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Fake Dogs, Real Emotions

Through sites like Does the Dog Die? and Can You Pet the Dog?, canine enthusiasts can learn what they’re about to get into before firing up a movie or video game. But why do people seem to care more about the on-screen treatment of their furry friends than their fellow humans?

Ringer illustration

The Ringer hereby declares this Wednesday, August 19, 2020, to be Dog Day. We have no concrete reason for doing so, other than the fact that dogs are great and ought to be celebrated. We hope you agree.

Next year, director Chad Stahelski will film the fourth and (in all likelihood) fifth installments in the John Wick movie franchise. And on May 27, 2022, when John Wick 4 is scheduled to debut, I will once again be at war with myself. Part of me—the part that likes Keanu Reeves, intricately choreographed action movies, and working for a website with an insatiable appetite for John Wick content—will want to watch it immediately. Another part of me may avoid it for the same reason I still haven’t seen the existing trilogy: About 15 minutes into the first John Wick, a dog dies.

I’m well aware that this decision was difficult for the filmmakers, and that the rest of the movie is about violently avenging that adorable dog’s death. I’m also aware that I could skip to the 17-minute mark and not have to see the dog die. And I know that neither of the sequels depicts a dog dying, which means I’m depriving myself of almost six hours of quality, dog-death-free entertainment for the sake of one scene. Yet every time I come close to watching John Wick, I reluctantly decide to delay another day.

Is it rational to dread the death of a fictional character? Is it logical to dread the death of a fictional dog while, if anything, eagerly anticipating the deaths of the 299 fictional people John Wick kills in the first three films, in ways almost too brutal to be believed? Probably not. But it’s not that unusual, either. John Whipple would know: He’s the founder of Does the Dog Die?, a site started for the specific purpose of sparing dog lovers the sight of man’s best fictional friend expiring on screen. Thanks to Whipple’s work, I know exactly when dogs do and don’t die in John Wick without having seen any suffer.

“As soon as somebody sees a dog on the screen, they’re going to pause it and come check the website,” Whipple says, although the most vigilant dog-death avoiders may consult the crowdsourced site even before they choose what to watch. No movie in the Does the Dog Die? database has drawn more “yes” votes for dog death than the one I haven’t quite convinced myself to see. “John Wick has been on the trending list for a very long time,” Whipple says.

Does the Dog Die? is one of a few internet institutions devoted to cataloguing the presence and role of fictional dogs in entertainment media. While Does the Dog Die? provides PSAs for dog-death avoiders across many media—from movies, TV shows, and video games to books, podcasts, and comic books—the Tumblr-based Dogs in Movies Database (DIMDb) simply documents every dog its creator has discovered while watching thousands of films. A third dog-related endeavor, the Twitter account Can You Pet the Dog?, identifies video games in which it’s possible for the player to pet pixelated canines. Taken together, these three online labors of love epitomize the almost mystifyingly deep attachment humans have to dogs, which expresses itself just as strongly when the dogs don’t exist.

“If you’re watching fiction, then you take the death of people for granted, whereas the death of an animal somehow breaks through that fictional lightness,” says behavioral scientist Clive Wynne, founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. That especially painful quality is responsible for the genesis of Does the Dog Die?

Whipple, a professional software developer, birthed Does the Dog Die? in 2010 at the request of his sister, who had become increasingly bothered by emotionally manipulative dog-death tropes in movies after reading a bestselling book about screenwriting, Save the Cat! Killing a dog, Whipple says, may be “great for dramatic effect” and for motivating retired contract killers to embark on murderous rampages against Russian crime syndicates. But it isn’t much fun for people who find dog deaths more distasteful than other forms of fictional violence.

In the early years, Does the Dog Die? was nothing more than a list of movies and dog-death verdicts curated by Whipple, his sister, and a few friends. But as the site’s audience grew and more movie requests came in, the small contingent couldn’t keep up. “People expect movies coming out in the theater to be on the site, and there’s no way we can see them all,” Whipple says. So Whipple coded a crowdsourcing interface that allowed the audience to add movies manually and vote to decide democratically whether a dog had died.

“Back then, it was still just dogs dying,” Whipple says, in a sentence that would sound strange out of context. But soon, he continues, “we realized that the one category of dogs wasn’t going to cut it anymore.” Users wanted Does the Dog Die? to be a one-stop shop for unsettling attributes in many modes of entertainment, and Whipple was willing to oblige. The site now sports more than 80 user-suggested categories, or “triggers,” ranging from violence toward humans and other animals to aspects of the cinematography or the story, such as “shaky cam is used” and “the ending is sad.” When a user-submitted prospective category receives a certain number of upvotes, Whipple adds it to the site. (The most popular current request is “cannibalism,” which was evidently less in demand than the existing category of “Santa is spoiled.”) “It may not be dogs dying or fingers being smashed, but there is something for everyone,” Whipple says.

