Exclusive: Brean Cunningham Discusses ‘Dogs on the Inside’ Documentary

Dogs-On-The-Inside

“Dogs on the Inside” director Brean Cunningham sheds light on the film’s heartfelt message for change.

There are documentaries that implore you to take action through controversial subjects and then there are those that tug at your own heartstrings. “Dogs on the Inside” is a unique documentary that does both. Bridging the gap between humans and animals, this documentary explores the connection and bond between dogs and humans that society seems to have forgotten. Dogs that were thrown away or left behind are given a second chance at love from some unlikely people.

“Dogs on the Inside” shows the softer side of people that have been labeled as criminals as they break down the emotional walls they’ve built up while in prison. It’s a documentary with a true cause and a possible solution to U.S. criminal rehabilitation and animals that have been left behind. We had the chance to discuss the cause with the film’s director Brean Cunningham and his passion for this subject definitely shines through.

Film Fad:

So the film is “Dogs on the Inside” and it was filmed in Massachusetts. Where did you find out about this program and could you explain a little bit about it?

Brean Cunningham:

Absolutely! I was talking with my co-director Doug Seirup about how we wanted to make a film about dogs and the magic and this endless connection that we experienced with them. So one day I was just surfing the web and looking around and I came upon the program that’s featured in the film called “Don’t Throw Us Away.” And I thought it was an excellent example to showcase that connection. The human-animal bond and the connection we share with dogs…in this unique location, a prison setting. So I spoke to Doug about it and he agreed with me so we set forth in contacting the founder of “Don’t Throw Us Away” who was very excited about the prospect of a documentary film showcasing her program but really chronicling what was going on there. And at the same time having the film be underscored by some very positive themes.

Film Fad:

Well also it seems like there’s sort of a metaphorical correlation between the prisoners and the dogs themselves. You have dogs that are maybe unwanted and prisoners seen in that same light but then you connect the two together and there’s just this emotional connection between them. It’s almost like they have an understanding between each other.

Brean Cunningham:

They do, they do. And it really was palpable at the prison when we were there. I’ve heard the phrase that “your dog is your mirror” and I think that was really true in the case of the inmates looking at these dogs and seeing someone or something that was tossed out by society, forgotten, and kind of neglected. And I think they feel that way at times or potentially all the time when they’re in prison. They do get visits from some family but I think a lot of the time people just move on with their lives that they’ve known from the outside. So when these dogs come in they see a lot of parallels between themselves and the dogs, and what’s amazing is that the dogs begin to improve and trust and love again. And I think the dogs overcoming adversity is something that’s inspiring to the inmates and motivating for them to say, “Okay, no matter how bad I’m feeling or no matter how much I feel like the odds are stacked against me, if the dog can do it then I can do it.”

Film Fad:

So this seems like it was filmed with a lot of heart, a lot of purpose. Out of all the moments throughout, what in particular got you the most? I know there had to be something out there that just really tugged at your heart strings.

Brean Cunningham:

Yeah. I think that Candido really was the one who resonated the most with me as far as inmates go and he broke down off camera. He was very open and honest, more so than anyone else we spoke to. So when he was discussing the feeling of being left behind as a child and how he related to things that he had gone through and when he heard about the dogs and how Sadie for example was left behind and left in a dumpster with her puppies, I think it really impacted him. And so for me I think that day when we were filming, that interview it really sunk in about that this was something real and we were getting unguarded and honest emotions out of people we had just met very recently. So that was a really poignant moment for myself.

Dogs-On-The-Inside-Candido

Candido showing his softer side…

Film Fad:

And throughout, you also kind of see that a lot of violence and things like that have just kind of diminished in the prison because of them being introduced to these animals. Have you heard of any other prisons being inspired by this?

