Prospective dog owners are sometimes warned that having a puppy is like having a new baby — sleepless, grueling and thankless. Often, new pet parents realize the hard way that their puppy is absolutely nothing like a tiny infant: in fact, it’s worse. Babies, generally, don’t draw blood.
During the pandemic, when pup parents were stranded at home with furry land sharks, in the absence of group classes or in-person behaviorist sessions, one source of accessible guidance came in the form of dog training TV shows. In the U.K., where Kennel Club data indicates that 25% of new dog owners bought a puppy during the pandemic without doing their research, these shows became a lifeline.
“They are tuning in because you want to know that other people are in the same situation,” says London-based dog behaviorist and trainer Louise Glazebrook, who stars in the BBC’s “12 Puppies and Us.” “Not in a horrible way, but just in an ‘I’m overwhelmed; is this normal?’ kind of way.”
The RDF-produced observational doc series, distributed by Banijay, follows a group of puppies’ first few months in their new homes. Season 2 aired last fall, just as the U.K. was diving headlong into its second lockdown.
“I had one person tell me they watched the show four times in a row, going through and making notes each time. I hadn’t really computed that people would watch for such an educational purpose,” says Glazebrook, who doles out some hard but empathetic reality checks to hapless owners on the show, while advocating force-free solutions.
While the BBC leans into the entertainment value of “12 Puppies and Us” (one woman living in a single-bedroom apartment, for example, took on a Leonberger), Glazebrook says there’s clear demand for instructive content that helps people effectively train their dogs. “I feel like programmers and commissioners aren’t realizing the level of what people are watching it for.”
International distributors, on the other hand, could tell you the exact level of demand for canine companionship on screen.
Claire Jago, executive vice president of EMEA sales and acquisitions at Banijay, says “12 Puppies and Us” has sold well across Europe, particularly in dog-loving countries such as Germany, but has also performed in Canada and even Hong Kong.
The family-friendly program allows for co-viewing, which has become essential during the pandemic, but the series also informs the decision-making process.
“It lets people who haven’t decided [on getting a dog] yet to watch it and see how it’s going to work out for them,” Jago says.
Over at Beyond Distribution, dog grooming show “Pooch Perfect” has become a hot property in the past year.
“There’s a pandemic effect — big time,” says Connie Hodson, head of partnerships and business development at the London-, Dublin- and Sydney-based sales outfit.
Fronted by “Pitch Perfect” actor Rebel Wilson, “Pooch Perfect” began life at Australia’s Network Seven in February 2020 before scoring a U.K. adaptation on the BBC. Hosted by actor Sheridan Smith, it debuted in January. Wilson also hosted the U.S. version of the show this spring for ABC.
A major selling point for “Pooch Perfect” is a COVID-friendly set-up, with carefully socially distanced grooming stations that make the program easier to deliver.
“That’s attracted a lot of attention on the format side — it’s a safe bet for producers and broadcasters,” says Hodson, who got a cocker spaniel puppy herself during the pandemic. “It’s one of those programs that’s landed in the right place at the right time. Whether it’s grooming, rescue or rehoming, dogs are a good space to be in.”
Beyond is anticipating a big SVOD deal for the show, hardly surprising given streaming giants are also getting in on the action in a big way. Netflix recently launched hard-nosed “Canine Intervention,” starring California trainer Jas Leverette, while HBO Max was swift in snapping up Five Mile Films’ “The Dog House” from U.K. broadcaster Channel 4. That show matches hopeful adopters with shelter dogs.
Sally Habbershaw, executive vice president for the Americas at “The Dog House” distributor All3Media Intl., describes a “very easy conversation” with HBO Max around the series. So straightforward, in fact, that the streamer swooped in for five seasons of the U.K. show (only two have aired so far) up front, along with format rights for a U.S. version.
“They loved it. They elevated the show, branded it as an original and they’re thrilled,” Habbershaw says.
The format has also sold into CBC (Canada), TVNZ (New Zealand), TV2 (Denmark), SVT (Sweden), VRT (Belgium), Network 10 (Australia) and ZDF (Germany).
Another U.K. show building interest from streamers is Channel 5’s “Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly,” which is produced and distributed by Avalon. The series is led by waistcoat-sporting dog behaviorist Graeme Hall. Known as the Dogfather, he travels around Britain helping desperate households to train their tricky pups.
The show has its legion of fans, though it’s been criticized for what some believe are unfashionable methods. Nonetheless, it remains widely watched across the U.K. Season 3 ended on an all-time high rating of 1.7 million for ViacomCBSbacked Channel 5, and season 4 is currently casting.
While the show has sold across Europe, the next tranche of sales will come from global streaming players.
“The show is very talent-led, which helps when it comes to dog shows and getting SVOD interest,” says Isabel Hughes, director of distribution at Avalon. She describes Hall as a “great international talent.”
Soon, badly behaved American dogs will also get a taste of the Dogfather: “active conversations” are underway to send Hall stateside for a local adaptation.
If the extent of global appeal is any indication, we’ve only scratched the surface of dog programming, says Glazebrook. Wouldn’t it be useful, she suggests, for a show to follow the same dog throughout its development? In the age of social media, in which puppyhood is carefully posed, groomed and commercialized on platforms including Instagram, authoritative programs that are realistic about the challenges of dog ownership are essential.
“You see posed pictures of a puppy in a laundry basket, and read, ‘It’s been a joy,’ but what about the fact that they are pooing and peeing everywhere?” says Glazebrook. “That’s where ‘12 Puppies and Us’ was born from: helping people make the right choices. I want people to watch the show and be put off. I don’t want them to think it’s going to be a walk in the park.”