On HBO tonight: 'One Nation Under Dog' shows dark side of our animal obsession

I've seen the insides of puppy mills. I've seen the heartbreaking video of sick and maimed dogs taken at the scene of Pennsylvania puppy mill bust that brought tears to my eyes.

I don't know if I can stomach this one.

A new HBO documentary "One National Under Dog: Stories of Fear, Loss and Betrayal" premiers tonight (at 9 p.m.) "zeroes in unflinchingly on the most troubling aspects of American pet ownership," as Washington Post reporter Hank Steuver wrote.

Inspired by the 2009 book by the same name written by newly-named New Republic (and former Inquirer staff writer), Michael Schaffer, the documentary focuses its wide lens on the complex relationship we have with animals.

There is the couple that spends $155,000 to clone its Labrador retriever and then there are the two million healthy but unwanted puppies and dogs destroyed by shelters each year - many still tossed into gas chambers where the film records them screaming as they die.

Right, I know. Impossible to watch. But, scenes like these perhaps will propel the passage of more laws banning the use of lethal gas in shelters such as the one currently awaiting a vote in the Pennsylvania state House.

The documentary opens with the infamous case in South Jersey involving the Haddonfield doctor whose Rhodesian Ridgebacks terrorized the neighborhood and goes on to look how animal owners cope with loss (including spending $155,000 to clone their dog) and finally, a look at the "betrayal" of animals sent to shelters to die.

The only hopeful note the film strikes, says Steuver, is the segment on a dog trainer who regularly ventures to high-kill shelters, finds the least adoptable dogs and rehabilitates them. As Steuver writes:

One man from New England, John Gagnon, travels to a Tennessee shelter, where, faced with an array of needy cases in the barking cacophony, he makes the difficult choice to save two dogs on death row. One is an angry biter; the other is a placid and terribly sad pit bull spotted with mange.

After some purposeful foster care, the biter winds up living a grand life as the new pet at a beach house; the other finds herself riding in a Fourth of July parade float with her new masters. The gratitude these dogs feel is plain to see. The viewer is grateful to Gagnon, too, for saving "One Nation Under Dog" from utter despair.