Brean Cunningham:

We have. We’ve been looking around to see what else is out there. And we’ve made some partnerships with other organizations that have done the same thing and are perhaps even taking this mission even further and what I mean by that is that they’re really following through with the ex-inmates when they’re out and helping them be placed in jobs and those kinds of things. So, it really becomes this turnkey operation of seeing the inmate work with the dog, get job skills, be more compassionate, and then helping them to not come back to prison so that they’re thereby reducing recidivism. Which is for the state and the country, a great thing because it reduces the prison costs and all that.

Getting away from public policy for a second, you did ask about other programs and the ones that we have seen are New Leash on Life USA which is based out of Philadelphia. And they’re really an awesome organization. And there’s one that has actually stepped in to the prison where we filmed. It’s a new prison dog program with the same mission called “Project Good Dog.” So they’re doing exactly what we showcase in the film at the prison where we work. But the organization that we featured in the film, Don’t Throw Us Away, is actually transitioned into working more with at risk youth with animals. So, yeah, there’s a few others. We’re adding more and more to our website under our “Get Involved” page. So that if you want to donate or you want to adopt or however you want to help out if you’re moved by the film, you can go to our website and go to the “Get Involved” page to learn more.

Film Fad:

How did some of these prisoners cope with separation from the dogs later? I know it was kind of used for some as a in between point. Did you notice that maybe it was more of an emotional experience being separated from those animals that they had bonded with?

Brean Cunningham:

It was. We were kind of hoping for some tears on the last day just to really have that payoff. But what we heard back after the fact was that a lot of these guys really [prepared] themselves for that day. They put the wall up, they didn’t want to be shown being super, super emotional on camera. And I think in particular Rob, who was working with Sadie. One of his great quotes in the film was, “I just want her to know that the bad part of her life is over.” They probably had the strongest connection of any inmate/dog relationship we saw. And I think it hit him the most when she left but he did a great job of just keeping it down and not letting it come to the surface.

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“I just want her to realize the bad part of her life’s over now…”

Film Fad:

I have to say too…it just seems like there are a lot of documentaries out there that either focus on one subject where it’s either dogs or humans or something like that when it comes to t a cause but you’re touching on so many key issues here. Where it comes to both humanity and animals. What other kind of outreach have you seen from other people as far as donations and as far as just community service in general?

Brean Cunningham:

We get a lot of messages on Facebook. We’ve also gotten people asking about who they can talk to about starting their own type of program at a prison in their community. So, that’s actually one of the things we’re working on now from the educational side, how to get materials in the hands of people that want to do something like this and move it forward. Because there is a lot of things to know legally and I think there’s red tape and lots of clearances to get when you’re working with prisons because there’s stuff at stake. But it is possible and we’re trying to inform them of how to do that when they reach out and direct them to the right people. So what we’ve seen is a lot of interest in either rescuing dogs themselves or volunteering at shelters. Not surprisingly but even more wonderfully, we’ve seen interest in getting more of these prison dog programs throughout the country. As we feature in the film, there’s both the prison component of the dogs and the animals but there’s also this wonderful idea of these inmates in the prisons that are fostering the dogs so that alleviates the burden on overcrowded dog shelters. When they become overburdened, they have to euthanize dogs to create space. So what the prisons are doing are in a sense becoming a foster home for dogs that may otherwise be put down. So it’s really this wonderful solution. And the more prison programs we have, the more dogs you can save and pull from the shelters.

Film Fad:

How does a prison become prepared and equipped for such a situation to handle dogs? Is there a lot of transitioning or anything like that they have to go through just to make sure that they’ve created a suitable environment for both the inmates and the dogs?

Brean Cunningham:

There is. For this kind of program it’s predominantly…inmates are at a minimum security level which means they are getting very close to being released into a pre-release program to eventually re-enter society. So what they need is more of an open area for the dogs to just run and socialize. And it’s not as strict as say at maximum security facilities where those dogs are typically there for two or three years and they’re helping people with PTSD or disabilities or those kinds of things. So they really need to be trained for a long time. Here the emphasis is on getting the dog to trust people again and finding it a good home. I think what they generally need are very good sense of who they have at their prison that would qualify for handling dogs. Where we filmed there was a very thorough vetting process to make sure that they were getting people that were the right people and deserving of a second chance and deserving of this privilege to work with the dogs.

