From rescuing people trapped beneath rubble, to medical dogs with the ability to detect cancer. This incredible film in the making is set to be jam packed with adventure, amazing scenery, and of course the heart warming and awe-inspiring tales of dogs all over the world working to save lives.
We spoke to producer Dominic Cunningham-Reid about his epic family adventure film in the making, which follows working dogs around the world, from Newfoundlands saving lives with the Italian coast guard to bloodhounds fighting poachers in Kenya.
How did the idea come about, how did you feel driven to make a film about the superpowers of dogs?
I’ve always loved dogs, I grew up in Africa surrounded by animals on a wildlife sanctuary so I have a thing with animals. I’ve had a whole bunch of dogs since I was a boy. I lived in a tent for years and had many dogs sleeping in my bed so I became very familiar with their language.
The driving force of this film is my love and understanding of dogs. During my 20s as a journalist covering wars in Africa, I became very familiar with working dogs: service dogs, military dogs, bomb dogs and search and rescue dogs.
I was fascinated by the bond between the human handlers and their specialised dog. It was an extraordinary thing to observe. I had a huge amount of respect for the relationship and I could see that it was very special. The idea was very much to celebrate this special relationship that we have with dogs and communicate that on a giant screen.
It’s a difficult task but I feel that it is magical and I wanted to convey that magic. I wanted to show that we have the oldest inter-species relationship in history and we probably wouldn’t be where we are today without working dogs. If you look at agriculture and herding for example. I think that my whole vision was very much to capture the magic, the unspoken magic.
How do you intend to explore the relationship with humans?
Once you get into the research, you see that we are learning more about dogs all the time. We are always fine-tuning that relationship and how we can get them to better serve us, we’ve had a long relationship of cooperation.
Dogs want to cooperate, they want to enter into joint projects with us. They love the rewards, they love the work, and we’ve learnt to communicate. Dogs over thousands of years have leaned to read our faces, read our emotions, interpret our hand gestures. So there’s this almost-telepathic communication going on. The unconditional love and their ability to interpret what we mean and why. The beauty of it is that we are always developing that relationship. Something like medical detection being a new frontier of that.
The film will explore our bond, the history of it, what it means, and where it’s going.
Tell me about the canine superheroes?
Given the constraints of the giant screen we have 45 mins to convey a highly visual story. Our job is to show the olfactory world of the dog through the visual world of the human. We’re focussing on the combination of amazing dogs and amazing scenery.
We’re going to be following Avalanche dogs in British Columbia, which gives us the challenging terrain of snow, ice, and avalanches. We will demonstrate how dogs dig people out of avalanches and how ground scenting works. Some of these dogs are simply extraordinary in what they are capable of and what they’ve learned. They have to get in and out of helicopters, attach to their handler and dangle at the end of a very long cable underneath a helicopter to be dropped off on a difficult mountain site. They’re all mixed breeds. There’s Australian collies, German shepherds, all kinds of mixed dogs. They are all highly skilled and it’s absolutely fascinating to see them at work.
Then we are profiling the newfoundlands in Italy. They’re members of the Italian coast guard, and are super swimmers – considered the diesel engine of the seas – webbed feet, thick coats, and very good in cold water. They are great, great swimmers – utterly cute and quite fearless. These dogs can tow 40 times their body weight and swim a good 4km (2.5 miles). They have done studies where if you’re in distress in the water, your blood pressure actually goes down when a dog swims at you. The dogs come and find you and grab you by the arm – gently in their teeth – and they pull you towards a boat and towards shore.
Then we’re in Africa with the bloodhounds – they’re extraordinary, they are ‘the’ nose of the dog world. They have 300 million olfactory cells in their nose versus our five million, giving them an extraordinary ability to track scent. They can follow someone 120 miles with is remarkable.
Their entire physiology is built for tracking. Their long ears waft the scent off the ground into their nose and into their drool, giving them the information they need to remain on a scent. We use them to track wildlife crime. They are able to track ivory that has been poached to catch the culprits. We follow two remarkable dogs – Tipper and Tony, two brothers, in a five million acre territory in the north of Kenya. They were deployed recently on intelligence that a rhino might be killed and dropped off in a helicopter, they, soon found three men with AK-47s ready to go but the dogs found them before they were able to strike.
Our key narrative is the story of a puppy going through urban search and rescue school where she will learn her superpower. We will be filming her over about two years and hope she graduates! She is a Dutch shepherd, different from a German or Belgian Shepherd.
Then we are covering medical detection and therapy dogs. There’s a lovely golden retriever in California (a surfing dog called Ricochet), she’s amazing in that she teaches disabled kids and war veterans how to surf. She has a huge effect on their lives helping people who are a bit broken and lack confidence. When they lie underneath her on the surfboard they completely bloom. She’s an emotional support dog, taking on everybody’s baggage and is brilliant at knowing what you need. She’s a fantastic dog
Do the dogs love what they do?
There’s a selection process to determine a good working dog, and any dog that’s ball-obsessed is a good start. They need to have drive and a lot of energy and then that just gets channelled into work.
In urban search and rescue they have amazing places for training, such as Disaster City in the USA. It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of destruction in one place. They set bits on fires, flood parts of it, and it’s all designed to train urban rescue teams in a semi-real environment. It’s amazing when you see dogs working in these very tough conditions.
Urban search and rescue is particularly amazing because they train the dog to switch off their eyes and follow their nose so they can seek out humans by smell only. If you imagine the amount of odours that come from earthquakes, from open sewers to animals – all kinds of smells that could be potential distractions. The only odours that they’re looking for is a breathing human being.
How you plan to show the science of the film?
We will use CGI and computer work to explore the dog’s nose and explain how that works. We are also going to create ‘doggy vision’ – to show how the dogs sees the world. Literally, the colours it sees, the resolution it sees, all of that kind of stuff.
We’re going to use computers to take you into their world. Because we’re filming in 3D we will have scent molecules lifting off footprints. Really cool effects that will drift into the audience. We shed millions of skin cells all the time, representing a scent trail to a dog. We want to visualise that so people have a better understanding of how the dogs work and how the nose works – that’s our key mission.
The audio will represent the way dogs hear the world. They hear the electricity and fridges – they hear a lot more than we do! There needs to be more understanding as they have a challenging place in the world with increasing urbanisation, it’s a tougher place for them to live in. A lot of people take on working dogs without really knowing what a working dog really needs. In many parts of the world they sadly end up in shelters because they haven’t been managed properly.
The history is remarkable because dogs were initially wolves near villages. The tame wolves approached camp and realised that there was food to be had, and developed a mutually beneficial relationship in terms of guarding and alerting to danger and so forth. I always say you cannot look at a dog as just a dog – a dog is part human, at least emotionally because we co-evolved and that’s why we’re able can understand each other so well.
It’s going to be a very cool film and I think the size of the giant IMAX canvas gives you a similar perspective to that that a dog has which is particularly good. I think any dog owner will not only love seeing this film but also learn a huge amount, which will benefit the future relationship with their own dog.
Superpower Dogs is due for release summer 2018.
If you’d like to find out more about Superpower Dogs and keep up with the film visit www.superpowerdogs.com or follow them on Twitter (@SuperpowerDogs) and Facebook.
Image from www.flickr.com/photos/stuutje