THE EYES HAVE IT Vincent Jay reports on Oscar the dominant dog

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The Independent Culture
It's tempting to say that Oscar the Labrador leads a dog's life. Tempting, but untrue. Because, frankly, Oscar and other less-gifted working dogs have very little in common. Not for Oscar the worthy-but-dull existence of a guide dog for the blind. Or the macho rigours of the security dog, deterring burglars or sniffing out the Semtex. No; Oscar has enjoyed, over the past three years, the sort of pampered showbusiness life that is probably only experienced by the doggie elite, such as the Andrex puppy and, in extremis, Lassie.

Certainly, it isn't every dog who has his own chauffeur/valet/walker; nor every dog who has a man working on his behalf to produce a nationwide itinerary that is dictated as much by the need for Oscar's "comfort breaks" as his commercial appearances. This is no ordinary dog. This is Oscar the Hypnodog.

At first glance, backstage at the students' union at University College, London, there is nothing unusual about him as he sits quietly inside the dressing room, awaiting his moment of glory. Indeed, he's done what doggies do - anoint the doorjamb at the rear entrance, paying this particular academic venue - the third this week - the traditional tribute of the raised leg.

It takes an observant student-cum-barman, going about his business with the barrels, to notice Oscar's secret, saying, as he pats the dog affectionately: "Good boy, good boy. Haven't you got big eyes?"

Oscar's owner, entertainer Hugh Lennon, responds with a smile that is both inscrutable and pleasant. For Oscar's best feature is, indeed, his big, black, deep eyes.

Hugh bought Oscar in Leeds as a puppy some years ago for that very reason. Hypnotism was then in the ascendancy and Hugh, who had left his native Mauritius to perform magic and hypnotism in the UK, was looking for a big finish to his show.

"I realised one day that he had this really dominant stare,'' says Hugh. ``I suppose you could say that he just picked up the skill from me, and I cultivated it." He strokes Oscar's neck. "It wasn't just his eyes, though that was part of it. I knew that this was a dog that could be trained to do what I do - to hypnotise people."

Such a bizarre act has inevitably attracted more than its share of critics. A few local authorities have tried to ban the show. But Hugh laughs off their reservations as, well, a dog-in-the-manger attitude.

"Our bread and butter is the student unions. We do dozens of shows a month in front of students, many of whom rightly take animal rights seriously. But we have never, ever, been accused of cruelty, have we?" He looks down at Oscar as if expecting a reply. He doesn't get one.

On stage, Oscar is introduced towards the finale. During the course of the show, Hugh has weeded out the cynics who refuse to take part; the wreckers have been consigned to the bar to shout all they want.

A taped roll of drums, and on Oscar pads, modest, unassuming and, well, relaxed. He sits at Hugh's feet, staring up at his master as would any dog on stage in front of 500 hyped-up students. Hugh summons each of his "subjects" and asks them to kneel down by the dog.

They do so without hesitation. First up is a spotty youth in a metallica T-shirt. He's been hypnotised already, and earlier he told the audience that this was his "first time" (phnarff, phnarff); his chums have plenty to tease him about - the sad struggle to count to ten, for instance ("When I snap my fingers you will forget that the number eight exists," Hugh had told him). But this - this is moving from the strange to the bizarre.

An intelligent human being is about to be put into a trance - by a dog. Suddenly, Oscar swings his head around, away from his dickey-bowed master, and fixes the youth with what can only be described as a long stare. The student in mesmerised. You could hear a Boneo drop as they gaze absently at each other, ignoring everybody else in the auditorium. But now the student's eyes are rolling toward the roof, the lids are closing and he is falling - decked by the dog.

Hugh reaches out casually to take his weight, to make the impact as gentle as possible. "His ego is all that should be bruised when the show's over," he reassures us. Five others follow suit, flopping gently on to the person already lying below them.

The audience is beside itself, but Oscar is already heading for the wings, his mind on room service. Back on stage, Hugh is already bringing round his subjects. It's gone 11.30, but for them, time has little meaning. "How long have you been up here?" asks Oscar's accomplice. "About ten minutes?" says the man from Metallica, clearly a bit tired and emotional, but not knowing why.

Half an hour later, the hall is dark again, and Oscar, Hugh and the rest of the crew from the Hypnotic Laughter Show are heading for the Holiday Inn. The dog looks at me, and, I confess, I avoid eye contact. Just to be safe.