The Dog Rule

The Day After Tomorrow violates the Dog Rule.

Simply stated, the Dog Rule holds that no good movie seeks a larger emotional response from the survival of a dog than from the casual death of a dozen or more people.

The rule was devised after watching an earlier Roland Emmerich opus, Independence Day. In that film, evil space aliens attack the earth. The audience sees New York City and Los Angeles destroyed. While little of this mass destruction is on a human scale, the explosions and fireballs make it clear that millions of people have just been killed and that the audience may be witnessing the highest-ever cinematic death toll (depending on how many people lived on Alderaan).

Then Emmerich cuts to a highway tunnel near L.A. where Vivica Fox, a cute little kid and a golden retriever are trapped in an unmoving line of cars attempting to flee the city. Fox and the little boy duck into a maintenance tunnel just as another fireball shoots up the road, casually dispatching hundred of people still trapped in their cars. In slow motion, we see the golden retriever leap to safety and the audience cheers.

Years later, Emmerich is still making global disaster movies. At the close of The Day After Tomorrow, the President Cheney character provides voice-over narration, explaining that, despite the devastation of most of North America and Europe and the death of untold millions, everything was OK because the handful of survivors in New York City includes our protagonists. We then see them rescued from the roof of the NYC library — including a brief closeup of, of course, the offending dog. (To the audience's credit, they groaned.)

The worst violation of the Dog Rule that I've seen was probably in Pearl Harbor, which dealt with a historical event and recreated the actual death of more than a thousand actual people. Yet as Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer's version of the U.S.S. Arizona sinks beneath the waves, the camera focuses on one doomed sailor's dog, leaping over the side and swimming to safety.

Pearl Harbor tried, and failed, to recreate the success of Titanic. Say what you will about James Cameron, he at least had the decency to show the dog drown too.

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  • Josef K.

    That’s funny, I always thought it was exactly the opposite: that is, filmmakers know that people are pretty much desensitized to the wanton slaughter of human beings onscreen, so they occasionally stoop to killing off dogs just to elicit a cheap emotional response from the audience. I would have concluded that Cameron wasn’t being a realist so much as a dickhead.

  • Dog days of Summer

    slacktivist: The Dog Rule…

  • Kyria

    Yeah, I’ve always thought the “kill the dog” maneuver was a cheap shot. Also, it often meant wasting the most fully realized and sympathetic character in the movie. I’d say the dog in Day After Tomorrow is no exception.

  • Dan MacQueen

    On the other hand, two of the three prominent black guys survived, so that cliche was avoided.

  • CmdrSue

    There are some of us animal lovers actually CARE more about one golden retriever than millions of people in Los Angeles. Well, maybe I’m not quite THAT bad, but it’s close.

  • Jamie

    I don’t know how old you are, but do you recall the National Lampoon cover showing a Petey-type dog with a gun to its head, proclaiming “Buy this issue or we’ll shoot..”?
    Don’t be hating on dogs; most of them are bigger lovers of humanity than humans are.

  • The Dog Rule

    Never heard of it before, but it makes sense. And it is interesting. Slacktivist…

  • I know this article is 7 years old, but I wanted to point out that I remember this (terrible) movie put a lampshade on this trope: 

    Millions die, but the dog is saved, so everyone cheers. A character keeps saying how so many died, but everyone else keeps yelling “BUT THE DOG WAS SAVED!”

    It’s the only thing I can remember about that movie.