From my ‘Crossing the headlines’ column in Dog World (22nd July 2015) about my Dachshund, Alfie, becoming the new face of the Vitality adverts.

We all know that appearances on TV and in films can have a profound effect on the popularity (and health) of our dog breeds. Over the years we’ve witnessed the peaks of popularity witnessed by many diverse breeds… and it’s a familiar story that rarely ends well.

One of the earliest breeds to experience the extraordinary power of TV was the German Shepherd. Rin-Tin-Tin was a male rescued from a World War 1 battlefield and catapulted to worldwide box office success by Hollywood through the 1920s and it was Rinty who was partly responsible for the breed’s phenomenal global appeal and success.

Then, of course, along came Lassie, and the Rough Collie’s appearance in the 1943 film Lassie Come Home immediately triggered a 40 per cent increase in the breed’s registrations. A similar spike in numbers produced was also felt after the release of the 1961 Disney film 101 Dalmatians, and again after its 1996 remake.

‘Dulux dog’

1973 saw the release of Digby, The Biggest Dog in the World, starring an Old English Sheepdog, and once again following its release, and combined with its appeal as the ‘Dulux dog’, we witnessed incredible registration figures for this breed. I actually witnessed this myself as a child back in the 1970s, my neighbours had two Old English Sheepdogs, Dino and Barnie, that they absolutely doted on.

However, their two up, two down centrally heated mid-terrace house in Edmonton, North London was certainly no proper place for this hairy, exuberant breed. I well remember them, such beautiful and very loving dogs, with clumps of hair missing (Dino had ‘ingrowing eyelashes’) and patches of wet eczema on them – the wrong type of dog in the wrong type of home – all because their owners had become enamoured with an on-screen image.

And, of course, it has carried on… another large dog that was popular when I was a lad was the Saint Bernard, a popularity probably fuelled by Schnorbitz, the canine partner of comedian, Bernie Winters. And, back in 1989, the Dogue de Bordeaux, back then a relatively unknown breed, was propelled into the limelight by its appearance with Tom Hanks in the film Turner and Hooch.

More recently we have seen an explosion in the numbers of ‘wolf-like breeds’ (Malamutes, Huskies and their crosses) caused by their appearances in films such as Twilight and the enormously popular (I must be one of the tiny minority that has never seen a single episode) Game of Thrones.

And it’s a repeat of the same old sorry story that plagued the Rough Collie, Dalmatian, Old English Sheepdog etc, when these dogs outgrow the cute and fluffy puppy stage and become boisterous and demanding adults, that crave attention, exercise and rigorous grooming the owners that bought them in such haste bitterly regret their decision and we suddenly see huge numbers given up. Dogs Trust has experienced a three-fold increase in the number of ‘Wolf breed’ dogs needing rehoming. The most serious outcome of popularity is (and always has been) wanton and indiscriminate breeding solely for financial gain.

Of course it isn’t only appearances in blockbuster movies that increase a breed’s popularity. As I mentioned earlier, the Old English Sheepdog became the face of a paint brand and actually got nicknamed the ‘Dulux dog’ due to an phenomenally successful TV advertising campaign and, back in the early ‘70s, the Afghan Hound also experienced an almost overwhelming surge of popularity (registrations soared from 537 in 1964 to 4,890 just ten years later!) that got many of its aficionados very worried. The breed became synonymous with style and glamour and featured heavily in numerous fashion magazine and TV adverts of the day. I well remember one particular advert with a glamorous blonde lady and her equally ‘blonde’ Afghan leaping in the air.

Currently my breed, the Miniature Smooth Dachshund, along with the French Bulldog, is the darling of the advertising world – which has gone hand in hand with rising registrations – and recently we were asked if our very own Alfie (Ch Bronia Gregorio) would be suitable to appear in an advertising campaign for the Rugby World Cup.

Apparently the advertising people had contacted the breed club and had initially approached our very own Katherine Herrington but due to commitments she was unable to do it but very kindly offered our name instead. I knew that Alfie, a consummate showman (and Marc) would love the experience but I was in two minds about it all given what we’ve learned over the years about TV appearances being linked to a breed’s explosion in popularity and the subsequent and almost inevitable rise in numbers. And this decision was made all the more difficult when I learned that a good friend in the breed had recently been approached by a man who specifically wanted an older bitch… apparently his friend had one and ‘by breeding her twice a year he was making 12k a year from her and he’d like to do the same’. Needless to say our friend gave this fellow short shrift. We wrestled with the decision before finally agreeing.

A good example

What finally swayed my decision to say yes was the fact that the advertising group were set upon on using a Miniature Smooth Dachshund and the advertising campaign was going to be made with or without. It was going to be seen by a potential audience of millions… so, I thought, they may as well see a good example of the breed.

I listened to the phone conversation between Marc and the producer and the list of his demands, “could Alfie sit/stay/lay down/bark on command?’”

“Yep, no problem,” said Marc confidently. “What I’ll do is send you a video later in the week of Alfie doing all those things.”

The producer was thrilled.

I was stunnedAlfie could certainly ‘stand’ like a dream… but that was about it. Dachshunds are too clever for their own good and if they can’t see the point in an instruction they simply won’t do it. Slavish obedience is something one rarely gets from the average dachsie and Alfie was no exception. 

“How on earth are you going to train him to do all that in just one week!” I asked.

“Alfie will do it.” Marc assured me.

And for the following week he put the little fella through his paces and by the following Friday a video was sent off with Alfie performing all his commands, even barking on command when Marc went, “woo, woo, woo,” like a true professional!

Our little boy sailed through his auditions and although he initially went for the role of understudy, with his habit of getting everything done in one take he eventually ousted the current star from his role!

And so began a rather gruelling trek around the country filming with the Welsh, English and Scottish Rugby teams. It certainly was an eye-opening experience. At each venue a vet was on hand to check little Alfie over and make sure he was fighting fit. He was treated like the star he truly believes he is… with ‘rest’ and ‘play’ times set aside for him and he thoroughly enjoyed the experience as did all the people he came into contact with. Various pictures were plastered all over Twitter of Alfie being passed around hugged and cuddled by gargantuan Rugby players!

The crowds didn’t faze him. He never seemed to tire of the attention. He was constantly friendly with an ever-wagging tail for the constantly changing stream of people he had to interact with winning over fans everywhere he went.

“I’m absolutely amazed by him,” said the producer. “For such a little dog, he just takes it all in his stride.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s a show dog for you… that’s what they do.”

Going into his third filming session, he now has his own understudy – another UK champion, Ch Clentry Black Pudding. Far from dragging any old dog off the street, the production company are now seeing the benefits of using a show dog – dogs accustomed to crowds, strangers, noise and long days on their feet.

So, if at the very least, our little dog has simply managed to change a few media types’ perception that show dogs aren’t ‘zombie-like cardboard cutouts with zero brains and personality’ then maybe our brush with celebrity hasn’t been a bad thing.

To keep up to date with Alfie’s adventures visit www.conchur.co.uk

See more on Dog World’s website http://www.dogworld.co.uk/product.php/140826/

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