PBS // 2004 // 220 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // September 3rd, 2011
"There are more pet dogs than babies in the world."
Among the theories presented in PBS Explorer Collection -- Dogs: Man's Best Friend, you'll hear that humans might not have ended up civilized without the help of dogs. By the time you've watched all four of these PBS documentaries, you might believe it -- although you could wonder what might have happened instead if we'd buddied up to parrots.
Dogs: Man's Best Friend includes four PBS documentaries on four discs:
* "How Smart Are Animals?" -- A border collie who knows the name of all -- around a thousand -- of his toys demonstrates his ability to make inferences as well. This episode of Nova ScienceNow also features dolphins hunting a hidden ring with sonar, an octopus who can unscrew a jar lid to get dinner, and a parrot who could talk and do math.
* "Dogs Decoded" -- Scientists study how closely dogs watch people and how closely people listen to dogs. The evolution of dogs from wolves, along with efforts to figure out how it happened, are featured in this Nova episode.
* "Through a Dog's Eyes" -- Assistance dogs are matched to humans -- including people with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and quadriplegia -- at a camp in Georgia run by Jennifer Arnold. Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) narrates.
* "Dogs and More Dogs" -- After opening with a dog who learned to spray a bottle for a commercial, the documentary looks into how dogs evolved from wolves, how dogs became pets, and how studying very shy dogs helps researchers learn about people. John Lithgow (Third Rock From The Sun) narrates the Nova episode.
Dogs: Man's Best Friend chose its documentaries well. Seeing how dogs help people today in "Through a Dog's Eyes" after hearing about the role they may have played in our destiny in "Dogs Decoded" should make you think about how important dogs really are to us. The set isn't perfect; "How Smart Are Animals?" takes side trips with other animals, and "Dogs Decoded" and "Dogs and More Dogs" touch on a few of the same topics. For the most part, though, the experiments, theories, and dogs shown are fascinating.
There are heartwarming moments in each of the documentaries, but except for "Through a Dog's Eyes," they devote most of their time to presenting information. "Dog's Eyes" spends a lot of time showing the humans and dogs at the Canine Assistants camp bonding. Most of it is successful, but there's one frustrating case involving an inattentive canine who isn't much help for a boy with cerebral palsy. Each documentary has an effective visual style that balances the talk with imagery well.
Everyone interviewed is knowledgeable and passionate, but my favorite of the talking heads was Ray Coppinger of Hampshire College, whose colorful bluntness as he talks about dog evolution is a highlight of "Dogs and More Dogs."
Two of the documentaries, "How Smart Are Animals?" and "Dogs and More Dogs," rely on cute cartoon dogs to help tell their stories. It's up to you whether that's a plus or a minus.
Picture and sound quality are decent but unexceptional. I'll note that "Dogs and More Dogs" is 1.33:1 non-anamorphic, while the others are the more modern 1.78:1 anamorphic. All except "Dogs Decoded" have descriptive video for the blind.
During the episodes, the text on the screen urging viewers to learn more at the PBS site is retained. One bonus feature -- dog training tips from Jennifer Arnold -- seems to have made it from the site, and "Dogs and More Dogs" has PDF information for teachers. However, it would have been nice -- and probably not too difficult -- to port over all of the additional material from the PBS site. I did look at the site, and found one feature on the meaning of dog barks still there.
Dogs: Man's Best Friend isn't a perfect DVD pacakge, but it includes four strong documentaries that should keep viewers engaged.
Not guilty. Arf!
Review content copyright © 2011 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 220 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Dog Training Tips
* PDF Teaching Aids
* IMDb: Nova
* IMDb: Nova ScienceNow
* IMDb: Through a Dog's Eyes
* PBS Nature