Category Archives: Dog Related

The Black Dog’s Progress

In this post I’d like to go off-theme a bit and briefly explore a short animation that has stayed with me as a personal favourite since I first saw it on Channel 4 in 2008. Stephen Irwin’s ‘The Black Dog’s’ progress was originally commissioned by Animate Projects as a web-exclusive however, with a bit of help from Arts Council England funding, it was instead broadcast on Channel 4 as part of a show called AnimateTV.

Irwin himself encourages the film as something that can be re-watched and explored at the viewer’s own pace and, once ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ has been viewed, one can see why Irwin encouraged a few re-watches (at least!). The frantic and non-linear ensemble of this animation’s narrative can leave the viewer’s eyes darting from one frame of this grim (but compelling) tale’s flip-book structure to another, not wishing to miss a single moment. However, with the help of a spotlight as a guide, the main story still manages to entice the viewer’s attention—allowing them to share in the tragic experiences of this animation’s naïve protagonist, the black dog.

Whilst I encourage people to watch the animation themselves (despite its possibly disturbing themes) I’ll also give an overview of this animation as I interpret it.

As the first flip-book comes to view on a rather blank screen the black dog is seen popping out of a birthday box, ready to be welcomed into his new home with open arms. This moment, however, is short-lived as the young boy starts to sneeze and the now-unwanted dog is swiftly and unsympathetically thrown into the trash.

It is at defining point of abandonment—in which the black dog falls out of the trash can, and finds himself questioning exactly where he may find his home—that the neighbourhood starts to expand. Both the troubling, erratic flip-book imagery and the sinister music make it apparent that the black dog’s story shall not be a happy one and, as a spot light comes to guide us along the dog’s journey, it’s not too long until this suspicion is confirmed.

Reaching out hopefully to a potential new owner the black dog finds his paw sharply bitten off, as all it can do it scream out in pain. Screaming out, but with no home to rest in, the black dog continues to desperately try and find a home, paw prints of blood seen behind him.

Unfortunately this neighbourhood offers no respite, and the black dog finds himself being literally consumed by his next ‘home’, as the carnal desires of the home’s owner mean that the black dog soon finds himself the distressed victim of bestiality. Screaming out once more.

The experience leaves the black dog bleeding once-more, and not even things that we would usually associate with innocence and childhood (a balloon and a flower with a smiley face) can offer solace to the black dog. Emaciated and exhausted by his search for a home all the black dog can do is vomit on the flower whilst bleeding—any sense of his initial hope and naiveté lost in the moment.

In the next point of progression the dog’s expression has changed dramatically. Far from looking hopeful or victimised the dog instead looks determined. Placing on boots (with one foot still bleeding heavily) he ventures onwards.

This moment is very interesting from my point of view. The way I have chosen to interpret this is that the dog now wishes to try its original home—the genesis of its progression and the only point where he actually encounters a friendly face (if only for a moment) in the form of the boy he is gifted to. However, with the boys allergies to dogs he cannot go back in his current state and so he determines to change himself, become something that the boy will not sneeze at, become human.

In the tragic conclusion, however, by the time the black dog gets back to his original home his experiences at the hands of the worst of humankind has changed him irreparably and he returns home a monstrosity—not human, nor dog, and certainly not welcomed by the mother of the home.

As he looks down at the mother of the home with a pleading expression the mother doesn’t hesitate to burn him where he stands. The black dog lets out one final scream of pain (symbolised to great effect by the musical score of this animation) as the word unravels around him—flames, blood and black smoke bleeds outwards from various points until we are left with very little (and yet so much) to look at. In this jarring conclusion we are left with the title of the animation ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’.

For their efforts when it came to ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’, Stephen Irwin & Sorenious Bonk both received high acclaim—with ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ winning the Best Short Film award, and Sorenious Bonk being awarded the Best Sound award at the 2010 British Animation Awards, and this comes as no surprise.

Technically ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ is impressive. Over 50 flip-books were made in order to represent all of the various scenes, and these were hand-drawn, scanned and then assembled in Photoshop before becoming the finishing project that we see on the screen. Composer Sorenious Bonk also does a fantastic job with the accompanying music for this animation—as violins, double bass, trumpets, percussion a mandolin and a 100-year-old autoharp came together to collaborate near seamlessly with the catastrophic adventures of the black dog.

Meanwhile the motivations and the inspirations for ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ don’t go unnoticed within the animation itself. Irwin claims to have taken inspiration from William Hogarth’s ‘A Rakes Progress’ and, like a Hogarth, his anxious narrative allows the viewer to look at ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ over and over again and still manage to spot some new element and there’s that sense of multiplicity.

Irwin’s tragic animation was also inspired by a news story he had heard, in which a woman who had tried to get rid of the family dog numerous times without success decided to set it on fire, only to have the fire spread and kill her young children. This can be seen in the animation as the mother of the story is represented as a body with a giant mouth on her head—she has no eyes and doesn’t judge the situation, she only shouts orders, commands and reacts instead of viewing the black dog’s plight, or alternative methods of re-homing the dog. This is her eventual downfall, as her fire burns and destroys the animation, leaving only blood.

In this way it can be assumed Irwin was also trying to make a nod back to the inspiration of Hogarth’s artwork, as Hogarth, too, was known for trying to depict the issues of the day in his busy moral narratives.  However, this is where the clear parallels end and, at the end of the day, as much as I adore ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ I can’t help but feel that this inspiration point is unclear at points.

Whilst ‘A Rake’s Progress’ takes on Tom Rakewell and its ‘modern moral subject’, and makes an example out of his foolish choices to succumb to the temptations of the opulent world of depravity and self-destruction that he found himself in (despite the many chances of redemption he gets in the form of the poor, but moral, Sarah Young), the black dog is simply a casualty of the abusive neighbourhood that it has found itself in.

