The day director Ron Davis visited Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta to adopt a dog from their rescue in 2016, he left with two surprises — a Chihuahua he later named “Little Guy” and the idea to make a documentary about the couple who was behind the rescue of more than 11,000 dogs since Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures.
"Life in the Doghouse" is a new documentary about two men who found their calling after rescuing (and placing) 600 homeless dogs in the afterm…
“They talked me into a Chihuahua which was the last dog I ever wanted in my life,” Davis says with a laugh. “They assured me, because they knew the dogs, that based on what I was looking for personality-wise, temperament with other dogs, that this was the dog. And it turned out to be the best.”
Next, it was Davis’ turn to surprise Robertshaw and Danta. Before he left, he said, "I'm going to make a movie about you. I don't even know anything about you. But I trust my instincts, and there's plenty behind all this. They said, ‘We're boring. Who's going to watch us feed dogs?’"
As it turns out, a good number of people. The film, “Life in the Doghouse,” premiered in September 2018 with its debut on Netflix last month significantly expanding its reach.
In the first week following its Netflix release, Danta says Danny & Ron’s Rescue, which is based in Camden, South Carolina, increased its Facebook following by more than 15,000 users. The couple says they receive around 300 to 400 emails a day from people around the world responding to the documentary and expressing interest in animal rescue.
The film even caught the attention of comedian and animal enthusiast Ellen DeGeneres, who tweeted out her support of the rescue to her more than 77 million followers June 20.
I just watched “Life in the Doghouse” on @Netflix. What this couple has done for rescue dogs is incredible. Go watch it, and then if you’re like me, you're gonna wanna support them. #HappyPride @DannyRonsRescue https://t.co/0FqjAKjiM9— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) June 20, 2019
“We were on the ‘Today’ show and we were on CBS Evening News and Hallmark Channel,” Danta says. “That all helped boost the awareness of our rescue, but Netflix has really sent it over the top. We get a lot [who] want to adopt, and it has helped our donations tremendously, too.”
When Davis first told the duo he wanted to make a documentary about them, Danta says he and Robertshaw “just smiled and laughed and shut the door and thought nothing of it.” But Davis was persistent, calling them and taking them to dinner multiple times until they agreed to do it. The selling point? Davis agreed to donate his profits from the film to animal shelters across the country.
Much of the documentary takes place at Robertshaw and Danta’s dog rescue, which operates out of their home, a place they call “the doghouse” — a fitting moniker considering they currently have about 80 dogs living there.
While living with so many canines at once may sound overwhelming (even to dog people), Robertshaw and Danta say that having the dogs in a home environment rather than in a separate facility helps them rehabilitate those who may be scared and timid as a result of abuse or abandonment.
“If you leave them in a kennel and allow them to stay in the back of the kennel, they will stay that way forever,” Danta says, “so we found by a home environment, letting them live as our personal pet, is what rehabs them so much faster.
“Like our dog trainer said, never let them go under a table or under a chair and hide because once they get that in their brain, they're going to think that's their safety zone. We work real big on them having to move through the house and get exposure and let us touch them and stuff.”
“We don't try to cherry-pick and get the cutest puppy that's already housebroken and all that — we take them and then we find out what they are,” Robertshaw says. “In that process, we found that so many of them have been so damaged that they really do take a lot of time.”
With so many dogs in the house, organization and cleanliness is key to the dogs’ well-being, as well as Robertshaw and Danta’s. Both they and their staff ensure the house is vacuumed and mopped several times a day and that every piece of dog bedding and crates is washed daily. The cleaning process is so thorough that it’s often the first thing guests comment on upon walking into the rescue.
Robertshaw says that when the rescue’s board members came to visit their home, one member’s driver walked in and immediately said, “I don't even smell a dog. I'm trying to smell a dog. I've never been in any dog place that smells like this.”
“The dogs require to be clean, too,” Robertshaw says. “It's necessary for everybody's good health and happiness. If it was turning into a pigsty, we wouldn't be happy and nothing would really work right. The whole thing would be in vain if it was a nasty mess.”
Robertshaw and Danta, both horse trainers by trade, developed a love of animals at a young age, empathizing with turtles crossing the road and worms used as bait. For years before they started their rescue, they would visit animal shelters and take one or two of the “sad ones” home, caring for the dogs until they found them new homes.
