From my ‘Crossing the headlines’ column in Dog World (9th October 2013) where I review recent TV documentaries on dogs.


Having seen the success ITV has enjoyed with its plethora of dog related shows it seems the BBC has decided that it too wants a piece of the action and so it brought us ‘The Wonder of Dogs’. The programme promised to investigate why this “single species comes in such an array of shapes and sizes” and the team also aimed to find out “how the extraordinary genetics of modern dogs underlies the extreme differences we see between the breeds”.

Hearing that promise and those lofty aims combined with the fact the show was being produced by the BBC immediately set alarm bells ringing and it was a feeling obviously shared by many others as one wag posted on Facebook, “has everyone got Ofcom’s address to hand!”

But we needn’t have worried as the ‘investigative’ and ‘science bits’ were really only there to plug the gaps in the filming of cute dogs shot in the Beeb’s current favourite style – slow motion.

As ‘Auntie’ began her campaign to woo back its alienated, dog-loving viewers, the team of expert presenters (a strange cobbling together of The One Show’s social historian & celebrity vet and an ex-Springwatch presenter) set up camp in the Oxfordshire village of Brightwell.

The ever-upbeat and, when it comes to anything animal-related, omnipresent Kate Humble soon began her trademark over-enthusiastic bounding around, ricocheting around the village green with her curly golden locks bouncing in the summer sunshine looking for all the world like an overgrown Labradoodle on an agility course!

And so our lessons in Cynology began; we learned that all dogs (both large and small) have basically the same bone structure, that Chihuahuas come from Mexico and that Poodle’s were good in water. These pearls of wisdom were added to the mindblowing revelation that there is now “no doubt that all our breeds are descended from the Grey wolf” – all facts that the majority of dog owners already know and have heard before.

It was at this point that I had to check the TV guide…was this actually a  repeat? I was convinced I’d seen it before…but no…this was indeed a ‘brand new’ offering from the BBC.

Then we learned that…when a dog gets wet…it shakes itself dry!

I know! Who would have thought it, huh? But, for those disbelievers out there – just for good measure – we were treated to the sight of dogs being doused with buckets of water and then filmed in the series’ much-loved style of slow motion.

And whilst watching this riveting footage I was suddenly struck by that same feeling of déjà vu that had plagued me since the show had begun. I was quite convinced that I’d seen it all before and I had – or at least something remarkably similar. Were we not treated to the sight of a Basset Hound shaking off water in slow motion in Martin Clunes’ ‘The Secret Life of Dogs’ broadcast back in January?

Did that show not delve into how the dog perceived the world around it, how they curved their tongues to drink (also shown in glorious slow motion) and why the dog barked? Is this really what we pay our TV licence for – to see shows ‘mirror’ other shows’ ideas and content? Once again the BBC has given us yet another mentally unchallenging documentary as it continues in its unrelenting spiral of ‘dumbing down’. It was in stark contrast to a programme on the dog by Horizon broadcast a couple of years ago which covered all this ground in far more and they managed their fascinating investigation into the ancestral relationship between man and dog with the construction of a ‘genetic timeline’ thrown in for good measure all in 60 minutes!

But I suppose this new ‘touchy feely’ approach is to be expected after the outrage expressed over Horizon’s coverage of the work of Russian researcher, Lyudmilla Trut, whose controversial work with Silver Foxes (a domesticated colour morph of the Red Fox) showed that, through domestication, the new foxes became tamer and more ‘dog-like’. By selecting for tameness, the team of Russian scientists witnessed staggering changes in physiology and morphology such as spotted or mottled coat patterns (some showed exactly the same colour patterns as a well marked Border Collie) and the emergence of ‘dog-like’ physical traits such as dropped ears, raised tails and coming into heat every six months instead of annually.

Back to ‘The Wonder of Dogs’ where we were next treated to various ‘tests’. One was a visualisation test to demonstrate the visual field of dogs and the differences between the breeds’ range of sight. Vet Steve Leonard stood in a chalked out circle and a researcher waving a bright yellow ball walked behind him and asked him to let him know when he could see the ball being waved. As the man crunched his way behind Steve unfortunately blurted out, “I can’t see you but I can hear you”. Doh!

Immediately revealing the weakness of the test, maybe we were supposed to forget that when dogs hear a sound they can move their ears towards it to maximise reception and that includes sound coming from behind! This test was as flawed as the test to ‘monitor intelligence’ which basically involved throwing a blanket over a dog and seeing how long it took to struggle free. A Pug owner affirmed that her dog was “remarkably intelligent” (as all the Pugs I’ve ever encountered have indeed been) but when a blanket was thrown over the poor little dog it just (quite understandably) froze and was quickly awarded the dunce’s hat. The larger Collie just shrugged off the cover and immediately went to the top of the class!

Thankfully the show did not go on a full out attack of the pedigree dog world; indeed we had several vignettes of a few breeds’ histories (for me the highlight of the whole programme) but, to justify the BBC’s stance over withdrawing its Crufts coverage, there had to be some dig at “those inbred pedigrees” and the poor, old Bulldog was offered up as the sacrificial lamb. In scorching heat, two Bulldogs were briefly shown side by side. We didn’t really get to see what would have been labelled the ‘typical’ Bulldog; all we heard was the loud rasping sound of it breathing but the camera couldn’t get enough of the new and improved ‘Bulldog’ (which had been achieved by crosses with Staffordshire Bull Terriers) with its longer legs and muzzle.  The owner of the ‘new and improved Bulldog’ was interviewed at length whilst we never even got to see the face or hear from the ‘other’ bulldog owner.

It would have been so refreshing to hear some debate between the two or to hear from the ‘voice of all dogs’ – our KC – to explain the improvements the show Bulldog breeders are striving for (and achieving) but, no – BBC bias seemed to be in full effect. That was until a ray of light shone out in a truly breathtaking moment; when discussing the Border Collie (the most intelligent of breeds) it was stated (actually on the BBC) that every Border Collie can trace its heritage back to just one amazing dog and, despite this intense linebreeding, Old Hemp’s descendants aren’t dribbling, disease-riddled wrecks; in fact, the talents of this amazingly intelligent breed have been recognised and exported all around the world.

And then in one of the ‘breed vignettes’ on the Golden retriever (one of the world’s most popular breeds) once again that word, ‘linebreeding’ was mentioned when describing Lord Tweedmouth’s new creation. I was waiting to hear a mention of that extraordinary bitch, Golden Camrose Tess who is in the background of most of today’s Golden’s but maybe that was hoping for too much!

So, there you have it; even the BBC are mentioning that forbidden word – ‘linebreeding’. Maybe there is hope after all!


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