There are a lot of things that can ruin a movie, like a bad storyline, second-rate special effects, an unbelievable romance, or Tara Reid, but nothing wrecks a movie quite like an animal getting killed. Of course it’s gut-wrenching when any animal (except a shark or a mean dinosaur) dies in a movie – I’m thinking of Bambi’s mother and Mufasa and getting a bit misty – but when a dog dies in particular, you want to rewind your entire life and decide to take a nap instead of watching the movie in question. You want to brainwash yourself and return to that sunshiney place of ignorance where that fictional dog lived, safely contained in its 90 minute Blu-ray adventure.

If you’re nodding your head right now, chances are you’re like me: You can easily keep a dry eye through any number of human deaths in a movie, but you become hysterical at the mere thought anyone might touch a hair on the sweet Beagle’s kissable head. The outcome of the movie Titanic or Game of Thrones weighs heavy on your heart, but you’ll survive. Yeah, it’s unfortunate many of the characters didn’t make it, but they’re human beings and we can totally get more. People are a dime a dozen, but where else can we find a talking Golden Retriever or an Alaskan Malamute that rescues skiers from an avalanche other than in movies that by all rights should have a happy ending?

There is rarely legitimate reason for the dog in a movie to die. Whenever a dog dies in a movie, I imagine the screenwriter sitting at their writing desk, adjusting one of those adjustable Pixar office lamps thinking, “What’s the most messed up thing I could do? Hm, I could give the guy who just fell in love terminal cancer at a time in his life when he should be at his prime… No. Too Nicholas Sparks. I know! I’ll have the spunky little girl kidnapped and strapped to a bomb! Too predictable… Wait a second. I’ve got it. I’ll have someone shoot the family’s Labrador Retriever in a scene that doesn’t further the plot in any conceivable way.”

Maybe you’re thinking about a movie like Cujo, where the dog in question is kind of crazy. Or perhaps you’re thinking of Old Yeller or that scene in Of Mice and Men. These dog deaths are still heartbreaking, but those aren’t the kind of unexpected losses that makes you want to bawl for the rest of your life and give up movies forever, because no film has enough entertainment value to compensate for the possibility of seeing a loveable dog die. Over the years, I’ve become better at identifying when a movie may lead to an unexpected dog death. If you want to absolutely certain, you can check out Does The Dog Die, recently featured on Long Awkward Pause, it’s a database that allows you to search movies to see if any dogs are killed or injured. But in case you happen upon a movie and the battery on your phone is dead, look out for these movie dog death warning signs.

There’s An Adolescent Who’s a Loner

It’s often a boy with shaggy brown hair and a twinkle in his eye that screams, “I summon you plot to show me how unfair the world really is!” If the movie you’re watching features a kid who’s being bullied or doesn’t fit in at school and through some unlikely series of events (like a wily stray outsmarting an overweight dogcatcher) the kid becomes a dog owner, just assume the dog is going to die by the end of the movie. This is especially true if the little munchkin is afraid of the dog or doesn’t want to take care of the dog.

The Mom Or Dad Didn’t Like The Dog, But Now The Dog Has Become A Member of the Family

If the mom or dad has been particularly bitchy to the dog, but then based on the dog’s performance through some traumatic event has decided to embrace the pet as a member of the family, letting him or her sleep on the bed and eat “people food,” the dog is almost definitely going to die. In the movie business, this is what they call the Heartwrenching Acceptance Switcheroo. The Heartwrenching Acceptance Switcheroo tricks viewers into thinking the dog is invincible, because surely if the skeptical head of the household can accept the animal, it can survive anything for movie purposes! It’s come so far! You are wrong. No dog is safe.

The Movie Has Been Otherwise Upbeat And There’s No Reason The Dog Should Die

So everything’s been going great in the movie. The dog has settled into its home, and it probably has some adorable routine with the kids where it carries their backpacks to the car or changes the baby’s diapers or something. At some point in the movie, the dog probably woofed in response to a question and everyone viewer laughed in unison because it’s almost like that darn dog understands English! Well, I hate to tell you this, but don’t get too attached this pooch, because he or she probably isn’t going to live. I know you’re naïve and you think “this isn’t that kind of movie” or “there’s no way they’d kill the dog,” but believe me: They will kill the dog, and you will wish you forget all the backpack carrying and the intelligible yapping.

The Dog Has Its Own Music Score

Sometimes movies with dogs will create a music score that plays every time the dog is on screen. Whether Fido’s tearing through the garden or going for a walk, there will be this brassy triumphant music that slows to a spritely woodwind lull, heavily accented by the sound of a piccolo. If the dog has its own song in a movie, know that at some point – probably when you least expect it – this song will be slowed down as the prematurely dog dies out of nowhere. Beware dog-specific music tracks.

The Dog Becomes A Hero

If a movie dog saves anyone’s life, please grab the tissues, because that dog probably isn’t going to survive in the end. This is especially true if the dog becomes a hero in the neighborhood, beloved by all the townspeople for its heroic efforts. Any movie dog that survives against all odds — like coming back from a war or being the lone survivor of an earthquake — will probably stay alive in the movie just long enough for you get attached before something horrible happens to it.

There Are Lots of Scenes That Show The Dog Alone, Especially Walking

Any dog that gets too much solo camera time in a movie isn’t going to live. As a viewer, it might seem like this is the director’s way of helping us get to know the dog on a personal level. Look! There Fido is running after a squirrel. Now he’s laying on the floor with his chin on the ground. Isn’t he sweet? Yes, he is. He’s perfect. He’s everything a movie dog should be. Unfortunately, he’s not gonna survive, because this is a subliminal isolation tactic used by only the most heartless moviemakers to make us think the animal star of the movie is going to be okay. Be wary of too many dog scenes.

There are some notable exceptions to these criteria, but don’t say you haven’t been warned the next time some freckled boy and his little sister lose their best friend to Hollywood’s heartless whims.

This blog post was inspired by the trailer for the movie Max, a film that I — as a two-time German Shepherd owner — will never be watching unless someone kidnaps me and tapes my eyeballs open in front of the TV. This isn’t intended to spoil the movie for you, but if you get through that trailer thinking Max is going to live happily ever after, I’ve taught you nothing.

6 thoughts on “How To Tell If The Dog In A Movie Is Going To Die

    1. Hm, I think that’s a gray area. The death of wolves is unpredictable, and when you combine that with Game of Thrones, nothing’s certain.

  1. I don’t know about you, but Old Yeller KILLED me. I was probably 7 or 8, and I was staying home sick so I watched Old Yeller. Me being the very unemotional, hardly ever crying kid I was, my mom was astonished (and a bit frightened) to run into my room to see me bawling my eyes out crying “They shot the dog they killed the dog MOMMMM”

Don't you sass me! ...Actually, please do.

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