Film Reviews

Review: ‘Pugly: A Pug’s Life’

Cute companion piece to ‘Catwalk’ spotlights members of a Toronto pug rescue network

Blanche Axton with her pug Josephine
Markham Street Films


Pugly: A Pug’s Life
(Canada, 44 min.)
Dir. Michael McNamara, Aaron Hancox

If cats have nine lives, how many chances do dogs have? After strutting with the feline friends of the catshow circuit in Catwalk: Tales from the Catshow Circuit, Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox are going to the dogs with Pugly. This cute companion piece to Catwalk shares the stories of a group of Torontonians eager to fight for the rights of pug dogs, those cute but butt-ugly toy pooches with the squishy faces and curly tails. The film focuses on the efforts of the pug rescue network Pugalug, led by Blanche Axton and her devoted crew of dog nurturers, who provide second chances and new homes for the neglected canines. As the team moves from the pampered (pampurrred?) divas of Catwalk to the rescue dogs of Pugly, McNamara and Hancox highlight another side of the special relationship that people have with their four-legged friends.

Pugly follows the cases of a few pugs going through the Pugalug network. Gunner is a cute little guy with chronic pain caused by a bad hip, while Titus requires a regimen of four pills per day and three daily catheterizations. Their medical woes are nothing compared to Tawnie, who racks up a veterinarian bill that exceeds $25,000 when kidney stones demand several major surgeries but just keep coming back. Tawnie’s bill alone is far more than this small non-profit organization can afford on its meagre budget, yet Pugly illustrates how Axton and her devoted volunteers provide puppy love for all.

The doc isn’t simply being cute, though. There’s something admirable about the Pugalug team’s decision to fight for these dogs when nobody else will. Tawnie alone provides an example of a situation that too many pet owners have faced—weighing the cost of saving a beloved companion—and landed on the side of euthanasia. These stories speak to the rights of animals to enjoy healthy and happy lives, and the pugs demonstrate how humans need to think and act responsibly when choosing to become pet owners.

Pugly pulls in other stories from the pug community to show why these toy dogs are so popular. Meet-ups at the monthly “Pug Grumble” in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park see owners and enthusiasts come together to share their love for these idiosyncratic dogs. These gatherings are breeding grounds for Instagram stars like Helmut the pug, who became a local celebrity when his owner cast him in a parody video of Drake’s Hotline Bling and it went viral. Other dogs, like fashion icon Igor Pugdog, who has shared the screen with Gordon Pinsent and been a staple of my Instagram feed for years, use their influencer status to benefit the cause of the paws. Igor’s devoted owner, an energetic biker chick named Tracey Silverthorn, applies her pooch’s photogenic charm to make pug calendars and fundraise for Pugalug. Grassroots style initiatives like Silverthorn’s calendars illustrate how social media can be a powerful tool to harness the fascination with cute little animals for good.

The doc also gives voice to both sides of the breeding debate, although this aspect of the film is a bit truncated and might have benefited from being explored in greater length. At a broadcast length of 44 minutes, Pugly’s wider scope isn’t always as successful as Catwalk was with its look at fewer characters. (But I acknowledge my bias as a cat person.) Nevertheless, the introduction of pug breeders like Jim and Mary Lou Dymond is productive as they share their desire to deliver the “perfect” pug. The quest for perfection demands the breeding of traits that delight owners, like the squishy face of a pug—the squishier, the better—and the curly tail, although the manipulation of these aspects of the dog can lead to serious health consequences. Gunner’s bad legs, for example, are the result of unethical breeding and Pugalug sees the consequences of bad practices firsthand.

These aspects help bring the discussion full circle as Axton opens the film by saying that pugs are part of a small dog hipster trend and have become coveted by people who want an accessory, but none of the work entailed in keeping it alive. These funny dogs are actually complicated little beasts and there’s an art to taking care of an animal with stumpy legs and a smushed face. However, one also sees why Axton and her peers devote themselves to the creatures. As Axton notes in an emotional interview, the smiling, carefree pugs are “the manifestation of joy on four legs.”

Pugly has its broadcast premiere on CBC at 9:00 PM on Friday, Jan. 11.