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Review: Dogs: Their Secret Lives (TV series)

Serious - dog on dock

If you’re like me, you drink up as much quality programming on dog behavior as you can find.  I recently learned of a new show in the UK called “Dogs: Their Secret Lives”.  The show is hosted by Mark Evans who used to be the chief veterinary advisor for the RSPCA.  The show also features Emily Blackwell, a canine behaviorist at the University of Bristol, and veterinarian Alex German at the University of Liverpool.  With a team made up of academicians and veterinarians, I had high hopes for the quality of the show.  So far, I’ve watched the first two episodes (available on YouTube) and am delighted with what I saw.

The Issues

The first episode is about overweight dogs.  This is an issue that I take very seriously in my own dogs. I am very careful to keep them at a healthy weight.  A surprising number of people have told me that Darwin, my beagle, is the only beagle they’ve ever seen that is NOT fat.  Although I can’t help but feel proud and appreciative of the compliment, I am also appalled at the idea that he is apparently so unusual in that regard.  In fact, according to the show, 50% of the dogs in the UK are overweight.  I suspect that the number in the US is very similar.  I think the show does an admirable job of highlighting this issue and emphasizing how much it can impact the lives of our dogs.

Fat - pug

Here is a short list of some of the points made in the first episode:

  • Dogs that are overweight throughout their lifetime tend to have shorter lives – as much as two years shorter!
  • 75% of overweight dogs have another medical problem in addition to the weight
  • 88% of owners in one study didn’t know how much food they were putting in their dog’s bowl during feeding time – and every single one of them was overfeeding

The second episode is about aggression.  I think most people understand that aggression in dogs is a serious issue, but the episode lists some impressive statistics that clearly illustrate how widespread this issue has become.  Again, these statistics are for the UK, but I think what we see in the US is very similar.

Aggressive - fear spaniel

Some examples:

  • 25% of dogs are aggressive toward other, unfamiliar dogs
  • 1 in 3 dog owners report being bitten by a dog
  • Dog attacks have increased by 500% in the last 20 years

Many of the current documentaries on dogs address more “positive” aspects of their behavior, such as their close relationship with humans or cognitive skills.  These issues are fascinating and worthwhile but it is refreshing to see a show that is tackling the challenges of living with dogs as well.  The extensive lack of knowledge among the general public and many dog professionals (including some vets and some trainers) about dog behavior is alarming and dangerous.  Media that contributes to increasing this knowledge is critically important to improving the welfare of dogs and their families.

I think the show also has the added benefit of normalizing behavior issues in dogs.  Many of my clients feel alone, frustrated and embarrassed because of their dog’s behavior.  Learning, for example, that one third of dog owners have been bitten or that 25% of dogs are dog-aggressive may make people feel less intimidated by seeking professional help for their own dogs.  Hopefully, that will be enough to motivate some people to seek out professional help that may not have done so otherwise.

The Content

As a scientist, I am very picky about the information presented on animal behavior and often vocally complain about the degree of inaccuracy in many television shows (just ask my husband!).  So, I was thrilled to see that the behavioral information in “Dogs: Their Secret Lives” was fully consistent with the science of behavior.  The show also managed to seamlessly slip data from scientific research into the story line of the dogs they highlight in each episode.  This makes the information relevant and interesting to the viewer, even those who feel themselves tuning out as soon as they hear the word “science”.

The show also addresses some prevalent and damaging myths about dogs, such as the dominance myth (based on research that’s more than 60 years old and was dismissed as flawed decades ago) and myths about breed and aggression.

Happy - pit

Finally, the recommendations they gave in each case were excellent and very similar to the type of recommendations I make with my own clients.  I loved that they suggested interactive toys and puzzles for feeding overweight dogs.  This slows down their feeding, but also increases their physical activity and gives them mental enrichment.  The behaviorist recommendations were excellent as well.  It’s worth noting that anyone with behavior problems in their dog still needs to meet directly with a behaviorist – I am confident that the information provided in the episode was only a small portion of the information and support the dog owners received from the behaviorist.

If you are looking for a dog documentary that is engaging, impactful and educational, I would strongly recommend this show.  The third and fourth episodes address compulsive behaviors and fears and separation anxiety.  All three topics present real issues for the welfare of our dogs and are extremely disruptive and distressing to their families.  I can’t wait to watch these issues as well, I’m confident they will be equally interesting and informative.  The show’s website is also interesting and information, so that’s worth checking out as well.

What other shows on dog behavior have you particularly enjoyed watching or found particularly informative?

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Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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