'A Dog's Purpose' Controversy: What Does It Mean When Movies Claim 'No Animals Were Harmed' During Filming?

American Humane Association guidelines protect animals on set, but the incident from A Dog's Purpose has many questioning their effectiveness

The recent release of a video from the set of A Dog’s Purpose, which shows a trainer appearing to force a German Shepard into turbulent waters, has many questioning what the rules for animal safety are on film sets.

The film’s production team, Amblin Entertainment, has defended its treatment of animal actors, saying in a statement that they “followed rigorous protocols to foster an ethical and safe environment for the animals.” The statement adds that Hercules, the dog in the video, had several days to rehearse the stunt, and when he became apprehensive on the day of shooting, the “production team did not proceed with filming.” The statement also noted that “Hercules is happy and healthy.”

While A Dog’s Purpose has yet to be released, the controversy sparked by the video has led moviegoers to question what it means when movies claim “no animals were harmed” during production.

It turns out that certification is granted by The American Humane Association Film and Television Unit, which is responsible for providing protection for film animals on set. For a movie, TV show or commercial to receive the AHA’s certification that “no animals were harmed” during filming, an AHA Certified Animal Safety Representative, who has gone through extensive training, needs to be on site to oversee all animal activity. All Screen Actors Guild productions are required to have one of these representatives on site if an animal is involved in the shoot. This representative is allowed access to every scene where animals appear and has the right to intervene at any point on a film animal’s behalf.

As a SAG film, A Dog’s Purpose had a safety representative on set to oversee all of the scenes with dog actors, to ensure the canines were safe. In response to the recent footage leaked from the set featuring Hercules the German Shepherd, the AHA has placed the representative responsible for overseeing the film on administrative leave and is bringing in a third party to investigate the events shown in the video.

“American Humane has reviewed the video and we are disturbed and concerned by the footage,” the AHA told PEOPLE in a statement. “When the dog showed signs of resistance to jumping in the water, the scene should have been stopped.”

The AHA’s Film and Television Unit started in 1940, in response to a stunt in the 1939 film Jesse James, which sent a stuntman and a horse over a 70-foot cliff into a raging river. The stuntman survived the jump with no injuries; the horse broke its back and died. Since 1940, the AHA has been given the authority to monitor all movie productions with animal actors and has, over time, evolved to oversee all filmed media. The AHA has strict guidelines, which have also evolved with animal welfare legislation, that filmed media must meet or exceed to receive the AHA disclaimer “No Animals Were Harmed” in the credits, which is issued after a final screening and cross-check of the piece.

To receive this certification, film media — including animal actors — must pass all of the standards listed in the AHA’s Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media, which is an extensive list of over 500 guidelines that AHA representatives are tasked to enforce while working on filmed media. The guidelines cover the piece from pre-production to release and promotion, and include restrictions for makeup, transportation, shelter, weather, stunts, training and more, all in an effort to protect animal actors from both physical and emotional harm.

However, Lora Dunn, a senior staff attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, tells PEOPLE that while the AHA guidelines represent humane standards of care, overall its power is “mostly hollow” and limited in how it can protect animals. This is because there are no federal laws in place to protect animal actors. Instead, the legal protection of animals in film is controlled by the animal cruelty laws of the state where the filming takes place.

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