According to its creator, Does the Dog Die? has remained refreshingly free of spammers, trolls, and others with ill intent, but its users still sometimes disagree, even about something that may seem as straightforward as whether a dog died. The following table, based on data provided by Whipple, lists the most contentious ratings on the site, counting categories with less than a 20 percent difference between “yes” and “no” vote counts, ordered by most comments. Users may quibble about whether a dog died if, for instance, its death occurred off screen or is only implied. But “over time, the correct answer will come out,” says Whipple, who trusts in the wisdom of crowds.

Most Contentious Categories on Does the Dog Die?

Media Category
Media Category
The Gift A dog dies
Kingsman: The Secret Service A dog dies
Steven Universe An animal dies
Togo A dog dies
Shadow of the Colossus A horse dies
The Incredibles 2 A parent dies
The Office (U.S.) Someone dies by suicide
Stranger Things The ending is sad
The Mist A dog dies
The Adventures of Milo and Otis A dog dies

Whipple says he’s surprised by how diligent the site’s audience—which consistently sits in the six figures for unique monthly users and sometimes spikes close to seven—have been about voting on every category for each entry on the site, even though it takes time to get through all 82 (and counting). But despite the site’s expansion beyond its original, dog- and movie-centric mission to include a multitude of media and triggers, dog-death warnings remain the major draw. “The one thing they still come back for,” its creator concludes, “is does the dog die?” The table below, which shows the categories with the most combined votes as of last week, backs up Whipple’s words.

Categories With Most Combined Yes/No Votes

Category Combined votes
Category Combined votes
A dog dies 57278
An animal dies 38005
A cat dies 36157
A kid dies 34760
A parent dies 34377
A horse dies 33517
There are jumpscares 31878
There’s blood/gore 31763
There are clowns 31409

Granted, that massive lead for “a dog dies” is partly attributable to its early availability and to the name of the site. But it still says something that “a dog dies” has maintained its top-dog status (sorry) for so long, and that fictional dog death was the particular trauma that inspired the site in the first place. From an evolutionary standpoint, shouldn’t we be bothered by depictions of endangered humans more than we are by depictions of endangered dogs, no matter how cute, soft, and smol?

Actually, that very cuteness hijacks human hardwiring to make us care deeply about dogs. In 2017, three sociology and/or anthropology professors published a paper in the peer-reviewed Society & Animals journal with the inviting title “Are People More Disturbed By Dog or Human Suffering?” The paper reported the results of a study in which 256 undergraduates at a “major northeastern university” were “asked to indicate their degree of empathy for a brutally beaten human adult or child versus an adult dog or puppy, as described in a fictitious news report.” (Sounds like a fun afternoon.) The results suggested that humans experience more empathy for fictitious human children, puppies, and adult dogs than for fictitious adult humans. And while humans age out of their capacity to induce empathy, dogs never do: They make us go “aww” indefinitely.

One of the paper’s coauthors, University of Colorado sociology professor and human-animal expert Leslie Irvine, elaborates via email that dogs boast elite-level neoteny, or the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. Those juvenile characteristics stimulate caregiving behavior in humans, an evolutionary response that encourages adults to take care of their young. “Baby faces bring on a flood of the intimacy hormones vasopressin and oxytocin, which produce pleasure, which makes us want to bring on more pleasure,” Irvine says. “Neotenous animals are easier to anthropomorphize, and so we identify with them more readily than we would with, say, a lizard or a cockroach.”

Irvine adds that neoteny explains why humans seem especially drawn to dogs with big eyes, round faces, and fluffy coats. This, she says, is why “most of the dogs you’ll see in ads are golden retrievers and few are dachshunds” (which I deeply resent, as a human who considers dachshunds the earth’s cuddliest creatures). “People will put themselves to considerable inconvenience to help dogs even when there’s no benefit that we can see to themselves,” Wynne says. But while nonworking dogs are, in most practical terms, pretty useless, they repay our dedication by dispensing oxytocin and vasopressin for as long as they live.

“They have this exaggerated desire and drive to form strong emotional connections, and the ways in which they express it are very compelling to human observers,” Wynne says. “We see it. We recognize it. It takes an unbelievably hard-hearted person not to be drawn in by the affection that the dog expresses.” No wonder we don’t want the dog to die.

