Henry is getting older. His eyesight isn’t what it used to be, his joints ache when he goes for a walk, and sometimes he pees on the carpet.
Writer/director Ann Marie Fleming (Window Horses) makes visible the tender work of caretaking in her new animated short, Old Dog. After losing his best friend, Henry the elderly pug must depend on his owner for help. Love isn’t always the stuff of hearts and flowers: sometimes it’s brushing matted fur, non-slip socks to keep out the cold, and a purple diaper.
Inspired by the experience of caregivers everywhere, Old Dog’s charming animation brings this relationship to life in a series of poignant vignettes. Small things—meals, bath time, and head scratches—offer warmth and support. The longstanding bond of these two souls, grown together over the years, is more than comfort and companionship; it is a love story. Pure and simple.
After losing his best friend, an elderly pug named Henry must depend on his owner for help and companionship. Writer/director Ann Marie Fleming (Window Horses) makes visible the tender work of caretaking in her new animated short, Old Dog. All dogs (and people) should be so lucky and so loved.
After losing his best friend, an elderly pug named Henry must depend on his owner for help in Ann Marie Fleming’s tender ode to aging.
What does the relationship between Henry and his owner offer at a time when the work of caretaking has taken on particular/critical relevance?
This film started off as a way of talking about aging, inspired by my namesake, Ann-Marie [spelled with a hyphen] Fleming, who I often get mixed up with in internet searches. The other Ann-Marie has a company that makes technologies for aging dogs and also for their humans. I was struck by the compassion she has for these vulnerable animals, helping them navigate the latter stages of their lives, and by how much dogs have to teach human beings.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the way we take care of our elders and our most vulnerable is being exposed starkly, and our global values are being put to the test. Not just medical practitioners, but all caregivers are our frontline people. For the rest of us, the care we take of ourselves and of each other can mean the difference between life and death, sustaining or collapsing economies, mental and physical well-being. It has always been so, but now it is up front and centre.
Aging affects animals and humans in different ways, but there are some surprising commonalities. Do you think it’s easier to understand and accept the challenges of aging when it’s filtered through the experience of other creatures?
Absolutely! That’s why I wanted to make this film. Some people may think we treat animals better than human beings, that, in fact, we treat them too well. The first part may be true, but the second part isn’t. What if we treated people with the same patience, care, good humour and acceptance that we show to our four-legged friends? Caring can make the difference between a life of joy and security and one of sadness and neglect.
Was it important to tell this story through the medium of animation?
Animation is the perfect medium to tell this story. It makes the experience of the human and the dog more universal. Animation allows you to come closer to a subject, oddly, because it is at a slight distance. You don’t necessarily have personal memories associated with what or who you are seeing, which allows everybody into the story. It’s not this dog and that man, it’s the world of the possible.
The animation and style in Old Dog are very simple—the line drawings and small motions mirror the vulnerability of the subjects without being overly sentimental. As expressive as Henry the dog may be, his human owner doesn’t even have a face. There’s nothing to distract you from the essence of what it is to be living: a small gesture, a motion, a touch, a tender act of cross-species caring. Animation helps us understand the unbearable lightness of being.
Did you draw from your own experiences caring for elderly parents and/or other family members when you were making the film?
My parents are in the UK and I don’t get to see them that often. My father suffers from Alzheimer’s and a variety of different age-related ailments. My mother is his caregiver. I was on my way there when the [COVID-19] lockdown happened, right after finishing this film.
I am at the age where a lot of my friends are dealing with aging parents, in different capacities. Few, if any, people have their parents living with them. Although my namesake, the other Ann-Marie Fleming, does.
The film is a gentle reminder of how important the smallest acts of caring can be, but also about the importance of independence and dignity. Do you think learning to care for animals makes it easier to care for people?
Yes! Ann-Marie Fleming talks about how caring for her elderly dogs has made her a better person. Once you see the similarities in our common life experiences, it is easier to be gentler with other humans and also ourselves.
The great thing about dogs is they live in the present. Caring for them is really caring for ourselves. And that is a great metaphor to help us through difficult times of dealing with people.
What can dogs teach humans about empathy, love and compassion?
As I said, dogs live in the present and they show their joy so easily. Every day is a new day. They are such a mirror to the way you are feeling, through the way they are treated. Eckhart Tolle has a book called Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings from Our Dogs and Cats. Honestly, we may not be ready for it, but the lesson is there.
The National Film Board of Canada presents
Written and Directed by
Ann Marie Fleming
Composer and Sound Designer
Nicolas Ayerbe Barona
Katja De Bock
Executive Producer, BC & Yukon Studio
Inspired by the other Ann-Marie Fleming and the work she does making life better for senior dogs and their humans.
Special thanks to:
Gil Madsen-Lefebvre, Erik Whittaker
Lily, Winnie, Bamboo, Flip and Moune
©2020 National Film Board of Canada