Isle of Dogs
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Credit: 20th Century Fox

Isle of Dogs: Psychologists explain why we love anthropomorphic dogs

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Mar 29, 2018, 12:00 PM EDT

Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson's latest foray into stop-motion animation, looks like it's on the path toward becoming a new family favorite, especially since the film features dogs as the main characters. This film is only the latest time Hollywood has gone to the well of using dogs as protagonists, and it's a well-worn well, too. Just think back to the top family films throughout Hollywood's existence: Lassie, the Homeward Bound series, the Beethoven series, The Fox and the Hound, Oliver & Company, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Air Bud, Snow Dogs, Balto, and plenty more feature dogs in anthropomorphic, emotional roles. And we human audience members eat it up every time.

Why is it that we easily accept dogs as our lead characters? What is it about our relationships with dogs that propels us to want to see them in just as human a light as we see ourselves? Perhaps it's that for many of us, dogs truly live up to the adage of "man's best friend."

Ivy York-Curtis, a veterinary technician at Avondale Animal Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, tells SYFY WIRE that most often, people think of dogs as family.

"When we have a new client come into the clinic, we give them a form to fill out with information about themselves and the animal we'll be seeing. One part of the form asks them to check a box that best describes the animal's relationship to them — for example, is it their child's pet? An outdoor pet? The box that is overwhelmingly checked the most is 'member of our family,'" York-Curtis says. "I have heard tons of clients refer to their dogs as their children, or 'fur babies,' and in a way, that's pretty much what they are!"

Isle of Dogs

Credit: 20th Century Fox

"It's been shown that dogs learn -- by watching us and listening to our tone -- what makes us happy and how they then need to act in order to cause that happy reaction in us, whether that is by doing a trick or placing their head on our knee and looking up at us sweetly, much like babies learn that smiling at us makes us smile back. Dogs can bring out that sense of 'I'm taking care of a living being that needs me,' and in exchange for that care we get this pure, unconditional love, similar to the parent-child relationship. Dogs know how to make you feel like you're the most wonderful human on the planet."

Indeed, most of the films featuring dogs do include the animal protagonists needing protection, like the dogs of Homeward Bound needing to get back to their owners, or, as in Isle of Dogs, a young boy in a futuristic Japan searching for his dog on an island specifically created to deal with the country's dog overpopulation. Other films show dogs providing protection to their human owners, such as the now-cliched instance of Lassie helping little Timmy get out of the well. In these films, the audience's sense of empathy is activated, making us want to provide comfort to our cinematic canine friends onscreen.

"I think that a lot of people easily feel very protective of dogs, so it doesn't take much to have us rooting for these canine characters, not wanting them to get hurt, hoping that they find success or love or just an affirmation of 'Good dog!'" York-Curtis said. "We care about them, and I think it's easier than making us care about a human character that has flaws or doesn't appeal to us for whatever reason, even if it's just that we don't like the actor portraying them. If a dog has flaws, it's okay because they're just so darn cute!"

There's also the element of our own pasts influencing our view of canine film stars. Many audience members are also dog owners themselves, and it's not uncommon for a dog onscreen to remind us of a dog we've loved in our lives.

"I think that a lot of dog movies also tend to remind us of a dog we currently have or had in the past, and that tugs at our heartstrings, like if you were seeing a romantic drama that reminds you of a past relationship and makes you sad or nostalgic," she added. "It's relatable and emotional."

Homeward Bound

Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Through us empathizing and relating with likable dog characters, we inevitably end up seeing them as more than just animals, but as our friends. The companionship we feel with cinematic dogs is similar to the companionship dog owners feel with their pets, including York-Curtis, who is herself the proud pet parent of her dog Honey.

"I hear clients talk about their dogs like they're humans all the time; I do it myself," she said. "We talk about their likes and dislikes; we assign them personality traits and emotions like 'funny' and 'loyal' or 'grumpy.' Because dogs can learn how to read us and then act accordingly to elicit the responses in us that they desire, we feel like we're dealing with a being that is smarter than 'just an animal.' So it's easy to then project those human characteristics onto them. Many a time I have found myself seriously pondering, 'What is Honey thinking right now? What would she tell me if she could speak?' even though the answer is probably just 'Feed me' or 'Take me outside so I can poop.'"

Dogs have the ability to bring out our compassionate and gentler sides. Perhaps in some ways, we see the best versions of ourselves through dogs because they remind us that there are things that are more important in life than just ourselves, such as taking care of and giving unconditional love to others. Dogs give so much care and love to their owners, so it only makes sense that audiences would love to see adorable dogs on screen.

"They are just such amazing companions. There's something really special about knowing that when I go to bed after a long or stressful day, I'm going to have one loving dog cuddled up on either side of me all through the night," said York-Curtis. "They bring me joy by making me laugh or lying with their head on my lap while I'm watching television; they relax me."

"When a dog I know comes into the clinic and runs over to me, wanting to lick my face, it's sweet and makes me feel good!" she added. "And every dog is different, so meeting new dogs is like making a new friend, and it's fun to get to know them."

The power of friendship and love is a concept we can all stand to be reminded of once in a while. Luckily for us with Isle of Dogs, we've been introduced to several more dogs we can call our new friends.