How Pete’s Dragon Speaks For Misunderstood Dogs Everywhere

By  · Published on August 16th, 2016

Dogs and Dragons

Pete’s Dragon and How to Train Your Dragon 2 honor man’s best friend and misunderstood pit bulls everywhere.

I was a wreck after watching Pete’s Dragon over the weekend. I wept, because David Lowery’s (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) old-fashioned family-oriented tearjerker stole my heart in an instant. I wept because his film made me think of Spielberg’s E.T. in its dignified themes of home, friendship and loyalty. I wept because I realized I dearly missed this type of unadulterated sentimental fare with a wistful sense of adventure. But most importantly, I wept because I realized pretty quickly that Pete’s giant, green, furry friend – who raises Pete in the woods after he loses his parents to a tragedy – was no mythical dragon despite his fiery breath and majestic wings. He was instead a mushy, loving, loyal dog who could use a good belly scratch and a rough game of tug of war. He was however, neither the kind many would find cuddly and adorable, nor the type one would view as a nanny, as pit bulls were known once upon a time. The more I watched Pete’s Dragon, the more I thought of misunderstood pit bulls, like I did during another recent “dragon” movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2. A personal, internal wound that bled inside me every now and then re-opened again last weekend. I wept, and it’s a long story.

You have been warned. It really is a long story (even though it just covers approximately 3 measly months of my life). It might…actually, it WILL bore you. But I feel like telling that story all the same.

It was on a warm day of August, 2011 that my husband and I strolled to the “Animal Care and Control Center” of East Harlem, all the way from our small Hamilton Heights apartment in New York. It was no short walk, but we wanted to savor every step and take it all in while we were on our way to possibly adopting a dog that very day, from a kill shelter that mostly kept pit bulls or pit mixes in their premises and had high euthanasia rates.

Like me, my husband had always wanted a dog, pretty much his entire life, and never had one. In fact, our mutual love of dogs and unfulfilled desire of having one helped bring us together approximately 8 years ago that day. And we realized we spent those 8 years making routine excuses that revolved around the phrase “as soon as” – as in, “We’ll adopt one as soon as we have a bit more money,” “… soon as we have a bigger place,” “….as soon as we have less demanding jobs…” That day, we decided (not dissimilar to people waiting for the right time to have kids, I suppose) there would never be an end to that “as soon as” list. So we walked.

We had been to that shelter before to research the adoption process. I already knew it was not for the faint of heart (aka, me) to “browse dogs” while they heartbreakingly did everything they possibly could in their cages to be chosen and saved. It was as if they knew… “it’s either these friendly-looking people who’ll hopefully love me or death.” So how could anyone possibly choose one and leave the rest with their (often) gloomy fates? Also, yes – we had done our “research” on adoption, but how could we choose the “right” dog, as two people who were hopelessly, completely ignorant about even the most basic dog behavior? We realized quickly we hadn’t done our most important homework. We had no idea what to look for in a dog that we – a pair of inexperienced people with crazy work schedules – could be good owners/parents to. We believed in the fairy tale of “love at first sight”. So we skipped cage after cage of desperate, intimidating, loud, beautiful dogs, all trying to earn our affection through that speed-dating. One even enthusiastically made a dash for his ripped up toy and sprinted back to the fence with it in his mouth. He wanted a playmate. I burst into tears. But nope, not that one either.

Then we saw her. She was sitting all the way at the back of her large crate; a gold-coated, underweight, proud-looking girl with soulful eyes and wiggly, expressive eyebrows. She was not bothered to get up or greet us. She just stared, quietly judging our sentimentality and her peers’ desperation to be chosen. I swear she would have rolled her eyes if she could. She was, like all the others we saw that day, a pit bull mix. She was gorgeous. She was a loner. And she was a dragon. But that last part, I did not know back then. How to Train Your Dragon 2 had not yet happened. And How to Train Your Dragon, which I had mostly forgotten about, had come out over a year before. I didn’t watch that movie as a dog parent, and I just couldn’t have made the connection between her and the film’s feared and misunderstood mythical creature that breathed fire, despite their shocking resemblance in head shapes and body movements.

We both fell in love with her immediately. We are thankful, really really thankful, to our ignorance of the time. That day, our beautiful, regal dragon Margo (fittingly named on the spot after All About Eve’s Margo Channing) came home with us because we went with our gut, thanks to all the things we did not bother to research. Turns out – as we were told by a wise, unofficial dog whisperer later—in a shelter, dogs that are eager to communicate, behave intimidatingly forward and generally seem like the biggest “pain in the ass” in the world would be “good” pets, especially to dumb, inexperienced, but well-meaning people like us. And Margo, well…she was the exact opposite.