As Wynne notes, the empathy equation shifts when we remove it from a fictional context and apply it to real life. “If we are suddenly deeply impoverished, then we save our children before we save our dogs,” he says, adding darkly, “When dogs kill people, the dogs get destroyed.” Irvine agrees that the two situations differ in a crucial respect: In media depictions, there’s no opportunity to intervene. She points to a 2012 paper that studied how often adolescent humans step in when they witness peers abusing animals. “It turns out, most don’t intervene, mostly because of friendship norms,” she says. “So it’s one thing to say we’re upset by cruelty to animals, and another thing to act on that impulse.” Maybe our urge to report fictional dogs in danger is all narc and no fight.

Even so, it’s much easier on the emotions to gaze upon dogs that aren’t in distress. For that, there’s the Dogs in Movies Database, the brainchild of Mickaël Lanoye. Lanoye is a full-time film critic who lives near France’s Belgian border and has reviewed a new movie, Blu-ray, or DVD per day since 2015 for the French site Critique Film. He started DIMDb before that, in August 2014. The origins of the archive extend to 2013, when he founded a Facebook group where he posted dog screenshots from movies each week and quizzed members on their sources. Those screenshots came from a collection he had already begun to amass in the early 2000s, when he started a business that sold DVDs on the internet and attached images from the movies to make the listings more attractive.

Even then, he had gravitated toward dog-themed captures, and years later, he still had them on his hard drive. “I thought to myself that as futile as it could be, this collection had to be archived somewhere,” he says. That somewhere was DIMDb. The first image he posted in the Facebook group was of Frank the pug from Men in Black. That image became the first of the 780 dog movies he documented in the first month of DIMDb’s existence. Thus far, he’s compiled 3,200 posts, with another thousand queued up to be published and another hundred cinematic sightings beyond that still to be screenshotted for posterity. “I compile dogs that no one pays attention to, and I probably compile more movies than most people will ever see in their life,” Lanoye says. “The most annoying thing to me is that I will never see the end of this collection.”

Lanoye estimates that roughly 80 percent of the one or two movies he watches every day of the year contain dogs of some sort—whether living, panting dogs, or photos, drawings, cartoons, or sculptures. “As long as it’s meant to be a dog, the screenshot has its place on DIMDb,” he says. By far the most common movie breed, he says, is the German shepherd. (Then again, German shepherds—including Whipple’s “very lazy” canine companion—are also among the most popular off-screen dogs.) When Lanoye spots a dog, he makes a note of the timestamp and later returns to snap a still on his computer. He’s a movie-dog hipster: If a dog is a star of a film, he’ll dutifully preserve it, but “as long as the dog isn’t a three-millimeter silhouette that forces you to squint to see it,” he prefers a hidden dog that only an attentive viewer will see.

DIMDb has become a place for Lanoye to memorialize which movies he was watching and what was happening in his life in any given period. Earlier this year, a rash of Scooby-Doo screenshots appeared on DIMDb, corresponding to the two months when Lanoye, his wife, their two daughters, and their chihuahua named Izzy were confined to their house because of the coronavirus. Even with Scoob, Lanoye takes care with composition, and whenever possible, he immortalizes less recognizable dogs in the same frame as one of the movie’s most prominent actors. Mercifully, Lanoye’s fondness for dogs makes him steer clear of violence; on DIMDb, the dog rarely dies. (The exceptions, he says, “aren’t very popular among readers.”) Even his post for John Wick pictures doomed Daisy the Beagle in happier days.

Lanoye hopes to transfer his Tumblr to a standalone site and envisions a book that would display his screenshots on the printed page. But Lanoye’s painstakingly curated dogs are static images that don’t react to the reader. In real life, looking without touching is not enough for most pet lovers during a dog encounter. Nor was it enough for Tristan Cooper, who started Can You Pet the Dog? in March 2019. Last spring, Cooper was struck by the canine contrast between the video game Far Cry: New Dawn and the beta for another new shooter, The Division 2. The former game permitted the player to pet the dog with an in-game mechanic, but the latter allowed the player to interact with its dogs only via violence.

In Cooper’s opinion, games would all be better with more heavy petting, especially because unlike Whipple and Lanoye, he’s currently dog-deprived due to his living situation. But the benefits of in-game dog strokes go beyond Cooper’s desire to experience petting vicariously. In an interactive medium, an inability to perform an action as instinctive as petting a dog can be as jarring as encountering an invisible wall or an impenetrable bush, which may explain why developers have been putting petting into games since at least the 1981 text adventure Zork II.

To promote peaceful petting, Cooper decided to create an account where he would post footage from games that allowed a virtual touch. It took off almost immediately and soared to its present peak of more than 430,000 followers. “I thought I was going to maintain it for about two weeks and then it would drop off and maybe I would post something every once in a while,” he says. “I did not think that it would take over my life.”

