I have to admit, as a former dog trainer and someone who currently shares his home with an incomparably awesome adopted dog, I knew going in that I was going to be a sucker for Life in the Doghouse. Documentarian Ron Davis, who established his heartwarming-animal-story bona fides on 2015’s Harry and Snowman, has delivered another crowd pleaser with Doghouse, a film engineered to inspire and uplift, but also to combat complacency and to call people to action. And Davis plans to donate his profits from the film to animal rescues. What’s not to like?
Focusing on Danny and Ron’s Rescue, a nonprofit animal shelter started by Upstate South Carolina couple Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta, Life in the Doghouse provides an eye-opening look at the intangible rewards and all-to-real struggles of running a dog rescue. Horse trainers by trade, Danny and Ron converted their palatial farmhouse into a de facto shelter in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Danny and Ron have since saved 10,000 dogs from euthanasia, at times sharing their home with nearly 100 pups at once. If those numbers are staggering, the real jaw-dropper is the actual state of Danny and Ron’s home, which is kept immaculately clean. None of the dogs in their care see the inside of a kennel, and none of them find their way back to the shelter.
It’s truly remarkable to witness the labor of love that constitutes Danny and Ron’s mission, and the degree to which the couple have turned their life over to the dogs is awe-inspiring, if occasionally a bit concerning. Life in the Doghouse is not without it’s difficult moments, however, as Davis follows his subjects into the problematic world of puppy mills and kill shelters. A dramatic God’s-eye-view drone sequence of employees disposing garbage-bagged corpses from what, for all intents and purposes, looks like a euthanasia factory, gives Davis one of his most cinematic — and also most gut-wrenching — directorial flourishes. Trust me, it’s a tough scene to watch.
But what keeps Doghouse from devolving into one of those teary-eyed Sarah McLachlan ASPCA adds is the passion exhibited by Danny and Ron. Whether they’re happily reuniting with a dog they placed in a home over a decade ago or bemoaning the challenges of getting black dogs adopted, Danny and Ron are consistently engaging and sympathetic screen presences. While Davis’ digressions into their respective backstories only provide cursory insight into what makes the duo tick, there’s never any doubt that they’re good men who have dedicated their lives to selflessly helping creatures that can’t help themselves.
Davis’ persistent focus on his subjects precludes Life in the Doghouse from the heavy-handed sermonizing that typically characterizes animal advocacy films. The director’s ability to turn a small handful of the dogs in Danny and Ron’s care into characters in their own right provides ample respite from the film’s weightier moments, and the couple’s affable charisma drives the narrative without belaboring the point. And the point of Danny and Ron’s story is clear: It’s incumbent upon communities to care for dogs, by spaying and neutering pets, by adopting mutts rather than purchasing purebreds, by opting for older dogs over puppies and so on. Seriously though — why does nobody want to adopt black dogs? They go with everything.