‘Superpower Dogs’ and ‘Dogs: A Science Tale’ at the California Museum of Science ☆☆☆☆

Director/writer Daniel Ferguson starts out “Superpower Dogs” with a breathtaking bird’s eye view of a solitary skier starting a suicidal run down a steep British Columbia mountain to disaster. An avalanche buries him, but luckily for him and the camera, avalanche rescue expert, Henry, drops in to dig him out.

Henry is a well-trained dog and, in the only misstep of this 45-minute movie, is voiced by dog-lover and all-around American good guy Chris Evans. Evans narrates the story of five other amazing “Superpower Dogs” in and out of the United States, but this is the only dog that talks throughout the movie.

The movie took three years to film, mostly because we follow the journey of a young Dutch Shepard pup, Halo,  from adoption day to final certification for elite Miami-based disaster response team as well as dropping in to meet a black Newfoundland dog named Reef who is part of an Italian Coast Guard unit; two bloodhounds, Tipper and Tony, who help track down poachers as part of an endangered animal protection squad in Kenya and a failed service dog Ricochet, who found his calling as a surf therapy dog in San Diego County.

Ferguson said he worked with Mark Abma, a stunt skier based in British Columbia. According to Ferguson, Abma did four or five runs on a location near Whistler, BC, and one of the runs had a slight snow slide, but Ferguson’s visual effects company Rodeo FX augmented it into an avalanche to “up the danger” because Ferguson wanted “a strong impact at the beginning, like a James Bond movie.”

The dog, Henry, spend hours in the air, and while that might seem like crazy stunt work, for Henry,  that’s part of his job–training and work. Henry was also present when Evans came in to record his narration. Evans is “an avowed dog enthusiast” whom Ferguson contacted through his IMAX agent. “Chris was totally seduced by Henry” and was able to do “some impromptu jokes.”

Ferguson said that for some shots the camera angles required some “crazy stunt work” and at one point the camera was attached to the bottom of a helicopter because Ferguson wanted to really put the audience in the movie, combining documentary with “larger than life” unusual angles to fit into the super hero format in an “anti-television experience.”

Part of the joy to this movie was the casting. One of his producers, Dominic Cunningham-Reid, is, Ferguson said,  “a dog nut. He found the Italians. He took me over there many years ago.” Ferguson was impressed by the diving off of the boats and rescues. You get to see the Newfie, Reef, from both above and below with helpful graphics to fully understand what makes Newfies such outstanding swimmers.

Commandante Ferruccio Pilenga learned about Newfies reading a book and when he learned it was good with children he got one, but his first Newfie, Mas, rescued his daughter from drowning in a lake and that’s when he got the idea of creating the Italian School of Water Rescue Dogs (Scuela Italiana di Cani Salvataggio). Reef is a granddaughter of Man.

Ferguson also did his own research, saying, “Ricochet, I found online. I needed an emotional heart to the story. I couldn’t believe the dog surfs.” That’s a local story, based in San Diego.

“Cat and Halo, was an incredible find,” Ferguson continued, saying that the woman who is head of post-production “heard about a woman whose dog had died of kidney failure. She was looking for a new partner. The first thing she does is what we filmed.” Captain Cat Labrada has been deployed with the Florida Task Force to earthquakes and hurricanes, including Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina.

Labrada and Halo train at Disaster City, Texas and Brayton Fire Training Field which is part of Texas A&M University. It is one of the largest disaster simulation sites in the world. The Fresh Kills Park Urban Search and Rescue Canine Training Facility on Staten Island where Halo and Cat go to have his final FEMA certification exam is the training site for New York Task Force 1 and the final resting place for rubble from the Twin Towers post-9/11.

Filming for “Superpower Dogs” began in January 2016 and ended just last summer. It involved over 500 people in five countries (US, Canada, Kenya, Italy and Netherlands), including 12 scientific advisors who helped with the information and visuals. One of the visual effects is a special doggie-vision camera rig that allows the audience to see the world in 250 degrees as a dog would.