For Cooper, petting in non-player-controlled cutscenes doesn’t count, but beyond that, he doesn’t believe in playing petting favorites. In terms of animation, even Tamagotchi-style happy hearts over a 2D dog’s head will do. “If you can pet a dog, that’s the most I can possibly ask for,” he says. But he does distinguish between gradations of good dogs. “I really appreciate extra flourishes,” he says. “I know things like making the ears flap or doing chin scratches, these things are super complicated and super hard to do for something that might not have any signs of gameplay gain. It’s kind of a hard thing to have on your whiteboard and say, ‘What does this get us, exactly?’ ‘How is the player progressing?’ But I think that’s exactly why it can be so satisfying, is that it in almost all cases doesn’t contribute to anything. It just feels nice.” Recent release Remnant: From the Ashes draws special praise from Cooper for modeling a hand held out for a tentative, pre-pet sniff.

Cooper has a long list of games to explore for potential petting, but as his star has risen, the pets have increasingly come to him. “Whenever there’s a new trailer and there’s a dog in it that is pet, I’ll get a dozen notifications within an hour,” he says. “And sometimes developers will just tag me directly or direct message me or email me about that.” Although he tries to capture footage himself so as not to be used as a marketing tool, he appreciates the tips. The former writer, editor, and social media manager for Dorkly and CollegeHumor has been swamped with full-time, mid-pandemic parenting since the latter site shut down early this year.

Before bed, Cooper has a two-hour window of freedom, and he estimates that 50-75 percent of that time is dedicated to dog stuff. “I don’t really have time for anything else other than parenting and 90 minutes of dog petting at night,” he says. With hours at a premium, he feels pressure to produce, although like Whipple (who has released a Does the Dog Die? app), he’s not making much or any money from his hobby. “Whenever I boot up a game that doesn’t have a dog in it,” he says, “I’m like, ‘Oh, should I be playing a game that you can pet a dog in?’”

Non-gamers may wonder what the point is of petting a dog without tangible contact. But Cooper believes that if he were wired up to an fMRI machine while petting a polygonal puppy, one would see a faint impression of the same pattern that appears during a real-life snuggle sesh. “I think it would just be a much lower intensity, a lower dosage of the same chemical in my brain,” he says. “With a dog pet, it’s six seconds long in a game. The animators only have so much of their lives that they can spend on this thing. And I definitely don’t begrudge them for that, but for a dog, some dogs want to be pet all day, and they really get in there and really snuggle you.” A controller’s force feedback doesn’t quite compare to the warm nuzzle of a nose.

Unfortunately, gamers’ familiarity with dogs’ movement patterns sometimes inspires developers to turn them into attackers. And yes, some of those dogs die. “I just hate hearing the disgusting yelps,” Cooper says. The Last of Us Part II presented a quandary for Cooper: It does allow players to pet the dog, but it also forces them to kill one. “By the rules of the account, objectively you can pet the dog,” Cooper says. “The account isn’t, can you pet the dog, and do you kill it later?” Even so, he hopes to make a video devoted to beating the game with as little loss of canine life as possible.

Like Lanoye, Cooper plans to start a separate site that could host a searchable catalog. And like Whipple, he’s wrestled with whether to branch out beyond his narrow mandate. Last October, he created a separate account devoted to exploring the secrets behind video game waterfalls, but he’s kept his main account mostly on message (which hasn’t stopped someone else from creating a spinoff account dedicated to cats). On Fridays, however, he has dabbled in petting cats, turtles, frogs, human babies, and capybaras. The last of those came courtesy of The Girl from Arkanya, an upcoming Zelda-esque adventure. Arkanya lead developer Harrison Withrow says the most popular request among prospective players was to pet the game’s capybara, which he attributes largely to Cooper’s influence: “I think it’s something people normally wouldn’t think about as much, until they see that account and go, ‘Hey, you can pet dogs in that game, I want to pet dogs in this game too!’” Arkanya isn’t even the first game in which Cooper has helped make petting possible.

Just as they do in the flesh, then, dogs are making humans happier in fiction. And in modest ways that have nothing to do with dogs, so are some of the humans who’ve built these internet shrines to canines. Whipple helped the minds behind Unconsenting Media duplicate and adapt the code of Does the Dog Die? for an independent site dedicated to sexual violence in TV and movies. He’s also exploring better ways for users to flag films or other media that glorify hatred and racism. In recent months, Cooper has asked followers to match his donations in support of Black Lives Matter and retweeted and pinned tweets promoting other social-justice causes. “I have a bigger platform than the vast majority of people on the site,” he says, sounding as surprised as anyone that an account devoted to virtual dogs could command that kind of clout. “And if you can do some good, you should at least try.” Humans have to try; dogs do good just by being around.