The lack of agency that the dog has and it’s simple and understandable drive to find a home means that, far from being a ‘modern moral subject’ the black dog is the innocent party within an abusive landscape—the overall moral message, as Irwin highlights, concerning animal cruelty. As such there is a mismatch, a misunderstanding or perhaps just a deliberate oversight of the key structure of ‘A Rake’s Progress’ (and Hogarth’s moral narratives in general) and, whilst Irwin would perhaps suggest that the black dog is metonymically aligned with Tom Rakewell, I personally cannot help but see him as more aligned with the victimised dog from ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty- The First Stage of Cruelty’—who finds itself subject to Tom Nero’s cruelty, as him and his friends hold the dog down whilst an arrow is inserted into the dog’s anus.

However, despite this, ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ does not lack anything as a result of this divergence, and manages to stand alone as a very strong piece of animation that, for some audiences (such as myself), will resonate with the viewer long after they have seen it.




For more on Stephen Irwin why not check out his website?

Heads and Tails

T. Landseer, The Dog Bill Committee, 1844, Print on Paper, Private Collection.

A little excerpt I thought I’d share from Punch-

Heads and Tails

The uncertainty manifested by the Head of Departments as to the execution of the order enjoining the muzzling of all dogs in the Metropolis on the 31st inst., has naturally excited a great deal of commotion in canine circles, and a representative meeting was accordingly held yesterday afternoon in a field adjoining the Dog’s Home, at Battersea, to deal with the subject.

A St.-Bernard, who took a first prize at the last Dog Show, having been unanimously voted to the Chair, was greeted with a prolonged wagging of tails and said:—He felt he need hardly enter upon the circumstances which had occasioned the present meeting. There had been a good deal of talk, one way and the other, about their species of late, and probably owing to the Mansion House move in favour of the Pasteur System, and an isolated case or two of Hydrophobia—(growls)—the usual scare had got up, and as a consequence, the Authorities had decreed that they were all to be muzzled for six months. Personally, he was indifferent to the manner, and if his owners chose to strap up his face in a leathern or wire cage whenever he took his quiet and sober walks abroad, he could only suppose that in subjecting him to the humiliation, they could not help themselves. Still, though sedate himself, he could well enter into the feelings of his more frisky and lively brethren who felt the restraint keenly, and he thought, as there seemed to be no one capable of putting the order in force, that an opportunity was certainly presented of asking the HOME SECRETARY whether, under the circumstances, it wouldn’t be wiser, to reconsider the matter altogether, and revoke the order while there was yet time to do it.

[Barks of approval, and prolonged wagging of tails.

A Drawing-room Pug, who spoke with some difficulty, owing to chronic indigestion, said that of course if the order were in force it couldn’t possibly apply to him, as he took only exercise in a carriage round the Park, perched up on a feather cushion, with a piece of blue ribbon round his neck. As to the common class of dogs who went about on foot, he really didn’t see why they should object to being muzzled. The order didn’t touch him, and he didn’t care.


A Bloodhound said, that to hear a mere show dog, who was out of it himself, express his opinion in that cool fashion, made his blood boil. The very thought of a muzzle almost sent him off his head. How could he, he should like to know, follow up a trail and catch a murderer by the throat, if he couldn’t use his teeth? (Barks of approval.) All he could say was, that whether the order was passed or not, he wouldn’t advice any policeman who values his calves to come meddling with him.

[Much wagging of tails.

A Punch and Judy Dog, who was warmly greeted, said he should like to know whether the Authorities meant to clap a muzzle on him, and expected him to go through his performance (pert of which, as they probably knew, consisted in catching hold of Punch’s nose) under impossible conditions? If so, it would be nothing more or less than putting a complete gag on him, and he might as well retire from the business altogether. He felt strongly on the subject, for he spoke not only for himself, but on behalf of his artistic friends who preformed at Music Halls and elsewhere, and who certainly could not be expected to climb up chairs, wear cocked hats, and jump through paper moons with their heads banged up in wire or leather in accordance with a degrading police regulation. (Growls.) All he could say was, the if Mr. Matthews ignored their petition, he might as well consign them to the Lethal Chamber at once. But her trusted matters would not come to pass as that.

[Loud barks of approval.

A Blind Man’s Dog wanted to know how he was to get through his business, and be expected to collect pence holding a tin-pot in his mouth, if he had a muzzle on? The thing was preposterous.

A Scotch Terrier wished to ask the Chairman if it was true that a Member of Parliament had absolutely proposed the muzzling of cats.

[Wagging of tails indicative of much merriment.

A Dachshund replied that he was glad to say it was. He said he was “glad to say” it was, because such a proposition amounted to a reductio ad absurdum of the whole question. If these manifestly inferior domestic animals were to come in for the muzzle, they would be wanting to apply it next to the rats and mice. This made thoughtful people, who see they don’t know where to stop its use, naturally ask what made them begin it. For his own part he had never come across anybody who had been bitten by a dog.

A Westmoreland Collie owned that, when he first came up to London he certainly did catch hold of a postman or two by the leg, but he added it was done out of pure fun, and that he hadn’t a touch of rabies about him. He would propose that a deputation be appointed by the Meeting to wait in the HOME SECRETARY, and ask him, seeing that a hitch had occurred in carrying it into execution, to reconsider his order.

[Barks of approval.

The Chairman the put the Motion to the Meeting, and it was carried unanimously, upon which, amidst a prolonged wagging of tails in manifestation of satisfaction, and a general chorus of barking in approval, the proceedings came to an end.

Punch, or the London Charivari, August 3rd, 1889, p. 53.