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DOES THE DOG DIE?: Fake Dogs, Real Emotions

Are people more disturbed by dog or human suffering? The results of a study showed humans have more empathy for fictitious puppies, dogs, and children than for fictitious adult humans.

BEN LINDBERGH: Is it rational to dread the death of a fictional character? Is it logical to dread the death of a fictional dog while, if anything, eagerly anticipating the deaths of the 299 fictional people John Wick kills in the first three films, in ways almost too brutal to be believed? Probably not. But it’s not that unusual, either. John Whipple would know: He’s the founder of Does the Dog Die?, a site started for the specific purpose of sparing dog lovers the sight of man’s best fictional friend expiring on screen. Thanks to Whipple’s work, I know exactly when dogs do and don’t die in John Wick without having seen any suffer… “As soon as somebody sees a dog on the screen, they’re going to pause it and come check the website,” Whipple says, although the most vigilant dog-death avoiders may consult the crowdsourced site even before they choose what to watch…

Does the Dog Die? is one of a few internet institutions devoted to cataloguing the presence and role of fictional dogs in entertainment media. While Does the Dog Die? provides PSAs for dog-death avoiders across many media—from movies, TV shows, and video games to books, podcasts, and comic books—the Tumblr-based Dogs in Movies Database (DIMDb) simply documents every dog its creator has discovered while watching thousands of films. A third dog-related endeavor, the Twitter account Can You Pet the Dog?, identifies video games in which it’s possible for the player to pet pixelated canines. Taken together, these three online labors of love epitomize the almost mystifyingly deep attachment humans have to dogs, which expresses itself just as strongly when the dogs don’t exist.

“If you’re watching fiction, then you take the death of people for granted, whereas the death of an animal somehow breaks through that fictional lightness,” says behavioral scientist Clive Wynne, founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. That especially painful quality is responsible for the genesis of Does the Dog Die? Whipple, a professional software developer, birthed Does the Dog Die? in 2010 at the request of his sister, who had become increasingly bothered by emotionally manipulative dog-death tropes in movies after reading a bestselling book about screenwriting, Save the Cat! Killing a dog, Whipple says, may be “great for dramatic effect” and for motivating retired contract killers to embark on murderous rampages against Russian crime syndicates. But it isn’t much fun for people who find dog deaths more distasteful than other forms of fictional violence…

According to its creator, Does the Dog Die? has remained refreshingly free of spammers, trolls, and others with ill intent, but its users still sometimes disagree, even about something that may seem as straightforward as whether a dog died. The following table, based on data provided by Whipple, lists the most contentious ratings on the site, counting categories with less than a 20 percent difference between “yes” and “no” vote counts, ordered by most comments. Users may quibble about whether a dog died if, for instance, its death occurred off screen or is only implied. But “over time, the correct answer will come out,” says Whipple, who trusts in the wisdom of crowds… From an evolutionary standpoint, shouldn’t we be bothered by depictions of endangered humans more than we are by depictions of endangered dogs, no matter how cute, soft, and smol?

Actually, that very cuteness hijacks human hardwiring to make us care deeply about dogs. In 2017, three sociology and/or anthropology professors published a paper in the peer-reviewed Society & Animals journal with the inviting title “Are People More Disturbed By Dog or Human Suffering?” The paper reported the results of a study in which 256 undergraduates at a “major northeastern university” were “asked to indicate their degree of empathy for a brutally beaten human adult or child versus an adult dog or puppy, as described in a fictitious news report.” (Sounds like a fun afternoon.) The results suggested that humans experience more empathy for fictitious human children, puppies, and adult dogs than for fictitious adult humans. SOURCE…

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