Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Joan Smith: Is this how people should treat their pets?

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.