I don’t love dogs, but my lack of canine affection is not the reason I dislike Love at First Bark, a movie that doubles as a PSA for shelter dog adoptions and the Humane Society. Instead, it’s because Julia (Jana Kramer), the film’s main character, is infuriating, someone who not only knows less about dogs than I do but who also completely misjudges her new dog trainer and love interest, Owen (Kevin McGarry). The second point is less her fault and more the result of bad writing, causing Julia to act rashly and jump to conclusions about Owen’s ex-girlfriend. Rushed endings are par for course at Hallmark though and something we’re just going to have to accept.
Julia’s theories about dog training, however, are more maddening. She adopts King, a pretty big dog if we’re using technical terms, but has zero ideas about how to take care of him. Somehow she convinces the shelter staff to let her adopt on the basis of her having read a few books when she was a kid. She soon realizes that big ol’ King needs some instruction and enlists the help of Owen, a guy who trains rescue and therapy dogs for a living. She insists over Owen’s protestations that her easy-going, let-the-dog-take-the-lead approach is better, and I’ve never wished for a dog owner to fail so miserably.
Julia has a slightly better handle on her interior design business, but just barely. She and her friend, Sherry (Anna Van Hooft), are just starting up and finding it hard to attract clients, but they’re hoping first-time parents and Very Rich Couple Cassie (Sarah Edmondson) and Jonathan Guggenheim will choose their design for their new nursery. If not, Julia’s going to have a lot more time to bond with King.
Even if you really love dogs, you can do better than waste an hour and a half on this movie. After all, Animal Planet and YouTube can give you all the dogs without any of the humans. The scenes that actually feature dogs are often cringeworthy ways of introducing romantic tension instead. One scene in particular played out more like human training than dog training. During a trip to the pet shop, Owen advises Julia to “lead with confidence” and to “sound like you’re in control” so that “he’ll choose you every time.” A little presumptuous, if you ask me, but I’m sure it works with dogs.
Perhaps better actors may have helped, but even they can only take the story so far. Kramer and McGarry are competent, but you could exchange them with another pair of actors midway through the film, and no one would be the wiser. The two don’t bring anything interesting to their parts, and when it comes to Hallmark, that’s enough to break a movie.
Dir: Mike Rohl
Writer: Erik Patterson, Jessica Scott, Nicole Baxter
Cast: Jana Kramer, Kevin McGarry, Anna Van Hooft, Natasha Burnett, Reese Alexander, Sarah Edmondson
Time: 83 min
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel