Let’s just call it “Chekhov’s mutt”: If you introduce a dog at the beginning of a horror film, chances are excellent that said dog will be dead by the end. Typically, the only reason horror film families have dogs in the first place is so that audiences can be gut-punched when that dog meets an untimely demise. Horror-movie dogs are like canaries in a coal mine; they’re the first domino to go down as supernatural forces or just plain wicked human beings besiege a family. We empathize with the protagonists, and, if they have kids, it’s disturbing to see their children in peril, but the trusty family dog? That’s frankly the worst. At least children have some agency, can use words, maybe band together and devise a defense system. Dogs either are unaware of the evil that surrounds them, OR they are the FIRST to sense something is amiss, and they bark and growl, only to be dismissed: “What’s wrong with you, boy? You’re acting wacky, so I’ll chain you outside.” Then, not only must the dog suffer the indignity of dying; his last thoughts are that his masters doubted him. I, for one, will never ignore a dog’s erratic behavior; whenever a dog reacts irrationally to something I don’t see or hear, I automatically assume there’s a ghost. No question. It’s a ghost.
Granted, there are some exceptions: Nanook in The Lost Boys, Beast in The Hills Have Eyes (and The Hills Have Eyes II), Chips in the remake of Dawn of the Dead. These dogs defy expectations and are downright heroic. You thank god that not only do they survive, but that they also serve a function in a horror movie other than to rip your heart out.
But by and large, you can anticipate that any dog you meet is in for an unhappy ending. And that never fails to distract me! The dread takes me right out of any movie I’m watching, so while the prospect of a dog’s death heightens my personal stress, it also diminishes my focus on, like, the story. Since everyone is aware of this dog situation, can’t all filmmakers just pronounce a moratorium on hiring dogs for horror films? Surely, there still will be plenty of work for them in family films and meet-cute rom-coms. A dog’s fate is rarely a surprise, and writers and directors are doing their films a disservice by including one; basically, it’s like they are using an extra who is waving their hands in the background and mugging for the camera, but this actor is furry and wearing a sign reading, “I’m so gonna die!”
Until the no-dog rule I propose is codified and enforced, a resource is available for those of us who no longer wish to fall prey to the horror dog gambit: www.doesthedogdie.com. The purpose of their service is clear:
“Do you turn off Old Yeller before the end so you can pretend that he lived a long and happy life? Did a cute pet on a movie poster make you think it would be a fun comedy but it turned out to be a pet-with-a-terminal-illness tearjerker instead? Are you unable to enjoy the human body count in a horror movie because you’re wondering whether the dog’s going to kick the bucket? Have you ever Googled ‘Does the [dog/cat/horse/Klingon targ] die in [movie title]?’”
They go on to indicate the fates of dogs—or any significant film animal—as dead, alive, or injured, in hundreds of movies, with minimal spoilers. I don’t know who the geniuses are that created this web site, but bravo to these savvy martyrs, who painstakingly review film after film so that viewers can adequately prepare themselves and just enjoy all the fear, possession, haunting, and slaughter.