Take the generic ‘which is better’ canine vs feline debate, add a dose of the likeable Chris Packham and animal loving co-presenter Liz Bonnin, throw in a bunch of impressive Attenborough-esque camera shots and what do you get? Ground breaking scientific excitement or just your average run of the mill pet programme?
Well, if tonight’s Part 1 is anything to go by, it seems like the answer is a bit of both. The documentary, shown on BBC Two, had a relatively weak start, including Packham grabbing an unsuspecting Labrador by the face and staring directly, albeit lovingly, into its eyes. A few clips of the presenter with a bunch of tame wolves made for delightful viewing – who could not be impressed by the beauty of these animals? Yet I couldn’t help but feel that the wolves, beautiful as they are, were wasted on this. No ground breaking facts here – just the idea that fluffy poodles descended from them. Oh, and that wolves work together as a pack to bring down prey larger than themselves. Err…
In all fairness, though, the wolves weren’t completely irrelevant to the programme. They were shown following the first ‘Cats v Dogs’ experiment, in which the numerical abilities of both animals were tested by asking them to select the screen with the highest number of dots. Luna the Husky seemed to find the whole thing relatively easy, scoring 60% even when the test was made more difficult. It was noted that, despite what it may seem like, dogs can not count – Luna was simply aware of the visual difference. This is said to have a conflict avoidance function in the case of wolves, with individuals able to note the size of rival packs and therefore not pick fights with a pack bigger than their own. Wise.
How did the cat get on with its own version of the ‘counting’ test? Despite having a successful start, it became clear that felines are averse to commands, and once the numbers increased the cat lost interest and it was game over. After all, as noted by one of the experimenters, when does a cat need to count to ten? When you’re testing its patience, I guess. The Arabian wild cat, said to be the ancestor of all domestic moggies, was then shown, and again relatively obvious points were made about pet cats still harbouring the desire to hunt. It is here that perhaps a breakdown of the physical and behavioural similarities between the wild and domestic cat could have been included, or even a brief mention of whether it is the domestic feline or canine that shares the most similarities with their natural counterparts (Just how different are wolves and huskies, and are Maine Coons as big as the Arabian wild cat?)
However, from here onwards the programme seemed to pick up speed. Interesting facts about the sizes of the animals’ brains (cat-sized dogs have a roughly 20% bigger brain than cats) and later on, noses (dogs have many more scent receptors and a larger brain area dedicated to smell), at last provided us with some of the scientific evidence promised. Even more impressive was the clip of Packham being tracked through a bustling city by sniffer dog Boris, who took a mere ten minutes to locate the presenter despite Packham’s best efforts to send him off the trail. Unsurprisingly there was no cat equivalent for this part, although in the following experiments the feline came out on top with its superior hearing and high jump skills.
Towards the end of show, viewers were treated to some fast-paced (and loud) Canicross (also referred to as Cani-X), itself an exciting demonstration of the endurance ability of dogs, and also an adorable long-haired Chihuahua, a tiny training partner who loved nothing more than racing through the forest alongside her owner who proclaimed that his pet was “the Mo Farah of dogs”. ‘Where is the Usain Bolt of cats?’ feline lovers across the country (probably) exclaimed.
Overall, Cats v Dogs was a fun, light-hearted take on the argument that has forever divided the nation’s animal lovers. Did it really provide us with any answers as to which species is ‘the best’? Of course not. The truth is, there is no best. Both cats and dogs are brilliant creatures in their own unique ways. Although, I think it’s pretty safe to say I’m #TeamDog.
‘Cats v Dogs’ is available on iPlayer. Part 2 will be shown on BBC Two next week (Thursday 11th).
Two dog related programmes were shown on both BBC (‘Louis Theroux’s LA Stories: City of Dogs’) and ITV (in the two episodes of ‘Dangerous Dogs’) in the past couple of weeks, with the latter in particular attracting a lot of attention amongst dog loving viewers, perhaps not for the reasons that ITV had originally been hoping for. Neglect and irresponsible ownership featured heavily in both programmes.
The first episode of Dangerous Dogs surrounded the working lives of Birmingham City Council’s dog wardens and the situations that they face on a daily basis. Two wardens in particular caused controversy with their handling of an abandoned Akita who refused to come quietly, leading many viewers to brand the programme ‘Dangerous Dog Wardens’. With cameras following their every move, the women were shown shouting at the frightened animal before struggling to drag it out of the property with the use of two catch poles, leaving the dog visibly distressed and physically exhausted. When dealing with potentially dangerous dogs it is always important to put human safety first, and the use of such equipment is certainly justified, however, seemingly due to the nerves of the wardens, the event took longer than perhaps it should have done, with one of the wardens initially panicking at the sight of a spider in the doorway. The constant opening and closing of the door, together with the shouting (and sometimes screaming) from the dog warden, surely must have heightened the dog’s fear, making his capture even more difficult. Perhaps this quote on how to approach dogs, taken from this RSPCA International publication on dog control guidance, should have been noted;
“Remember that any action from the catcher(s) will provoke the dog(s)… A catcher should adopt a non-aggressive body posture by presenting a low-profile on approach. Their movements should remain calm and slow.”