To clarify, the above is not a selfish classification of “good dogs” vs. “bad dogs” (I have long believed all dogs are inherently good,) but is about the mindset one should be prepared to have during dog adoption. Adoption is and should be all about matching the right dog with the right owner, so the dog can prosper, be happy, act confident and enrich lives in return. What’s right for the dog always comes first. In the end, we found out the hard way that we weren’t right for Margo. We had none of the things she needed: a quiet, remote place away from people and a lot of experience with establishing authority, among them. We also realized we misinterpreted her indifference and quietness on the day we adopted her. She wasn’t being mellow or playing hard to get (like I said, WE KNEW NOTHING). She was instead ignoring her surroundings. She was emotionally damaged, shut down inside, and very ill.

As soon as she got her health back after a few vet visits, Margo started showing signs of just how damaged she was, and how much abuse she must have endured in the hands of cruel people. She was two years old and we had no history on her; but we could guess. She started acting frighteningly aggressive towards others, and was overly, dangerously protective of us for no reason whatsoever. Our neighbors feared her. And we were fearful of walking her because she often unpredictably snapped at the sight of anything and everything. She was very strong. Too strong for me. She often lunged at people. Like her namesake, she could bark and really mean it unapologetically. What if she hurt someone? What if she hurt a child? There were numerous episodes I won’t retell here, where we narrowly escaped or luckily avoided a tragedy. None of it was her fault. She needed knowledgeable people and a different environment to thrive. We weren’t those people.

But despite all her challenges, we were both madly in love with Margo. At home, she was just the sweetest, cuddliest, smartest dog. We knew she loved us back just the same. We had formed an unshakable bond in a very short space of time. Inside, in her safe haven that was our little apartment, she showed us the sweet dog she was deep down, when nothing threatened or scared her. Outside, where she perceived everything and everyone as potential danger, she became the aggressive dog people forced her to become. Like Pete of Pete’s Dragon, or like Hiccup of How to Train Your Dragon, we desperately wanted to prove to everyone that Margo was a friendly, loving creature. We hired a phenomenal dog behaviorist – the inimitable Virginia Hoffman – to work with her. We did everything Virginia told us to, and worked on Margo’s training day and night. Ultimately, Virginia decided Margo was far too damaged to get over her fear (and her resulting aggression) completely. Maybe, in two years time, she could learn to become calmer, Virginia told us. But Margo simply was not fit for a bustling city like New York. And New York was not the right place for any soul— human or canine – struggling to find inner peace.

In the end, we had to be practical and smart. Keeping her was not an option for Margo’s own good. Returning her back to the shelter, where she would have been put on death row immediately, was not an option either. We called every no-kill rescue group we could find in the Tri-State area. No one could take her for understandable reasons. She was just not an “adoptable” dog. Then one day, Virginia recommended Spirit Animal Sanctuary to us; a serene farm ran by Alan Papszycki, the aforementioned dog whisperer. He was a trainer and a philanthropist who founded Spirit with the sole purpose of giving abused dogs with behavior issues (or issues with “adjusting to the world of humans”) a home where they could live with dignity. Dogs like Margo. So we drove her for 6 hours to Boonville, NY and returned to the city the same day. We visited Margo once months later and couldn’t believe she was the same dog: calm, content and finally at peace (HERE SHE IS). In the following months, we got some updates from Alan through Facebook. But years passed, communications thinned out and stopped. We took comfort in knowing that she led a peaceful life there.

When I finally saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 last year – with my sweet pit bull mix Audrey by my side – my Margo wound bled again. As I had immediately spotted with the experience my husband and I went though, that movie was unmistakably about misunderstood dogs. About pit bulls, to be precise. The dragon trappers in the sequel were surely an allegory for ruthless dog fighters. And the dragon safe haven introduced by Hiccup’s long-lost mother Valka – where feared beasts lived peacefully and happily – couldn’t have been more similar to Alan’s “Spirit Animal Sanctuary”. Like pit bulls, dragons of How to Train Your Dragon 2 were “kind, amazing creatures that could bring people together,” in Hiccup’s words. “Good dragons under the control of bad people do bad things” was the overarching message of the film; one that my husband and I experienced first hand, day and night, through a story that luckily had a happy ending.

You’d now understand why Pete’s Dragon would open the same wound. Elliot was feared by humans. He was the star of spine-chilling tales told to scare children. He had to live in hiding, even though he had so much to give. His relationship to Pete resembled ours to Margo. We were one happy family in our secluded one-bedroom within the Manhattan jungle, but she was perceived as a villain everywhere else.

Like Pete did with Elliot, we had to set Margo free. So we did. As we drove away from Spirit Animal Sanctuary, Margo calmly trotted along Alan and a pack of dogs eager to show her the ropes. At one point, she looked back over her shoulder. But she didn’t run after us as I feared she might. Instead, she, like Elliot, nodded her goodbye, spread her magical wings and flew away with her kind.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.