The Wonder of Dogs: Part 1

Last night (19/9/13), BBC2 broadcast the first programme of three in its series “The Wonder of Dogs”.  Kate Humble and Steve Leonard began their investigation into why this single species comes in so many shapes and sizes – from huge dogs to tiny dogs, working dogs to lap dogs and hairy dogs to hairless dogs.

As a Dachshund fan it was great to see the three Miniature varieties making an appearance. Jenna Chesham’s MJeffrey_WoDini Wire Jeffrey was shown running through a transparent agility tunnel; Max, a Mini Smooth was one of the dogs from the village of Brightwell in Oxfordshire where the series was filmed, and there was a Mini Long who demonstrated how dogs shake water out of their coats from head to tail.

VDH_Dogs_in_MotionWe also saw a Standard Wire running, in slo-mo, on a treadmill and I think that was a clip from the VDH video “Dogs in Motion”.

The team explained how the genetics of modern dogs underlies the wide differences we see between breeds, with only a small number of genes accounting for the variety in size, coat and shape.  Steve Leonard showed a Mastiff compared with a Chihuahua to illustrate the huge range of sizes.  He showed us hairy and hairless dogs; his description of the Mexican Hairless as being “oven-ready” must go down as the quote of the show!

It was inevitable, and right, that the programme should also deal with the consequences of selective breeding.  The Bulldog was used as an example and we were shown how the breed’s skull shape had changed over the years.  A strong link was made between how the shape of breeds had been exaggerated by breeders and the world of dog showing.  The role of out-crossing was also demonstrated and we saw how a less exaggerated type of Bulldog had been created by introducing Staffordshire Bull Terrier and Mastiff.  Interestingly, we got to hear from the breeder of this “new type” of Bulldog about how he had gone about changing the type, but not the owner of the “exaggerated” one (we didn’t even get to see his face).

The power of modern DNA analysis was also demonstrated with a variety of cross-breed dogs being tested to identify their ancestry.  The statistic quoted in the programme was that about 25% of dogs in the UK are cross-breeds, which surprised me; I thought it would have been higher.  The most amusing finding for one of the cross-breeds was the Cockerpoo (supposedly a first generation cross between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle), who turned out to be half Springer Spaniel.  As one bright spark said on Twitter “it looks like he was sold a pup”.  That, of course, is the point.  With a cross-breed, more often than not, you don’t actually know what you are getting and it really does beg the question how some of the so-called Designer Cross-breeds are being sold for higher prices than many pedigrees.  When I was growing up, anyone who had a litter of mongrels, could barely give them away.  If people want a cross-breed, rather than a pedigree, that’s fine, but an awful lot of buyers seem to be being conned into paying silly money.  My recent blog post “Do puppies have secret powers?” describes some research carried out by the RSPCA into the factors that influence puppy buyers’ decisions.

I was also following the programme’s Twitter comments (#WonderOfDogs) and I’d say 95% were really positive about the programme and loved it.  A small number tweeted about the adverse effects on dogs’ health caused by selective breeding.

Given all the negative publicity about dogs that we tend to see, this seemed to be a pretty fair, balanced and positive programme.  Steve Leonard, Kate Humble and Ruth Goodman provided a good blend of enthusiasm, history and science that kept me glued to the TV for the full hour of the programme.  I’m looking forward to the following two programmes in the series.

If you missed the first programme you can catch up on BBC iPlayer any time up to 10th October 2013.

Wonder_of_Dogs-iPlayer

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Discover more about genetics and the changing roles of dogs in our everyday lives at OpenLearn from the Open University.

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