What did you think about the offerings on TV this Christmas? I think it was quite possibly one of the worst festive television I’ve ever seen. What would we have done without Morecambe and Wise, Only Fools and Horses and other seventies and eighties Christmas specials being broadcast? I suppose an added bonus of watching these re-runs from Christmases past was not having to endure seeing or hearing David Walliams, Miranda Hart or James ‘on everything’ Corden – a silver lining to every cloud.

The dog lover however was fortunate to have quite a few things to watch, mull over and comment on over the Christmas period and many of you certainly aired your feelings on Facebook about two dog-related shows that were both shown on Ch5.

Yes, for once, Ch5 ditched their usual formula of focussing on benefit cheats and neighbours from hell and produced two doggy shows.

The first up, shown on Dec 29th was The Biggest Dog In the World. The title brought back memories of my favourite childhood film flooding back – Digby the Biggest dog in the World – which featured the misadventures of an Old English Sheepdog who ate a bowl of Project X, a liquid growth food, and went on to become a sheepdog of truly enormous size. Freddy the merle Great Dane, hadn’t eaten a bowl of Project X but his owner Claire proudly informed us that he had still managed to reach the weight of a newborn elephant – 14 and half stone and stands seven foot six on his back legs.

Freddy was born the runt of the litter but he soon began to grow…and grow.

Claire went on to tell us about the sacrifices she has made to keep Freddy and his sister, Fleur, in the manner they had become accustomed to. She admitted being alone for four years and said that having Freddy was putting off potential partners.

The narrator said that Freddy had become ‘the man of the house’ and Claire had had to sacrifice domestic bliss to keep him happy. Her front room is dominated by a vast king sized bed, which he barely fits on, and two fans blow constantly both day and night alongside an air conditioning unit. The sofa in ‘the dog room’ is the twenty fourth. The food costs for the two Danes comes in at a staggering £7,500 a year and the electricity bill of the fans adds a further £3,000 a year.

‘They don’t live in my house,’ said Claire, ‘I’m living in their house.’

A visit to the local pub has to be cut short when another dog turned up and Freddy became unruly and Claire had to leave, admitting that as she had both of the Danes out, she didn’t feel in complete control.

There is no doubt that Claire, who came across as a very likeable lady, is dedicated to her hounds but you were left questioning whether that devotion had gone a bit too far especially when every morning she had to hand feed her two giants a handful of tripe at a time! Freddy dictated when and where Claire slept, when she ate and when and for how long she could leave the house.

From Essex we then went across the border to Wales to meet Freddy’s rival in the size stakes, Major, who lived with his owners Brian and Julie Williams just outside Swansea. Major (who was also a merle Dane) has become something of a local celebrity. Once again the husband and wife admitted that their gigantic pooch was ‘top dog’ and ruled their home. Major would only sit when a chair was made available.

And an obsession with canine colossus wasn’t simply a British peculiarity as we then went Stateside to Nevada to meet Rocco, a two year old black Great Dane. And despite being an ocean away the families had more in common than just huge dogs. Rocco’s owners, Nick and Jessica, showed us around their home, complete with similar dented walls, wrecked sofas and chewed walls and skirting boards. Nick admitted that their house now completely belonged to the dogs.

Watching the programme you really were led to believe that the Great Dane was an unruly destructive breed that were quite incapable of being trained. Of course we all know that this is complete rubbish. I think back to the marvellous ‘Send’ kennel and the ‘Send 100’ – one hundred Great Danes that were specially trained in intelligence and obedience work. Some of these dogs (including Champions, such as Ch. Lancelot of Send) also took part in a safety awareness film entitled, ‘Alert today, Alive Tomorrow.’

We then got to the nub of the programme as the narrator announced, ‘Freddy, Major and Rocco are all huge but could one of them be the ‘Guinness Book’ tallest dog in the world?’

Editor in chief, Craig Glenday was searching for a record breaker. Apparently there was a vacancy for the world’s tallest living dog. And big dogs are a big deal as the category is classed as an ‘A-lister’ and the ‘tallest dog category’ always gains international news interest.

Thankfully away from all the nonsense the documentary featured the sterling work of Great Dane rescue and showed the ‘rescue’ of ten year old bitch, Scooby. Her story was heartbreaking; through no fault of her own Scooby needed rehoming after her owner died. It was good to see a Dane, a lovely old girl with a greying muzzle, who had managed to live in a normal terraced house without dented walls and without fans blowing 24/7, living the life I see my friends’ Danes live. Just because a dog is large (and I know the giant breeds are high maintenance) doesn’t mean that you have to let them rule the roost and the section featuring Scooby brought some much-needed sanity to the programme (and I will admit to a lump in my throat as Scooby was led to the rescuers van). Thankfully she went to foster home complete with a new harlequin friend and it was lovely to see the old lady’s tail wagging happily again!

The next evening brought us Britain’s cleverest dog featuring owners that were convinced their canine was cleverer than the rest. This programme was far more interesting to me than the previous fluff. It started, predictably with a Border Collie however, Gable’s skills were jaw dropping. He clearly remembers words and associates them with objects. He knows the name of over 150 different toys putting Gable’s vocabulary on par with a toddler. His skills were tested at Lincoln University as apparently scientists are just catching up with what us dog owners have known for a very long time; realising just how clever our canine companions are. The toys were placed behind a screen and Gable was told to fetch, ‘dinosaur’, ‘leek’ and ‘rugby ball’. And the brainy Border didn’t put a paw wrong. The next part of the show was really fascinating for me. For years we’ve heard how mongrels are cleverer than pedigrees and there is even a league table of intelligence, where Border Collies are at number one and right down near the bottom comes the likes of (no. 61) Chinese Crested (no. 69) Bullmastiff and, at number seventy, ranks the Shih Tzu. I’ve always treated these tables with the contempt they deserve because as we all know, there is a wide range of intelligence among the individuals in any breed. I’ve known an incredibly clever Afghan Hound and a very dim Border Collie.

But as if to prove just how dim the Shih Tzu was they played the video of a Shih Tzu ‘imprisoned’ in a square of tin cans and looking completely flummoxed! However Mensa member and Shih Tzu owner, Kirsty Forrester aims to change that public preconception with the help of clever Shih Tzu, Cooper. She began to think, what would happen if rather than treating Cooper like a lap dog she treated him and challenged him just like a Border Collie…with remarkable results. Dr Anne McBride from the University of Southampton put it best when she said we have a lot of prejudice when it comes to dog breeds; ‘Border collies are always up at the top and everything else goes down below…and you know, that’s a very false ranking.’

Kirsty went on to post a video of clever Cooper doing the toddler ‘shape sorting puzzle’ (which involves dropping plastic shapes into their correspondingly shaped holes) and it went viral. Thankfully this kind of video is challenging those who discredit dogs on account of their breed and proves that if there is a fault it usually lies with the owner. And of course this isn’t really anything new. If ‘lapdogs’ are treated as toys and ferried around in handbags you can’t really expect them to become canine Einsteins but, many years ago, Doris Bridle’s Lalarookh kennel (Griffon Bruxellois) furnished obedience classes at Crufts with keen competition from her little dogs and it is pertinent to add that in tests where the ‘brainiacs’ of the dog world (German Shepherds, Collies etc) competed against them, these diminutive sprites certainly proved both their intelligence and training.

Maybe some much-needed publicity and focus can be directed to ‘Obreedience’ at Crufts this year. We really do need to show the public that our beautiful pedigree dogs/breeds are so much more than just pretty faces.

Published in Dog World on 18th January 2017

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