Animal Doctor USA

Dressed to impress … Clarence, who was rescued from a cage and has lost an eye in The Dog House at Christmas (Channel 4). Show caption Dressed to impress … Clarence, who was rescued from a cage and has lost an eye in The Dog House at Christmas (Channel 4). Photograph: Channel 4
TV review

Reindeer antlers on rescue pups! Christmas back scratches for cute pooches! It’s the joyful festive special of this canine First Dates

Thu 16 Dec 2021 21.00 GMT

As the old slogan has it, a dog is for life, not just for Christmas, but sometimes, it’s worth putting reindeer antlers on a rescue pup and celebrating “the furriest Christmas in the land”. The Dog House at Christmas (Channel 4) is back for a one-off festive special, and remains as charming as ever. At the Cambridgeshire animal charity Wood Green, the staff are wondering whether dogs know it’s a special day while giving extra back scratches and the occasional new toy, and promising a pooch-friendly Christmas dinner. Sadly, no one breaks into Bark the Herald Angels Sing, but there’s always next year.

For those not familiar with the format of this feelgood show, it works like a cross between First Dates and For the Love of Dogs. Humans looking for canine companionship come to the centre to be matched with potential new pets. We hear people’s stories, which can be sweet and funny, tragic and heartbreaking or, as in life, blending all of the above. Then we hear the dogs’ stories, if they are known, which can be just as tumultuous or surprising. Both parties meet in a fenced-in area (turned for the special into a grotto), and if it goes well, they get the equivalent of an “I’d like to see you again”. At the end, we find out what happened after the cameras stopped.

The tinsel on this particular episode is festive jumpers for staff and dogs, as well as the odd dance to All I Want for Christmas in the office. But The Dog House brings goodwill to humanity all year round anyway.

First, we meet Benjamin and Jasmine, two giggly siblings whose mother has agreed to consider getting them a pet. At first, it seems like a nice idea, something to keep the kids occupied. But this show has a way with teasing out emotions just below the surface. Their parents are getting divorced, and their mum hopes a dog will help them through the change.

The Dog House at Christmas Pug love … The Dog House at Christmas. Photograph: Channel 4

Later, we meet Holly and Dom, both 24, who stun the staff by revealing that they have been a couple for 12 years. They went bowling on their first date, and they got together when Dom shouted down the street: “Holly, I think I fancy you!”, which is a brilliantly 12-year-old chat-up line, and clearly did the trick. They have now moved in with each other, and think a dog will help them learn how to take care of something, together.

Finally, there’s Romesh and his niece Monica. Romesh is 67, and has decided that a dog might keep him company after the death of his wife. Monica urges him along, keen to have a part in a dog’s life without taking on the full, massive responsibility of having one herself. Romesh’s story is beautifully told and devastating. “Sometimes I think, where did those 38 years together go?” he says. This is not the kind of programme that leaves a dry eye in the house.

While it is sentimental – ’tis the season, after all – it also has a firm side, and it does a service by showing that not every dog is suitable for every home, and that sometimes, people’s expectations of what a dog might do for them may need to be managed. There is a popular narrative that dogs are good for our physical and mental health, and though that may be true for many, they are a huge and complicated commitment, and have their own needs and personalities.

The three dogs we get to know are Michael, an utterly adorable lurcher who ticks my personal boxes both by being the most comedic of all dog types, and having a serious human name; Bentley, a portly pug who loves snacks above all else; and Clarence, who was rescued from a cage without food or water in it, and is missing an eye. It’s part of the viewing experience to see if you can predict how compatible they will be. I will leave you to watch what happens when these families meet these Very Good Boys, but not everything goes to plan.

It’s important to show it, and it doesn’t distract from the all-round good cheer and big hearts on display here. Ultimately, when it does work out, there is no sweeter sight. What could be more season-appropriate than a joyful vision of a happy dog in a happy home, living its very best life?

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