So yeah, I feel like as long as there’s space for dogs on the flip side to run some energy off and have some space to kind of acclimate to a new environment, that’s probably what they would need at a prison. Honestly from the prison itself, a dedication to the idea of rehabilitating inmates. I think this is a great way to do it.

Film Fad:

I know this is probably a tough question to answer but, what was your initial purpose with the documentary? Was it more with helping the dogs themselves or more of the focus with prisoners?

Brean Cunningham:

My interest definitely skews towards dogs. I think that they bring so much to our lives and they teach us so much. And I think that presenting them in unique circumstances like the one in our film was a big reason why we want to move forward with this. We didn’t want to do a collection of anecdotes about how wonderful dogs are. We wanted to find one particular thing and zero in on it. And along the way we made some great connections with the inmates. In particular again, Candido. I count him as a friend. We stay in touch and he’s been out for three years. He’s a great guy and he’s working hard to stay on the straight and narrow and do all the right things.

[“Dogs on the Inside”] expanded much more into the human side as well but initially the draw for myself and for Doug was the dogs.

Dogs-On-The-Inside-Dog-Cage

“[Dogs] bring so much to our lives and they teach us so much”

Brean Cunningham:

I would like to add one thing. During the production of the film, I approached another filmmaker. Her name is Cindy Meehl and she is actually the director of another film about the human/animal connection but through a different lens. It’s called “Buck” and it had a lot of critical acclaim in the doc circuit in 2011 and it won the Sundance Audience Award. So I approached her just saying, “Hey, this is what we’re doing and it has a lot of similarities between your phenomenal film and what we’re in the mix of making.” So she came on board as an executive producer once she saw a rough cut of our film. And I just wanted to share how much of an impact she had on the film and she’s been instrumental in getting it to where it is now and her fingerprints are kind of all over the film which is great. So just wanted to give her just kudos there.

And also the music in the film is really great and the guy who did that is Sam Gay. And Cindy is actually the reason that we connected with him. So just wanted to give props to a few other people.

Film Fad:

Well I’m going to reiterate this. This is an amazing concept for a documentary. I think it’s extremely heartfelt, it has a lot of purpose. What are you looking at next? What’s your next mission?

Brean Cunningham:

Right now I’m developing with another producer, Noah Lang who’s done a string of independent films. We’re working on a stunt documentary right now. So the story will be about the world of Hollywood stunts and the men and women who inhabit that world, what their life is like. From prepping and training to actual planning and executing stunts for big budget films and things like that. And most likely we’re going to work with a company called “5150 Action.” They just came off the big Star Trek movie and they’ve got a lot of great stunt films under their belt. So that looks like the next project for a documentary that I’ll jump into.

Film Fad:

Well Brean I want to thank you so much for your time. I’m really excited for what you have coming next.

Brean Cunningham:

Ryan, thank you very much for reaching out. It was great talking with you!

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Dogs on the Inside is currently available on demand and Netflix

If you’re a Netflix subscriber you can watch “Dogs on the Inside” now. Otherwise it is available On Demand.

How you can get involved!

Visit http://www.dogsontheinside.com/get-involved to see how you can help!

Ryan

Author: Ryan

Ryan has been fascinated with film and pop culture since childhood. Throughout college he "played it safe" taking the more lucrative route of being a computer programmer while squeezing in film related courses where he could...but even during his post college career, he could never escape his true passion. After following one of his favorite blogs for a long time, he approached the site's Editor about writing and they reluctantly gave him a shot. He later became their Senior Writer which led to a variety of other projects, radio show appearances, features, and high profile celebrity interviews. Despite his success with blogging, he still wanted more so in order to expand his creative addiction, he merged his IT skills and blogging know-how to create FilmFad.com which has continued to grow into a creative Mecca of pop-culture fun and integrity.[email protected]   Film Fad

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