These might seem like simple dog stories, but they'll break your heart, warns Calum Henderson.

Like many dog owners, Ayham has about five thousand photos and videos of his husky Zeus on his phone. Most of them weren't taken by him, though. Ayham is a refugee, now living in Berlin, and Zeus is stuck in Syria, where he's being looked after by Ayham's friend Amer.

The bond between this man and his dog, and the lengths to which so many others are prepared to go to reunite them, is the subject of an extraordinary episode of the new Netflix documentary series Dogs.

The first thing you need to know about Dogs is that, unless you have a rubbish bin where your heart should be, it will make you cry. You don't really have a say in the matter. This is a series that can feel almost algorithmically designed to turn everybody it comes into contact with into a sobbing wreck, over and over again.


Each of the six 45-minute episodes is a self-contained dog story from around the world – Syria, Italy, Costa Rica, the US – exploring the profound affect dogs can have on the lives of the humans around them. You watch for the dogs, of course, but what makes the series so beautiful is its sense of humanity.

Take this bit from the first episode, about Corrine, a young girl with severe epilepsy, getting a service dog. The family has been looking forward to meeting this dog for a whole year, and when they finally do, Corrine and her sister fall in love instantly. They have to do a bunch of training sessions before they take him home, and one of the first things the trainer talks about is the importance of the bond between the dog and Corrine. "If you have a sibling at home, they can never feed the dog, ever, ever, ever." The look on the sister's face at this moment is absolutely crushing. Pure devastation.

A scene from the heartbreaking new Netflix series, Dogs.
A scene from the heartbreaking new Netflix series, Dogs.

In the Zeus episode, the stakes are a bit higher. Getting a dog from Damascus to Berlin isn't exactly straightforward, and the operation requires a huge amount of effort and risk from Ayham's friends. Naji, the one tasked with escorting Zeus across the border to Lebanon, recalls his dad's reaction to the news: "Wouldn't it be better," his old man had joked, "if you were a dog?" Bloody hell.

Your heart breaks in every direction. At first for Ayham, who seems to spend half his life forlornly scrolling through a camera roll full of photos and videos Amer has sent him; but then you think about Amer himself, who must love the dog just as much, and what it would be like for him to say goodbye. Another completely devastating shot: Naji, at the airport in Beirut, handing over Zeus, watching him walk away.

You come for simple, heartwarming dog stories. You don't expect something that brings the pain of the Syrian refugee experience into sharper focus than anything you've seen before. The magic of Dogs, the reason everybody should watch it, is that it manages to do both.

• Season one of Dogs is available for streaming on Netflix now.