Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Trevor and Mister in Buddy
"An intimate, detail-focused film."

How much do you know about service dogs? Most people are familiar with the great work done by guide dogs in supporting blind and visually impaired people, but there's still a fair amount of ignorance about the other ways in which highly trained canines can help disabled people, and just how important their work is. This is particularly notable in the case of emotional support dogs, whose very practical skills have been overlooked and ridiculed amid a slew of high profile media stories about untrained animals passed off as ESAs. Heddy Honigmann's documentary looks at the amazing ways some animals are able to help their owners and the intense bonds that form as a result.

We meet several different pairs along the way. Mister is an emotional support poodle who enables Trevor to cope with both the physical and psychological damage he suffered when serving in the army; far from just providing affection, she guards him when he's out and about and, at night, wakes him up if he's having a nightmare, enabling his partner to sleep properly, something which seems to have saved their relationship. Utah is a labradoodle who helps her teenaged owner cope with his gradually deteriorating sight and the intense emotions he experiences because he's autistic, as well as making up for the social isolation that stems from both these factors. Missy is a traditional guide dog who has a powerful emotional bond with her owner, who leads a full and active life with her assistance and talks about how glad he is that he overcame his initial hesitation to take on such a dog, his hesitation to think of himself as a person in need of support.

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The support that Kaiko provides for her owner is quite remarkable and covers everything from helping in the kitchen to turning her over in bed at night, enabling her to live independently despite having severely depleted strength. Makker, meanwhile, has an owner who has been blind since she was 13 and who, in her mid-eighties, enjoys a life many will envy, keeping herself in great shape and even going horse riding with her dog's help.

As well as interviewing her human subjects, Honigmann spends much of her time with the camera at dog height, capturing the dynamics of these situations from a canine point of view - essentially giving the dogs a chance to speak for themselves. She captures Kaiko's strong work ethic, Utah's empathy, Mister's wariness and diligence. From this it becomes clear that each dog has its own distinct approach to the work, and it's also clear that it's something that feels satisfying to them. Kaiko's owner suggests that it seems like a game. The dogs are evidently happy in these relationships, deeply affectionate with their owners and intellectually stimulated, able to use their talents to the full.

An intimate, detail-focused film which invites the viewer to extrapolate from these individual stories, Buddy presents a world where there is less of a social gap between humans and other species than is often assumed, where love for a dog can mean every bit as much as love for a human. Some of the participants reflect on dogs past and there are sad moments that will have some viewers in tears, but nothing about this film feels intrusive or gratuitous. Overall the tone is upbeat, celebratory. It will inspire some disabled viewers to think about what dogs might do for them, whilst other viewers will just go home ready to indulge their pets.

Reviewed on: 31 Oct 2019
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A documentary about multi-talented, indispensable service dogs and their loving owners.

Director: Heddy Honigmann

Starring: Kaiko, Makker, Missy, Mister, Utah

Year: 2018

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: Netherlands


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