TELEVISION / A dog is for life, or 10 years' hard labour

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The Independent Culture
'WITH a bloodhound you can't hide food.' Obvious really, but it can be inconvenient if they're living in your house. Dave Onderdonk, who uses bloodhounds for search and rescue purposes, made the mistake of giving his dogs a taste for mint chocolates; now he has to hide in a closet if he wants to eat one himself and even then he emerges to find 60kg of disappointment staring at him with lugubrious eyes. He has come to an arrangement with his own dogs: they can do anything they want and he won't mind.

Usually it's the other way round. That's the appeal of dogs, after all - their dogged devotion, their dumb refusal to take offence unless you try very hard indeed. In last night's episode of A Dog's Tale (BBC 2) you saw how profoundly that virtue could alter people's lives. The series itself has received a reaction similar to that of an old dog performing a new trick - 'Isn't he clever]' You think you're going to get something merely decorative, a bland dogalogue, but what turns up is often so biting that Cruft's would require a muzzle.

Last night, though, you got the strokes first. In a female top security prison inmates have been paired up with dogs saved from destruction at the local pound. The prisoners train the dogs to act as helpers for disabled people and eventually find that they have trained themselves too, exercising muscles for affection and self-discipline that had become atrophied. 'I self- paroled myself. The Department of Corrections chose to call them escapes,' one woman said, explaining that her 10 years inside hadn't quite been consecutive, and you sensed that she might not have been quite as at ease in the joke without the companionship of her two dogs. 'They don't care why any of us are here,' another woman, in for first degree murder, explained.

Then came the teeth, just as you were getting a little choked at the fond farewells on graduation day. In South Africa - where dogs are trained to attack, not assist - the producers had found a nasty little story that put the relationship between animal and master in a very different light. The Findlays, white farmers and dog breeders, had become involved in an argument with their black neighbours, the Rabetos, over the control of an unspayed bitch. After a Christmas Day shouting match a group of whites returned to beat Mr Rabeto. He died two days later.

'That was one of those things that happen when people have had too much to drink,' Mr Findlay said complacently. 'It's my responsibility to make sure that my breeding dogs do not breed with mongrels,' added Mrs Findlay, who clearly felt that journalists had made a lot of fuss about nothing. 'It's been turned into something very ugly and very unfortunate.'

There were explosive metaphors buried in both these stories: obedience, discipline and training in the first; blood and breeding in the second. A Dog's Tale didn't labour the point but the editing of the film and the interviews they'd selected made it clear that they never lost sight of the analogies that might be drawn. Look closely at dogs, they suggested, and you see the owner.

'I thought we had an alien star-fleet off the starboard bow,' Kryton, the android in Red Dwarf (BBC 2), said. 'Thankfully it turned out to be one of Mr Lister's old sneezes congealed on the radar screen.' The joke is typical of the sci-fi sitcom, which makes great play of the collision between a spaceship's advanced technology and the primeval personal habits of some of the crew.

Well, semi-advanced technology. 'Are you absolutely sure?' says one crew member, when ordered to go to red alert. 'It does mean changing the bulb.' If you don't like jokes about verrucas, mucus and malodorous underwear, it isn't for you, but you will miss some sharp writing. Here's one for Graham Taylor, who might have had other things on his mind: 'We've recycled the water so often it's beginning to taste like Dutch lager.'

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