Any dog owner can attest to the absolute purity of heart of their four-legged friends. To love and be loved by a dog is to know unwavering loyalty and profound companionship. Owning a dog is making a promise to care for and protect a creature who will give you endless love in return. Once the bond between man and dog forms, you would have to move heaven and earth to break it. So heartbreaking it is then, for the subjects of Paul Sng’s newest documentary, Year of the Dog, which follows homeless dog owners and a revolutionary grassroots charity fighting stigma, misconception and a global pandemic to keep those bonds between man and dog intact.
Year of the Dog follows musician and DJ Simone Marie Butler as she attempts to understand the life of street dogs. The film opens with a confrontation: an anonymous member of the public aggressively accosts Simone and a volunteer member of DOTS (Dogs on the Streets), claiming that keeping a dog out on the streets is selfish as homeless individuals are unable to provide the necessary care for their pets. As an outsider looking upon the countless displaced dogs, we can understand this is a fair conclusion to draw. As she introduces the documentary, even Simone herself confesses to once holding a similar belief. However, as we move through Sng’s film and watch Simone chat with homeless pet owners, it becomes apparent that street dogs are among the most well behaved, loved and cared for animals.
Throughout the documentary, we see Simone break down the stigma around street dogs and challenge our ideas about the practicality of giving a dog a home without the luxury of a house. In her emotionally charged conversations, we discover that many rough sleepers consider their pets to be a lifeline. Many of the dog owners on the streets owned their pets before falling on difficult times, and, having already formed bonds, the idea of letting their pets go is unimaginable. For others, dogs represent consistency, a sense of routine, control and a reason to seek help. In addition, we learn that the responsibility of having an animal as a dependent means that many rough sleepers feel they have a reason to stay away from crime and drugs. ‘Where would you be if you didn’t have a dog to care for?’ asks Simone to one of her interviewees: ‘I’d be dead or in jail,’ he answers without a moment of hesitation. Sng’s unique footage offers us a new vantage point, attesting to the simple fact that homeless dog owners love their pets unconditionally.
The core of this groundbreaking film exists in the form of DOTS, a small charity offering help, medical aid, shelter, food and water to dogs on the street. The charity, lead by the tenacious Michelle Clark, relies on volunteers and donations to help provide aid to the local community. However, what becomes clear as Simone spends time with Michelle and her army of warmhearted volunteers, is that DOTS offers so much more than basic food and veterinary healthcare. The charity is building a sense of community which is vital to the health – both physical and mental – of not only the dogs they interact with but with their owners too. They are an approachable means of finding help, they are friendly faces and compassionate shoulders to lean on. We follow their story both pre and post lockdown, hear of the troubles they faced, and learn that Michelle willingly put her work before her own health to continue delivering the vital help needed on the streets. Her hard work and dedication put to shame the government’s lacklustre attempts to aid homeless individuals throughout the pandemic.
What makes the Year of the Dog special is its commitment to sharing the perspective-changing stories of street dogs and their owners and the effort the film puts into highlighting the root causes of the worsening rates of homelessness. While similar in nature to Louis Theroux’s City of Dogs, which looked at LA’s enormous canine population, Year of the Dog offers more insight into the prevalent issues pushing people out onto the streets and the resulting high number of homeless dogs. We get to the heart of the matter in Oxford, where one interviewee breaks down the UK’s housing crisis. With the stark lack of social housing and the government’s refusal to properly tax those with second homes and empty properties, the rates of homelessness continue to rise. Oxford notably demonstrates the widening gap between the rich and the poor: statistics show that you are more likely to die on the streets due to homelessness than you are to get a place at the city’s prestigious university.
With the odds so miserably stacked against so many people, and so few places offering shelter for rough sleepers and their pets, homeless dog owners have very few options. ‘Who are we to split them up?’ asks Michelle desperately, knowing how much better it is for both owner and dog to remain side by side. Michelle’s steadfastness coupled with Simone’s quest to disprove ignorant attitudes and the documentary’s bold aim to humanise the experiences of the homeless feel like a necessary step in ending the public’s dire misconceptions. With the film’s assistance, we realise that the enemy isn’t homeless dog owners trying their best to provide for their canine friends; the real enemy is the broken system, forcing people out of their homes and onto the streets.
However, although Year of the Dog is a heartbreaking watch, it offers a hopeful outlook for the future as we move on from the pandemic. One which suggests things could get better if there were more people like Michelle in the world. We speak about forever homes for all dogs, but this documentary understands that home is more than fours walls. A dog’s true forever home is by its owner’s side, wherever that might be.