can take a page from the mother of the beloved Friends character, Phoebe Buffay, and turn the movie off before the sad bits.