Ferguson worked in a loose partnership with the California Science Center, hoping to come out at the same time as the hands-on science exhibit, “Dogs! A Science Tail.”  The exhibit also includes a special dog vision experience which, while not giving you the dog perspective of 250 degrees with a nose as a blindspot on the taller dog, it does allow you to see the world from a dog’s color spectrum where grass is grey and so is a red ball.

The exhibit is divided into five areas: “Tail as Old as Time;” “Dogs and Humans, Together Forever;” “The Incredible Dog!” “Caring for Dogs;” and a demonstration space “dog park.”  In a “Tail as Old as Time,” the history of dogs is explained.
“Dogs and Humans, Together Forever” includes the virtual dog interactive activities and my favorite part of the exhibit, “Jeopawdy!” (or Alex Trebek in a video asking you to play a dog-themed version of “Jeopardy”).

For the press view, there were some parts of the exhibit that weren’t working. The dash to find out where you rated in terms of speed (from pug to greyhound) was on the blink (“The Incredible Dog!). The interactive dog training also wasn’t working properly either, but the Jeopawdy was great fun to play with friends or strangers. You also can test your sense of smell and consider how little humans notice compared to dogs. Learning how the different onomatopoetic words for a dog’s bark is fascinating, particularly considering that the presentations are in both English and Spanish.

While I agree with some of the assessments about dogs, having volunteered for a breed rescue and a local animal shelter in addition to showing successfully in conformation, I have to take exception to the characterization that “responsible breeders” are people who “sell purebred dogs, which tend to be less healthy than mixed breeds.” That’s basically saying that indiscriminate breeding and unplanned pregnancies is better than one’s that are planned with full histories behind the parents. The majority of dogs put down in shelters are mixed breed dogs. According to AnimalShelter.org, that number would be 25 percent are purebred dogs. However, a shelter study by the National Animal Interest Alliance, showed an even lower number: only five percent. With the removal of pitfalls and Chihuahuas, the number drops to 3 percent.

The assertion that responsible breeders sell dogs that are less healthy than mixed breed was particularly ironic on a day when the demo dogs were both yellow Labradors as seeing eye service dogs in training. Typically, these dogs are specifically bred for these jobs. Further, the movie “Superpower Dogs” features purebred dogs as well.

At the “dog park,” the two journalists sitting next to me remarked during the demo they couldn’t hear the demonstrator voicing commands, but a blind person is depending upon the dog to see for him/her. In the obstacle course, the dog in training was using subtle body language to guide the “blind” person through a weave of poles, over a change in level to the ground (like a curb or bump), to a chair and around a barrier that was tall enough for the dog to pass but not the person. Other days, there will be agility and other training dog demonstrations.

For those interested in art, an exhibition featuring original artworks about dogs, “Dog Tales,” is also o loan from the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Works by Norman Rockwell and Charles Schulz are included.

No matter how much you love your dog, both experiences, “Dogs! A Science Tail” and “Superpower Dogs,” are for humans only. Your pooch will have to stay at home although service dogs are allowed. Emotional support animals, comfort animals, pets and therapy dogs (and cats or whatever) are not permitted in the California Science Center.

During filming, Ferguson said, “I learned about empathy and compassion…they just sort of improve our lives in ways that we’re just beginning to understand.” He also added, “There’s definitely a dog in my future. My girls are pestering me every day for a dog,” but because they’ve met all of the superpower dogs, “the bar is very high.” “Dogs! A Science Tail” and “Superpower Dogs” will help you set a high bar for your own dog experiences. Paired with the new exhibition, “Dogs! A Science Tail,” “Superpower Dogs” should give your dog-crazy kid ideas of careers to explore outside of the veterinarian route. For dog lovers everywhere, the exhibit and movie are just fun and full of sloppy, exciting reasons to love dogs even more.

While admission to the science center is free, admission to “Dogs!” is from $9.95 to $7.95 and can be combined with the IMAX ticket for $16.90 to $13.50. For more information visit CaliforniaScienceCenter.org.



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