Louis Theroux’s programme, City of Dogs, also demonstrated the effects of animal abandonment with one animal control officer reluctantly collecting a Pit Bull Terrier to be euthanised. According to those interviewed, many dogs in Los Angeles are simply thrown out when they are no longer of any use for breeding or other money making activities. Without anyone coming forward to claim the Pit Bull, and hundreds more stray dogs requiring kennel space, there was simply nowhere for the dog to go. Unlike the Akita back in Birmingham, the Pit Bull did not show any signs of aggression as a result of its treatment, showing that an abandoned dog doesn’t always mean ‘dangerous dog’ (indeed, once the Akita was nursed back to health at Birmingham Dogs Home, it passed all temperament tests and was rehomed). What was obvious from both programmes was that irresponsible ownership is a leading factor of aggression issues within our dog populations.
In Dangerous Dogs, an owner with apparent alcohol issues had lost count of how many Staffie cross puppies he had in his flat, and, despite the advice from the warden, sold many of the puppies as early as four weeks old to “anyone who wanted them”. It is clear that anyone who would even consider buying a tiny puppy from a man down the pub would not be the sort of person to raise a well-balanced family pet, and the future is bleak for the puppies who are likely to become victims both to their poor early upbringing and their unscrupulous owners. In Episode two, a family living in squalor had numerous Staffies which were never given access to the garden nor walked, together with a litter of young puppies covered in their own excrement, cats and kittens locked in a filthy bathroom and various small animals in tiny cages, a murky substance in their water bottle their only source of liquid. It made for very upsetting viewing, and the frustration on the dog wardens’ faces was obvious. The dogs could not be seized under the Animal Welfare Act as they were physically healthy and were not deprived of food and water. Just as with the litter of puppies who were sold at four weeks, the wardens were powerless. The ‘owners’ agreed to hand over the rest of the animals, but the dogs stayed. These dogs may indeed become the next attack headlines, a result of the simple fact that they are unexercised, untrained and unsocialised. But because they are fed and watered, they can not be seized or rehomed to a suitable environment, and the owners are able to continue producing endless litters of dogs.
It seemed very wrong that the family, who could barely take care of themselves, were allowed to keep the dogs, particularly after witnessing the terrible conditions in which their other animals had been living (and the fact that one member of the family had previously received a five year ban from keeping animals). This was only made worse when the cameras showed Gunner, a friendly, well-cared for Pit Bull, being taken away to secure police kennels. Gunner, like many other family pets declared to be ‘type’, had presumably never shown any signs of aggression, and he was allowed to return to his owners as an exempted dog. Another Pit Bull type featured in the programme had been found straying, and was clearly not a danger to those handling it since it was not muzzled and there were no catch poles in sight. Yet because it matched the identification measurements, the dog was humanely euthanised – under the Dangerous Dogs Act it is illegal to rehome Pit Bull types.
While mistreated or ill-socialised dogs have the capability to become dangerous, many dogs in both America and here in the UK are actively trained to show aggression. In City of Dogs, a group of men demonstrated their protection training with a Dutch Herder. The dog had been trained to bite a padded sleeve in a display similar to police dog work but without the control that is achieved through the intense police training course. When the trainer gave the release command, the dog held on. If this apparent lack of control in a semi-professional environment seems worrying, consider the fact that ‘weapon dogs’ are now relatively common in the UK, with many dogs receiving ‘training’ involving physical violence in an attempt to cause aggressive responses. This results in a certain unpredictability, making so-called status dogs a danger to the public. Breed specific legislation has little impact on this trend as Pit Bull types are often used alongside legal breeds to convey status and intimidate others. In the first episode of Dangerous Dogs, a male with a severe attitude problem threatened the dog warden with violence as she was in the process of attempting to issue a fixed penalty notice after witnessing his partner let their Staffordshire Bull Terrier foul. The man, who heard the commotion outside his flat, came downstairs and threatened to “punch the face off” the warden before shouting a stream of profanities at the cameraman. Not, then, the actions of a responsible Staffie owner – the dog was clearly just another status symbol.
“If I rode around every day with a gun, I take the chance of going to jail if the police stop me. I can ride around with my dog all day long. He’s just like my pistol at my side.” – LA protection dog trainer
In both programmes we have seen dogs starved, thrown out on to the streets, deprived of exercise, forced to produce numerous litters and actively trained to bite or intimidate. The chance of any legal breed owned as a ‘weapon’ biting a member of the public is far greater than that of a Pit Bull type owned responsibly causing harm, yet dogs declared to be Pit Bull type are routinely destroyed even if they present no threat to public safety while dogs that are likely to cause problems in the future are not dealt with until after they attack. With no incentive to take care of their animals, and money to be made from the breeding of status dogs, at present there is no reason for irresponsible owners to change their attitude. Since punishments rarely equal their crimes, it is usually the dog that pays the highest price. Future laws need to concentrate on ownership, not breeds. The Dangerous Dogs narrator closed the programme by saying that as a nation we are falling far short of being able to call ourselves dog lovers. Until our laws are improved, this sadly remains all too true.
The two episodes of ‘Dangerous Dogs’ are currently available on ITV Player.
‘LA: City of Dogs’ is also available online and can be viewed via BBC iplayer until April 13.