Both interpretations of this film’s title are accurate: It’s a canine-centric documentary (with a few cats as background players), and it’s a portrait of the pooches’ vet. Director Cindy Meehl has crafted an admiring portrait, to be sure, but one that poses penetrating questions about what passes for health care today in the United States, for people and their pets alike.
At the center of the film is a veterinary practice in upstate New York that’s devoted to lost-cause pets, those with dire diagnoses or unexplained symptoms. Instead of invasive surgery and pharmaceutical regimens, Marty Goldstein and his three female colleagues use integrative medicine, which combines such alternative therapies as homeopathy and acupuncture with Western procedures. That this approach, in 2019, is still considered by many to be outré or just plain wacko is incredible. So too is the fact that immune-system support and nutrition aren’t curriculum topics for most veterinary and medical students. Goldstein, who’s been swimming against the medical tide for 45 years, may be quietly exasperated, but the film makes its points by demonstrating the effects of his care.
Good for what ails you.
Meehl zeros in on a handful of the hopeless cases — or so they’ve been deemed by conventional practitioners. But first, with deft shooting by Nelson Hume and dynamic cutting by Steve Heffner, she sets the scene, moving through the bustling waiting room and the ORs, Hume’s opening-sequence camerawork recalling his extraordinary fly-on-the-wall cinematography in the ER-set 2013 doc Code Black.
As with the U.S. medical system in general, quality of veterinary care can vary across the economic spectrum, and there’s no question that many of Goldstein’s patients — some of whom travel long distances to his Westchester County offices — are financially comfortable. With the exception of one client’s phone call to her husband regarding a $1,200 fee (for a three-day program of intravenous vitamin C), costs aren’t discussed onscreen.
The pace of The Dog Doc grows more measured as it proceeds, and its exchanges deepen. In intake sessions and examination rooms, the topics are intense: cancer of the jaw, kidney failure, a troubling listlessness. Amid talk of suffering and options and when to let go, much of the drama is unspoken: It’s in the gazes of the canine patients and the faces of their anxious humans, crumbling with bad news and brightening as long-sought answers are offered and plans of action unfold.
There are no claims of cures or one-size-fits-all answers, and there are setbacks as well as breakthroughs for the pets whose progress Meehl followed over two and a half years. With clear logic, Goldstein dissects the absurdity and, in some cases, the danger of many conventional veterinary practices. Converts include not just clients — who discover the benefits of a more holistic way of life for themselves after witnessing the positive effects on their ailing fur-kids — but also fellow vets, who come to understand that they’ve been suppressing disease symptoms rather than going to the heart of the problem.
In interviews for the film, Goldstein relates the genesis of his commitment to integrative medicine: his own health struggles in his 20s, when doctors’ only “answers” were steroids and antibiotics. But though there are glimpses of Goldstein’s home life with his wife, Meg, a vet tech who works with him, their three teen daughters and a small menagerie, the intimacy in this film is different from that of Meehl’s 2011 horse-whisperer portrait, Buck. This isn’t a deep dive into what makes one man tick, but a multilayered exploration of the love and devotion that animals inspire, whether the critter is your companion or your patient. Contained within the stories in Dog Doc is a visionary approach to caring for animals and ourselves, a way of more truly sharing the planet rather than trying to control it.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Cedar Creek in association with Maylo Films
Director: Cindy Meehl
Producers: Alice Henty, Cindy Meehl
Director of photography: Nelson Hume
Editor: Steve Heffner
Music: T. Griffin