And while no one loves an adorable doggy YouTube clip more than me (current fave: Mabel and Olive), mixed in with the cuteness are often scenes that are deeply troubling, not because the dogs are being deliberately misused but because no one seems to realise what they’re looking at: dogs who are really not enjoying themselves.
Even something as apparently benign as Pooch Perfect was problematic. Clearly no dog was harmed during production. Dogs get groomed every day. But there’s a difference between some mutt enjoying a nice brush while sprawled luxuriously in their person’s lap, and being clipped into bizarre shapes for a human’s entertainment, all in the (for the dog) alarming environment of a TV set.
Too often television shows buy into the fetishisation of dogs: dogs as accessories, status symbols, lifestyle enhancers, cures for our emotional or physical ills, as entertainment.
Then there’s The Dog House. There are plenty of feels, don’t you worry about that. And entertainment. But what distinguishes this delightful observational documentary about the work of England’s Wood Green animal charity is its firm grounding in reality.
Not just a shelter, Wood Green’s mission is to educate and support pet owners as well as rehabilitate and rehome animals. And that underpins everything that ends up on screen. It’s made clear at all times that you can’t just choose a dog based on cuteness. The staff are meticulous about explaining the pros and cons of each dog to prospective owners and monitoring the interactions during the meet-and-greets.
We get an insight into how much training and rehab it can take to get a dog ready to rehome – and why they need rehab in the first place. We get to see that the big old bruiser can often be more gentle, and less trouble, than the adorbs little fluffy.
Rather than presenting dogs-as-products, the focus is on what actually makes dogs so awesome, which is that they are intelligent, sentient individuals with distinct personalities and rich emotional lives of their own.
The other thing that makes The Dog House exceptional is that by the end of an episode, there’s absolutely no guarantee the dogs featured will be rehomed. Instead, if things don’t work out, the staff and the prospective families explain why – calmly, without drama, without guilt.
In fact, when dogs are rehomed without effort, they form a sidebar – and that’s part of what makes this such clever television. It’s beautiful-looking. It’s expertly edited. We get a mountain of cuteness, and plenty of happy endings. It’s just that the focus, in the gentlest possible way, is generally on the stories that don’t work out.
It’s an important reminder that the whole dog-human thing is complicated. That we and they are imperfect. Dogs can be a handful. Even the “good” ones are a lot of work. But, if you go in with your eyes open, none of that negates them also being a source of profound and lasting joy.
The Dog House is on Ten, Saturday 7pm.
Melinda Houston is a television critic and a qualified dog trainer.