Safety rep suspended after animal cruelty allegations on A Dog's Purpose film set

A national animal welfare group filed a complaint with Manitoba authorities after a video surfaced online showing a dog being forced into churning water during the production of the soon-to-be released film A Dog's Purpose. An animal safety worker has also been suspended.

Suspension follows animal rights complaint, video that appears to show dog forced into rushing water

Still from a video that has surfaced online appears to show a dog being forced into churning water during the production of the film A Dog's Purpose, shot in Winnipeg. (TMZ)

An animal safety worker has been suspended after allegations of animal cruelty on the set of the Dennis Quaid movie A Dog's Purpose that was filmed in Winnipeg.

The American Humane Association told CBC News Thursday in a statement it has put a safety representative on administrative leave after footage surfaced Wednesday that appears to show a handler forcing a dog into turbulent water on the set of the film.

"American Humane has reviewed the video and we are disturbed and concerned by the footage," the statement reads. "When the dog showed signs of resistance to jumping in the water, the scene should have been stopped."

Gavin Polone, one of the film's producers, said American Humane Association failed to keep the dog safe.

"They should've done something. That's what they're paid to do," Polone said.

The video was allegedly shot in November 2015 in Winnipeg. In the first of two portions, a member of the film crew appears to forcibly lower a German shepherd named Hercules into the rushing water of a wavy pool.

There is a cut in the video before the final section shows Hercules swept to the end of the pool and becoming submerged.

The film, directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starring Quaid, is set to open in theatres Jan. 27. It follows the many lives of a dog named Bailey who is repeatedly reincarnated throughout the film.

Hallstrom, Polone and actor Josh Gad, who voiced the part of Bailey, described the footage as disturbing and said none of them were on set or witnessed the shooting of the scene.

"Any time I see an animal looking like it might be in some kind of stressful situation, it's upsetting to me, in this context or any other," Polone said, adding he got involved with the film as a longtime dog owner and animal lover.

Curious timing

Polone said he finds it curious the footage allegedly shot over a year ago would surface on the entertainment website TMZ​ for the first time, just under two weeks before the film hits theatres.

Why not come forward with this immediately after it happened so that if people were doing wrong they could be stopped?- Gavin   Polone , producer

"If you really look at the video very closely, it was edited for maximum effect, and the studio has more footage of everything in context and continuity that would probably paint a more benign picture," he said, adding he assumes whoever acquired the video sold it to TMZ.

"Why not come forward with this immediately after it happened so that if people were doing wrong, they could be stopped?"

Polone said he was on set for about 70 per cent of all scenes filmed and never saw any animals in distress. He still believes the dog in question was treated poorly and the case should be investigated.

Animal rights groups are condemning the treatment of the dog in the scene.

PETA calls for boycott

Polone said he thinks it's "counterproductive" that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has called for a boycott of the film. National animal welfare group Animal Justice has branded the footage as a "blatant" example of animal cruelty.

"What we're seeing here is an animal who's terrified," lawyer Camille Labchuk with Animal Justice told CBC News Wednesday.

The group has filed a complaint with Manitoba's Chief Veterinary Office. Labchuk, who is also executive director for Animal Justice, said she was assured the Manitoba government will investigate the case and involve police if necessary.

"There's no exemption, there's no loophole that lets Hollywood filmmakers get away with inflicting distress on animals, and they should face the consequences of the law," she said.

The chief vet's office confirmed it received the complaint and is performing an inspection to determine whether a thorough investigation is warranted.

'Ethical and safe environment'

Universal Studios and Amblin Partners released a joint statement saying production crews follow strict safety protocols on set to "foster an ethical and safe environment for animals."

"Amblin is confident that great care and concern was shown for the German shepherd Hercules, as well as for all of the other dogs featured throughout the production of the film," the joint statement reads, adding the companies continue to review the circumstances surrounding the footage.

This dog was fearful and not properly trained for this experience.- Javier Schwersensky , Winnipeg Humane Society

"On the day of the shoot, Hercules did not want to perform the stunt portrayed on the tape, so the Amblin production team did not proceed with filming that shot." ​

The Winnipeg Humane Society told CBC News filmmakers did not consult the organization about the scene in question, though they did ask for an assessment of two other scenes in the film.

"We understand there was an observer on the set of this film who was there to advocate on behalf of the dogs," Winnipeg Humane Society CEO Javier Schwersensky said in the statement. "All animals on a film set should have a qualified person who is there to protect their best interests."

Amblin Partners said Hercules went through several days of rehearsal for the water scene "to ensure [he] was comfortable with all of the stunts." 

Handler experience questioned

Schwersensky said it's clear the dog was in distress during the shot and wasn't properly trained.

An animal safety worker has been suspended after allegations of animal cruelty on the set of the Dennis Quaid movie A Dog's Purpose that was filmed in Winnipeg. 1:03

Dawn Piche, a certified professional dog trainer in Winnipeg who works on film sets, said the footage gave her chills, and that the pool should have had an escape ramp for the dog.

"It made me sick," said Piche, adding "99 per cent of the time the animals are taken care of" during movie shoots she witnessed.

"I know how things should take place with an animal, and to put an animal in that position, that would never happen with an experienced animal handler. Never."

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology. Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson, Karen Pauls, Cameron MacIntosh and Angela Johnston