But seeing news reports from the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina motivated the two to begin rescue efforts on a larger scale. They began by sending horse trailers of supplies to hurricane victims, then eventually started loading them back up with dogs who had been left behind during the storm — rescuing a total of 600 dogs.
“As you kept watching the news and saw the dogs on rooftops swimming in the water and all that stuff, that's when we said, ‘Oh, my God, we've got to do something for those poor dogs,'” Danta says. “That was just such a national disaster that we felt they really needed — instead of just donating money — they really needed hands on (deck) to get dogs out of there to safe areas.”
Robertshaw and Danta organized similar efforts in 2016 after the Baton Rouge floods and in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey flooded major parts of Houston. During disaster relief, they start by rescuing dogs from shelters and dogs that are unclaimed to make room for shelters to temporarily house lost pets, so their owners can find them easily.
Davis says one of the aspects of Robertshaw and Danta’s story that fascinated him the most is their community involvement outside of the rescue — or as he jokingly puts it, that they weren’t just “dog nut jobs.”
The two are part of Wellington Equestrian Club in Florida, which does a host of volunteer work, including a benefit for the Caridad Center for which Robertshaw dresses as Santa to hand out Christmas presents to migrant families while Danta helps run the kitchen.
“They're just two of the most charitable people,” Davis said. “They still had time for people and other animals and cats. It didn't matter. They just seem to always do the right thing when it comes to other people and animals.”
Filming the documentary meant long days, often for five or six days straight, starting at sunrise and not wrapping until around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. — and sometimes those days were even longer for the crew.
According to Danta, cinematographer Clay Westervelt arrived at their house before sunrise five mornings in a row to get footage of a purple iris with dew beading on it. Westervelt also decided to film the dogs at their eye level, laying PVC pipes through the house with motorized cameras to capture the dogs behaving naturally without spooking them.
But Robertshaw and Danta say the hardest part of the documentary wasn’t the long workdays; it was opening up about their personal lives on camera, especially when that involved talking about complicated relationships with family members.
“Ron was very brilliant about this because we fought him about it. We wanted it just about the dogs,” Danta says. “He said, ‘I want this to be a big part of your life and (to) share your life so that people know why you would do this, why you wanted to do this, where you came from.’
“It was hard because I was disowned for seven years and Danny's father didn't approve of what he did,” he adds. “It's hard to go on the big screen and share that with everybody throughout the world.”
But after hundreds of hours of filming, Davis was able to get them to open up in a way they never had before, Robertshaw says.
“Gradually, I told Ron he should have been a psychiatrist and not a director,” Robertshaw says, “because, I mean, somehow or another he just pulled stuff out of us we'd never even said to each other.”
Danta says that rescue is taxing work. It often involves seeing dogs in brutal conditions, like puppy mills, and having to take dogs to be put to sleep at the end of their lives.
“Emotionally, it's very, very hard on us, but we just really try to stay focused on looking at those faces that have no chance to get out [and getting] them out,” Danta says. “What really keeps us going is that we see that family come and that dog gets its forever home, and those kids have their arms wrapped around it or the mom and pop have their arms wrapped around it. … That's what gives us that extra boost to keep going forward.”
Although the film touches on serious topics such as euthanization and puppy mills, Davis said he wanted to ensure the tone was hopeful and inspiring — without being “preachy.”
“I wanted to be able to say. ‘Look at what just two guys have been able to do, the impact that they've had on these dogs. It doesn't take much to make a big difference,’” Davis says. “You don't have to be Danny and Ron and do a big dog rescue but maybe [you can] adopt your next one or … spay or neuter.
“I was just hoping that it would be a really nice story that would hopefully inspire people to make different choices when it came to dogs and dog rescue,” he says.
— “Life in the Doghouse” can be streamed on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Microsoft, or by demand at select theaters if enough tickets are reserved in advance.
PUPS & PINTS: MOVIE NIGHT WITH YOUR DOG
Gambit will host a free screening of “Life in the Doghouse” at Second Line Brewing (433 N. Bernadotte St.) in Mid-City Tuesday, July 9. A "doggie social hour" will begin at 6:30 p.m. and the movie will start at 7:30 p.m. There will be adoptable dogs on site.
Visit www.bestofneworleans.com/pupspints for more information.