Why a Dog Body Language Expert Needs to Watch the Full Footage From the “A Dog’s Purpose” Scene

Amblin Partners released this photo of Hercules at home.
Amblin Partners released this photo of Hercules at home.

I’m simply not satisfied with or convinced by Gavin Polone’s or W. Bruce Cameron’s statement about what happened to Hercules the German Shepherd during the filming of A Dog’s Purpose.

I don’t know about you, but when I watched that poor dog struggling to get free, clawing his way up the sides of the pool, my heart dropped and I covered my mouth, holding my breath for what felt like an eternity. When I saw him go under, I started to cry, fearing he would drown. This was the reaction felt by many who watched this video. It was heart wrenching.

What happened next is the kind of shitstorm that serves only to divide people and keep them from thinking critically for themselves. That said, this piece is not about PETA or TMZ. It IS about getting to the truth of what happened during shooting that day, when a terrified Hercules was forced into a pool of raging water.

We can learn from this incident, and we can work harder to protect animal actors in film and TV production. Let’s focus on what the world saw so we can move forward to better hold accountable those who need to be held accountable.

Producer Polone’s take

Polone said this in his statement:

“As with the TMZ video that you saw, two things were evident: 1) the dog handler tries to force the dog, for 35 to 40 seconds, into the water when, clearly, he didn’t want to go in; and 2) in a separate take filmed sometime later, the dog did go into the water, on his own, and, at the end, his head is submerged for about 4 seconds. These two things are absolutely INEXCUSABLE and should NEVER have happened. The dog trainer should have stopped trying to get the dog to go in the water as soon as the dog seemed uncomfortable, and the trainers should have had support under the dog as soon as he came to the side of the pool and/or had less turbulence in the water so he never would have gone under.”

Yet, later in the same statement, he said this:

“What is clear from viewing all the footage was that the dog was NEVER forced into the water.”

Really? Does this mean that what we all saw, including Polone, was something we didn’t really see?

Polone admits culpability because he wasn’t there and wasn’t proactive enough during the hiring of the American Humane Association (AHA) representative and the trainers, Birds and Animals Unlimited:

“I also hold myself accountable because, even though I was not present, I knew and had written about how ineffective AHA has been over the years. Its monitors have been present when bad things have happened to animals on sets, not offering enough protection to stop those events and displaying no real protest after they occurred.”

I have a ton of respect for anyone who admits their mistakes, and to do so publicly is admirable. However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that what the world saw is a petrified dog being forced into the water — and that part, that 40 seconds was NOT edited as some say in dismissal of the overall framing of the video TMZ released.

Putting the blame on AHA and questioning the intentions of TMZ and PETA has merit, yet it also serves to distract viewers from the fact of the horror that we saw in that video. AHA has its share of problems, as The Hollywood Reporter reveals.. TMZ is a news outlet with, some might say, a dubious reputation. And PETA is a so-called radical animal rights organization with a reputation that divides animal lovers. However, none of this should minimize the fact that Hercules was forced into the water and that he was petrified during those long 40 seconds

This matters because these kinds of traumatic events can have lasting emotional effects that could take years to overcome. “Happy” is how Polone and Cameron describe Hercules after the incident. I beg the question: How is Hercules now in the water? Was he affected by this traumatic event? Without doing a further investigation, we will never know.

Why a veterinary behaviorist or dog body language expert should watch the full footage

I contacted Polone and asked if there was a third-party expert (veterinary behaviorist or dog body language specialist) hired to watch the full video with him? His answer was “No.”

Why is this important? Most people don’t know how to read the subtleties of dog body language — lip licking, whale eye, rounded body, yawning, look away, hiding, over anxious, panting, drooling, etc. — and someone with a trained eye would see things that the lay person would not.

Image couresty Dr. Sophia Yin/illustration by Lili Chin.

For example, I noticed in the footage that everyone was wearing coats, heavy coats. It was cold, but the water was warm with steam rising. You could hear someone saying ‘the water is warm.’ The temperature of the water was to be said to be between 80 to 85 degrees F.

A veterinarian would know that while that temperature is great for rehabilitative water therapy, it would not be for a dog swimming for long periods of time. Swimming in water that warm could lead to heat exhaustion, which could make a dog not want to do another take. Dogs working on sets often endure long, hard grueling days. They are often asked to do take-after-take, unable get the rest required for peak performance.

Hercules could have rehearsed this scene 20 times before we that 40-second clip was filmed. When he was finally forced into the water and made it to the wall where he was unable to get out, he went under. The stress, the water temperature, the rehearsals of this stunt could have exhausted him and just couldn’t swim anymore. A veterinarian watching the full footage would have taken all of this into consideration, but a film producer might not.

And if the expert watched in slow motion, they could point out the subtle body language cues that showed Hercules was stressed. I saw lip licking even in the short, blurry clips. This dog was panicking, hiding, trying to get away, and looking away from the trainer. For this trainer not to stop the minute Hercules showed these signs of discomfort was thoughtless, cruel, and “INEXCUSABLE” as Polone stated. This would be considered abuse by many veterinary behaviorists and trainers.

Questions that still need to be answered

1. Was the trainer investigated? What are his credentials? Does he have a history of abuse? Did they ask how many times Hercules had done this same stunt that day? Did they ask if Hercules seemed off or had not eaten a full meal that morning, or any number of other health-related questions that might add context to why Hercules did not want to go into the water, that time. They said it was because the location change made him “spooky.” How did they come up with that reason having not asked any of these questions?

Amblin Partners released this photo of Hercules at home after the incident. (Photo courtesy Amblin Partners)
Amblin Partners released this photo of Hercules at home after the incident. (Photo courtesy Amblin Partners)

2. Was an investigation done with Birds and Animals Unlimited to evaluate the facility where the scene was shot, inviting Animal Control to join them as a third party? If not, why? If so, what was the outcome?

3. Was Hercules evaluated by a veterinarian after he went under water? Was there a veterinarian on set during the dangerous stunt? How often did they monitor dogs for their emotional and physical well-being during a long shoot? Is it a requirement to have a veterinarian on-site?

4. Was there an investigation into representative from AHA? If so, will they inform the public as to the findings?

5. Was there an investigation as to why this footage came out 15 months later?

My final thoughts

Polone said that the video was edited. Yes, it was edited, and I can see exactly where. But the entire 40 seconds or so of Hercules being forced into the water was NOT edited. That cannot be disputed.

So, in my opinion, Polone’s and Cameron’s statements hold little credibility because they both lack the knowledge, expertise, and experience to know Hercules’ emotional and physical states of mind before, during, and after being forced into the water.

The public was promised an investigation, and we didn’t get it. We want answers, and we need them to move forward and better protect our animal actors.

About the author: Jill Breitner is a professional dog trainer and dog body language expert. She is a certified Fear Free Professional and Fear Free Professional for Foundation for Puppies and Kittens as well as Certified in Animal Behavior and Welfare. She is the author of the Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language. Join Jill on her on her Facebook page

Get Dogster in your inbox!

Stay informed! Get tips and exclusive deals.

Current Issue


Follow Us

Shopping Cart