White God and the Shelter Dogs

WHEN I WATCHED the 2014 Hungarian film White God, I knew there would be a scene so upsetting I’d have to leave the room. I didn’t know what moment would be my undoing, or how to anticipate it, given that White God features 200 live dogs who band together in a violent uprising against cruel humans. They are led by Hagen, a yellow-eyed mix of Labrador and Shar-Pei played by littermates Luke and Bodie. Through it all, Hagen remains loyal to his girl (who woos him with a Wagner opera solo on her trumpet). The girl seems to be the only human whom the dogs respect.

Going in, I’d already heard about the dogfight between Hagen and a Rottweiler and thought that would be my undoing. Never so wrong. It was the scene, early in the movie, where the girl’s father, intimidated by authorities who are fining residents for owning mutts, yanks Hagen from the car and abandons him in the city. The girl screams commands and promises: Stay. I’ll come back. Stay. If panic can seize a canine’s face, Hagen method-acts his way into that terror. He charges after his girl, with all his heart, but it isn’t enough. Then he’s alone in the city at nightfall, about to be hunted by police with catchpoles.

I had to leave the room and look away and I had to come back and keep watching – not to finish the movie, but because I’m a volunteer at the dog shelter. In the last year, I’ve walked over 100 dogs who did not want to be sent to that shelter and now want to be out of the shelter with their girls. They are all Hagen, and I have to know what to do with them.

Every week, I walk the abandoned, the strays, the surrendered and the confiscated. These dogs are old or adolescent, never puppies. They are sometimes sick, often scruffy, both scarred and scared. Many have been on the streets, and many have never been on a leash. The larger kennels house mostly mutts who look like pit bulls and bulldogs; some reside for years, because the shelter does not euthanize for length of stay, nor lack of space. The smaller kennels see an endless rotation of mixed puppy mill cast-offs, Chihuahuas to Shih Tzus to Jack Russells. All the dogs at my shelter have encountered at least one person who wanted them and then did not. As a result, they live one door down from syringes of pentobarbital and a gleaming steel crematorium. But they also sleep one door away from a good home.

After more than a year of volunteering, I’m still not sure how to predict a dog will walk through one door instead of the other. I’ve trained my own dog, a chocolate Lab, and so I work with the shelter dogs on basic obedience. I reread training books and rewatch Cesar Millan and ask questions of the more experienced volunteers. I’ve seen little dogs who are a tempest of bad behavior get adopted within a day. I’ve seen huge male mutts – it’s almost always the boys – who know “sit” and “down” on a good day get euthanized for biting on a bad day. What sets them off? I have no idea. I watch White God.

A few weeks ago, I was playing fetch with a pit bull in one of the outdoor exercise pens when a woman parked a dented green car whose back driver’s side window was a sheet of plastic and duct tape. Inside the car was another pit bull, plain brown, tan eyebrow patches like a rottie, some white on the chest. One of a million. The dog watched the woman head into the shelter – she walked right by me, eyes down, all her willpower bent on the next minutes of paperwork and questions, guilt and resolve.

The dog in the car started crying. Not a whine or a yip, but a sustained wail, a broken siren. I watched him hurl himself against the seats, paw at the dashboard, tear into the fabric. All the while, that noise was like nothing I’d ever heard. I found myself thinking of the careful, singular notes of the Wagner opera that is the Pied Piper motif in White God. This dog cried its tone-deaf doppleganger.

I don’t normally attribute crying to dogs. I’m not a sentimental person. I refuse to call pets furbabies in furever homes. I remind myself every day that dogs are animals, not people. And yet that dog was crying in panic, and I know because the pit bull I was playing with dropped her tennis ball and stood at the end of the pen where she could get a better look. I’d never seen her drop her tennis ball except in exchange for another tennis ball. But this, no, this was no time to play. Her whole posture changed – a stiff alert, ready for flight or fight. Danger was here. But more importantly, I saw in her what I saw in Hagen: we need to pay attention, a comrade needs help now. She and I watched the dog tearing up the front seat and together we wished he had been smart enough to tear out the plastic window just inches behind him. That’s what Hagen would have done.

Then a peculiar desire hit me. Just like when I reached the abandonment scene in White God, I knew I had to look away from this coming moment, when the woman returned to the car to get the dog for what might be his last walk – if he failed enough behavior assessments, he’d be euthanized. I didn’t want to run away, nor quit volunteering, nor adopt the dog, just not watch the moment of abandonment. White God, which is at all times told from the unsentimental point of view of scared but smart dogs who organize in revolt, suddenly seemed like a training guide.

I led my pit bull back inside and picked a nice blanket out of the donation bin for her, then chose a new tennis ball as well – she liked to have one near her in the kennel, which was #8 among 73 chainlink and concrete worlds. It was a small possession to prize. I scooped an off-brand treat through an industrial-sized jar of peanut butter and brought it back to her. Asked for a sit, which she did. Dark forest eyes, a grey coat so deep it was the classic Staffordshire terrier blue. My girl, all muscle and jaw and long terrier toes. I watched her eat the treat and I thought about the crying dog. When I went outside, the car was gone. I could go on with this movie I was in.

I saw the crying dog a few days later, from a distance, in one of the isolation pens. He seemed happy and incapable of making the noise I’d heard. Maybe I would get to walk him soon, find out if he liked a game of fetch or belly rubs or both.

I wish I had one-tenth the skill of the dog trainer behind the scenes of White God. Not even halfway through the movie, I paused it and devoured every article I could find about Hagen’s trainer, Teresa Ann Miller. Her father trained the St. Bernards in Cujo. As a kid, I liked my Lassie episodes and Black Beauty and my Black Stallion series – all those pleasant outcomes with noble, obedient animals. But I loved, really loved, the animal movies that were not for kids. Like Cujo. Watership Down. Plague Dogs. White God.

At the core of my fascination is the question, How do you train a dog to appear mean? The answer is surprising and obvious. Miller trained Luke and Bodie to mimic her face and voice. So, when the script called for Hagen to lower his head and growl, that’s what Miller did off camera – she lowered her head and spoke low and slow. Sometimes she had an assistant trainer mimic pace while she cued the facial expression. If the dogs in White God seem to act like both people and dogs, it’s because that’s exactly what they are doing.

So maybe that’s what the crying dog in the car was also doing, untrained and unrewarded. Crying because his owner was upset. Mimicking her. If dogs are a mirror to us, what a high definition mirror it is.


About Jen Hirt

Jen Hirt is a writer and professor. She is the author of the memoir Under Glass: The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees. She is the co-editor, with Erin Murphy, of Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (forthcoming 2016), and co-editor, with Tina Mitchell, of Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction (forthcoming 2017). Her writing has won a Pushcart Prize and received three Notable Essay mentions in Best American Essays. She is at work on a book about volunteering at the humane society called Slip Lead: Walking the Shelter Dogs.
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One Response to White God and the Shelter Dogs

  1. jana martin says:

    love this. thanks for writing it.

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