Sick of dating shows? The Dog House is a matchmaking show with none of the drama and all of the feels.
I like to schedule my crying jags for Tuesdays at 8.30pm. A bawl isn’t guaranteed: sometimes just a trickle of salty sadness runs down my cheek, other times happy tears flow. Either way, it’s cathartic, and it’s all thanks to the greatest television programme ever made — The Dog House.
The Dog House is not a blockbuster drama or a tear-jerking vehicle for an A-list actor. It’s a funny little programme, really, a British reality show full of stories that would make the toughest nut crack. It doesn’t have the schlock value of Love Island or the venal bad guys you hate to hate on Married at First Sight. Instead, it features dogs. Lovable, hard-done-by dogs that have ended up alone. And people who need a dog to mend their broken hearts.
The genius is in its dating-show premise. Singletons, couples or families come into Wood Green – a real-life animal rescue centre in the bucolic English countryside – and are interviewed by the resident dog handlers, who then figure out what those people need in a four-legged friend. The handlers-turned-matchmakers are like therapists: they encourage the humans and the dogs to share their troubles. “When a dog looks into you, you feel it in your heart… you just know,” says one to the camera at the top of every show. When my dog Mabel looks into me, she mostly seems to be saying “feed me”, but the sentiment is so sweet that it makes me sniffle.
There are no dinners à deux or drunken one-night stands on The Dog House. Instead, there are first dates in a meeting pen and, later, stories of what happened next. It’s a show about complicated pasts, the randomness of life’s cruelty and the difficulty of finding the right future. The people are lonely, worn down or looking for something to make everything better. The dogs are too.
In episode four — a masterclass in redemption — we meet Buddy the French bulldog. He’s a lovable lunatic; his handler calls him “perfect in every way”, even though he’s had seven homes and been rejected from all of them. At Wood Green, he’s paired with a young chef with kidney failure who needs a reason to get off the couch. A few months later, the cameras take us to a South London flat where man and dog, now best friends, are planning a trip around Europe in a van. Their story is a documentary – long-form version of the cat meme you watched 1,000 times when you needed a pick-me-up. It’s life-affirming and charming and quirky in the best possible way.
The Decider’s Joel Keller called The Dog House a “light and sweet diversion from all the cynical reality series out there”. That’s true, but it’s more than that: it’s a panacea for the times we find ourselves in. When Ruby, a dog whose tail hasn’t wagged since her owner died, is matched with recently widowed pensioner Alan, the pathos is palpable. When they take their first slow walk together, Ruby’s fluffy tail rises and wags a little, and your faith is restored in the world.
The programme’s themes of loneliness, isolation and the need for companionship are perfectly pitched in our new, Covid-19 reality. The dogs, who’ve been given up or lost, reflect how we’re all feeling right now. Lenny and Bobo share a kennel in the shelter because they’re too scared to be alone and we understand because we’ve spent months in varying states of seclusion too. Kimmie the collie tries to hide in the bushes rather than go out for a walk in the big wide world and we empathise. Venturing out is anxiety-inducing in 2020. So we stay at home in our trackies and watch reality television instead.
The Brits love their dogs. They take them to the pub and into restaurants and they celebrate them at Crufts, the biggest dog show in the world. The English also love a gentler, softer style of reality TV. Like The Great British Bake Off or The Repair Shop, The Dog House celebrates its characters in a loving but never mawkish way. No one on the show wants to be famous; they aren’t trying to be younger, richer, sexier or push a side hustle in personal training or collagen powders. They just want a lap to lie in or a heartbeat to come home to at night.
There are some matches on The Dog House you know will never last; in that way, it’s just like real-life too. When a big fluffy mutt called Wally comes along, there are vague references to “resource guarding” and a previous owner getting bitten. It seems a long shot that, given his past, Wally would – or should – ever be rehomed. But Wally’s limitations are promptly glossed over with charming shots of his piebald face and his goofy grin. He’s not the first guy on reality TV who’s fudged his dating history and hoped his looks would get him through. Sometimes the dogs are returned to Wood Green because they don’t fit into their new home. Those stories are tragic but even so, as The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson wrote: “It’s a balm; an hour-long mood enhancer that gently delights in the goodness of people and the wonder of love”.
My dog’s ambivalent about The Dog House, even though she’s a rehomed redemption story herself. She’ll lie on the couch with me while it’s on, but she doesn’t care to watch. Instead, she snores quite loudly throughout. Occasionally I wake her up. “Look,” I say. “Look how happy they all are,” and she’ll lick my hand in agreement. Then she turns over and goes back to sleep.
The Dog House is streaming on TVNZ on Demand.