This week BBC2 showed a two-part documentary called Six Puppies and Us. They followed the lives of new puppy owners through their first year together. It sounded a pretty innocuous formula, but from the opening credits it lit up the doggie world’s social media – it was much more controversial than a cat winning Crufts.
Dog trainers were pacing up and down and barking at the TV screen. (My dogs wouldn’t shut up either – everybody and their dog seemed to have an opinion on this show.) What did the experts find so shocking?
Most of the families appeared very badly prepared and were making every imaginable mistake without anyone stopping them. This was the doggie version of car-crash television.
Wreck-it Ralph kept pooing with gay abandon on the Laura Ashley mat believing that was the toilet…another owner had inadvertently taught her dog Byron that the command ‘no’ means ‘please bite me’. Another used a very weird off-book strangulation method.
A chicken was almost dispatched, a Cavalier relentlessly bullied. I could go on….these people were living a nightmare after signing on for a dream of owning a pup.
Actor Neil Morrisey delivered a voice-over that calmly gave you the developmental deadlines that the dogs were obviously missing as we awaited a much hoped for intervention for the pups that for most never came. The owners were left to struggle on compounding the errors with every update.
It was really just yet another reality TV show – but unusually it was about intelligent sentient beings and not just strange orange people. I feel the TV company knew what they were doing. To make a ratings successful show they needed to find very cute dogs with people who would be very likely to make mistakes.
The bosses at the Apprentice quickly worked out that it got more viewers if they filled the shows with colourful feckless folk who repeatedly mess up. Boring normal people getting it right after doing all their homework is obviously a TV turn off.
This well worn format for all reality TV doesn’t normally have a consequence – only a complete idiot would try to copy any of the business format ideas or even the vajazzles at home.
But seeing our friend the dog at the centre of one of these shows… it was actually pretty shocking.
One dog’s life was described as ‘hanging in the balance’ as things had been allowed to get so far out of hand. No one has ever died on the Apprentice from getting a task wrong… if one of these pups had ended up dead would they have transmitted it… is all fair in the war for ratings? Or what if someone does try and fail with one of the dubious quick fixes depicted… gulp.
The program makers obviously had a watching brief to spy on the pet owners and edit together all their worst bits. They wanted to find the dog-owning equivalent of Joey Essex. (Oh no, I may have just inspired a commissioning editor to make “Joey does dog training”. Shoot me.)
People who had little or no clue making terrible mistakes was indeed unmissable TV.
Apart from a few facts in the voice over – there was no serious science overview or information about how to avoid these horrors – no pretense of a bigger point being made about the numbers of dogs put to sleep each year because of very poor upbringing and training. We can make that point now, I guess.
If this nightmare is really is a reflection of what goes on in normal people’s homes when they get a pup – of how little effort pet folk put in to picking a pup to suit their lifestyle, learning how to train them – well it’s a wonder there aren’t many more than 110,000 unwanted dogs kicked out each year.
Could they not just have included one person who got a few things right as a bit of a contrast? Maybe they’d read a book, perhaps? Watched a DVD on dog training? Perhaps they could have had a really strong back story to compensate for being so annoyingly sensible.
Or maybe all the people featured did get most things right – but that footage ended up on the cutting room floor? It’s all about the edit.
This is why TV shows made about dogs produced by massive companies are always going to be an ethical nightmare. Their responsibility is to the uncompromising god of ratings.
Dogs are just today’s fresh meat.
This show may have had a hidden welfare benefit deep at its core even though I am certain it was not the maker’s primary or even secondary aim. If nothing else, it will hopefully have put off lots of ill-prepared people from casually adding a pup into their lives – seemingly randomly – and enduring a similar period of calamity. But, as the dogs were still universally gorgeous despite everything, I suspect many may still struggle to resist.
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