Dr Johnson was famously sniffy about dogs walking on their hind legs. So I'm not sure he'd have been entranced by Pudsey, the mop-haired pooch whose owner swept up a £500,000 prize at the weekend. Ashleigh Butler, who's 17, has trained her collie-cross to dance on his hind legs, and their barn-storming performance took them to victory in the final of Britain's Got Talent.
It's not long, either, since a lovable Jack Russell called Uggie tugged the heart-strings of movie-goers who saw the Oscar-winning French film The Artist. Uggie has received almost as much attention as the movie's human stars, so I guess that I – and Dr Johnson, were he still alive – have no choice but to acknowledge the public's continuing love affair with performing animals.
I like animals myself. A cat is asleep on my desk as I write, and over several decades I've shared my home with a nervous ginger tom, a couple of rescue tabbies, and a series of talkative Burmese. I'm conscious of the temptation to anthropomorphise them but, luckily, cats are just about impossible to train. They do what they like – Freud developed his theory of narcissism after observing a cat – and that's one of the things I most enjoy about them.
Dogs are a different matter. The affection between Ashleigh and Pudsey is obvious but I can't help feeling unsettled by the reaction to what is basically a novelty animal act. What bothers me, I think, is that dogs trust their owners and want to please them. The relationship is akin to that between an adult and a human toddler, and as such it belongs in the private sphere.
I'm uncomfortable about animals as entertainment, and I wonder how many times people want to watch a dog prancing around on stage. I also wonder whether there's much of a difference between novelty dog acts and the circus animals I saw as a child: elephants balancing on stools and chimps mimicking human behaviour. Thankfully, a growing awareness of the need to treat animals with dignity has changed the public mood. Circus animals still exist – the RSPCA says there are between 150 and 200 performing animals in this country – but they feel like an anachronism.
I can't help remembering Juvenal's acerbic remark about the Roman populace's taste for panemetcircenses – bread and circuses. In hard economic times, people tend to be cruel and sentimental by turns, and it seems that performing dogs have hit the spot. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – canemetcircenses.