Disney’s ‘Togo,’ the Difficult Dog Dilemma and Hidden Heroes ☆☆☆☆

Disney’s latest dog-lovers film, begins with the blurry image of dogs running. We soon see the lead dog, the blue-eyed black and brown fuzzy dog named Togo,  who goes straight past a herd of caribou. The driver, in more fur than a high society wealthy woman on a NYC winter,  looks back to see storming weather as he crosses icy slopes.

“It looks biblical enough,” the driver, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe) will later tell the townsmen in a meeting. Yet at the time, he had told his dogs, “There’ll be full bellies and warm beds, tonight.” That was a promise before the long cold nights ahead. That’s a promise that many people make when they first get a dog and more than a few fail to keep.

“Togo” is about the 1925 serum run to Nome. The Great Race of Mercy became the inspiration for the annual Iditerod sledding race where today’s mushers are carefully monitored to make sure their dogs aren’t run to death. Disney’s movie means to honor to true hero of the run, the titular Togo who was twice given away by Seppala because he was “undersize, unintelligent, untrainable.” Togo was saved early on by Seppala’s wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson) as a pup. He calls her “too soft-hearted.” She tells him, “You’re too Norwegian.”

Seppala warns her, “Your cur will reward your kind nature with anarchy” and its fun to see a pup causing chaos before he matures into the dog that will nearly run himself to death and save a town. The ending is assured but we do have fun getting there if you love just seeing cute animals outwit humans against beautiful scenes of wilderness at different seasons. Director Ericson Core knows how to give us both the intimate quieter scenes and the scenes of “biblical” troubles, including a harrowing crossing of a bay as the ice begins to break. Core’s cinematography often allows the edges to blur, reminding us of both the narrowed vision from the center of a storm as well as a different time.

It is important to remember that the 1920s was a different time for dogs.

In 1911, an expedition led by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole a month before the ill-fated expedition of British Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen began his journey with 52 dogs. He reached the pole with 16. Only 11 dogs survived. The majority of the dogs were butchered, to feed both the men and their fellow pack members. Amundsen was practical, but admitted that the killing of the dogs affected the men, but he knew the value of these dogs and how the natives used them.

Seppala got his start with dogs that were supposed to be used by Amundsen in a North Pole expedition in 1913.  According to “The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic,” Amundsen cancelled his expedition and the dogs were given to Seppala.

The 1920s was also a different time for world politics. When Heihachirō Tōgō died in 1934 at age 86, he was honored with a naval parade that had ships sent by the UK, US, France, Italy and China. In 1913, when the dog who would become Tōgō was born, Tōgō the man had already served as a captain in the Sino-French War (1884-1885), the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and as a Commander-in-Chief during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). He was not part of World War I (1914-1918); He was already 65 at the start of that war and out of active service. Japan fought on the same side as the US, UK, France and Italy during World War I, despite the racism that was evident in the laws of the US and other countries. Tōgō had been educated in England.

Amundsen would disappear into the unknown in 1928, during a rescue mission for the airship Italia. Amundsen was in twin-engine flying boat that has never been found; he was 55. Amundsen never married and, unlike Robert Falcon Scott, left no widow. Togo would outlive him and be euthanized in 1929 at age 16.

While in the movie Seppala tells his wife, “Nature has its way of sorting things out,” he was disappointed that his dog Togo wasn’t recognized. Yet even when the news gets history wrong, time and magazines and books have a way of sorting things out. Balto may have been known as the hero of the run (with Fox being ignored), but the truth has come out. Or at least a Disney version of the truth. While in the film, Seppala and Togo end their days together, Togo sired many pups and died at a kennel in Maine. Although they parted, Seppala always said that Togo was the best dog he ever owned and the best sled dog ever. By the 1920s standards and even today’s standards, Togo was lucky to survive. Demon dogs often do not. Some dogs don’t even have to be particularly challenging if they find themselves the object of fad buying.

The worries that come with any Disney dog movie is that people will want Siberian huskies and those people will find huskies unsuitable for their lifestyles. The truth is that while most people claim they want a smart dog, they really want an obedient dog. That’s one of the themes of the film about Tōgō.

In the film, Seppala is portrayed training his dogs by taking them on long sledding runs–in snow and without snow. That’s one of the needs of huskies–exercise. Once, while preparing to a conformation trial, the owner of a Siberian Husky said he cycled his champion dog for several miles. I think 5 or 7. I only cycle my dogs (rough collies) about 1 or 2, individually. For two of the three dogs, that in itself, even twice a day isn’t enough. Collies aren’t known for stamina or high energy. Huskies are bred for it.

Watching “Togo,” I can’t help but think of my current pound pup, Misty. I knew the breeder. Misty was the runt of her litter.  The breeder has since closed her boutique kennel, but she wasn’t well-known in the collie world. After being bought by an affluent family, Misty ended up in a local Southern California animal shelter before she was one year old. She eventually was brought into the Southland Collie Rescue. I was not her first foster SCR home, but after she was rejected by her first adoptive home,  in what seemed like more an emergency than a quiet denouement, she came to me. Untrained, unsocialized, she was our demon dog, but she was also higher activity, more aggressive and smarter than your average collie. She taught herself how to rebound off of our six-foot concrete walls. She has the ability to compete in agility and herding. With the right expense account, she could win versatility titles and even be a stunt dog.

Just as most people aren’t up to the challenge of a sled dog race, even during good weather, most people are either unwilling or incapable of pushing themselves where their dogs may take them. If you work with your dog as a partner, your dog will be able to tell you when you’ve made a mistake, but you must be willing to listen. You must be willing to see your dog as an individual.

Seppala’s wife was a hidden hero; she saw the heart of a dog, despite its size and the cruelness of Alaska’s landscape wasn’t allowed to show her unmerciful hand. Seppala eventually understood and accepted the nature of Togo and nurtured Togo’s talents, working as partners and trusting each other. When you save a dog, the dog will never forget. You can see gratitude, love and loyalty shining in its eyes. I see it in my current rescue dog, Misty. Misty is not my first difficult dog I’ve adopted from rescue. My first dog from SCR, Laddie, was also rejected by another adoptive home and called “wild man.” Yet he once attended a film opening and sat on the seat in a movie theater. He met William Wegman.  Misty’s talent may lead us elsewhere and we’ll got as far as we can with our current financial resources. But devil dogs are not for everyone. They are for the few who can see the heroic hearts and ask for partnership rather than strict obedience.

Remember the consternation of Seppala and if you can’t exercise yourself regularly, enjoy the movie and its wonderful shots of puppies and grown dogs, but don’t get a dog. The best dogs are ones that are well-loved, well-trained and well-exercised. Hero dogs require love and respect and lots of time before they can run their hearts out. “Togo” is a movie for dog lovers and people who consider themselves dog lovers, but don’t have the heart to survive the lifetime devotion required of pet ownership. By lifetime, I mean a dog’s natural lifetime. Huskies have already suffered from association with an HBO series: “Game of Throne” fans wanted dire wolves and bought Siberian huskies as the next best thing. The dogs are often dumped by their owners according to an AKC article.  If you don’t have 10 to 16 years to give a dog, avoid the storm seeded by neglect and enjoy the handsome huskies on the screen in Disney’s “Togo.”

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