The Dog House: feelgood TV at its fluffiest

As acclaimed, must-see dramas stack up on my streaming services, looming bleak and unwatched, I have found myself instead looking forward to every single episode of The Dog House on Channel 4, which might just be the most charming show on television (step aside, The Repair Shop ). Every Thursday, it’s a balm; an hour-long mood enhancer that gently delights in the goodness of people and the wonder of love. The Wood Green animal charity rehouses cats and dogs, but even though recent reports suggest that cats actually do have affection for their owners , rather than abject contempt, this is the canine roadshow. Each week, dogs that have come through the doors of Wood Green are matched with potential new homes. We are told the stories of the people who want a dog, and the people who have been forced to give their dogs away, and even the stories of the dogs themselves, which are sometimes colourful enough to warrant their own acclaimed must-see drama.
If that all sounds as if it is treading on Paul O’Grady’s territory, the master stroke is the matchmaking element. It’s this First Dates twist that makes it so special. When a person or family comes in looking for an animal to rescue, the staff assess their needs and requirements, and are shown mentally flicking through the directory of pets in their care, working out which dog would be the best match. Then, in a section so lovely that, if it were live-streamed, I would lose hours of my days, the nervous and excited new owners wait in a little grassy enclosure for their first encounter with their potential companion. As staff watch on camera, from the distance of the office, the dog is left in there with them for a short period of time, and we all wait to see how they get on.

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Some of the dogs at the Wood Green rescue centre


Some of the dogs at the Wood Green rescue centre. Photograph: Alex Grace/Channel 4
When the magic is there, it’s beautiful. Last week, one of the staff explained that if opposites attract in people, then owners tend to get on better with their dogs when they share the same temperaments. Shy and sensitive dogs slowly start to trust hopeful and patient new faces; boisterous dogs delight the boisterous people that start to rough and tumble with them from the off. The weight of stories that people come in with – sometimes simply a need for companionship, but often tied to loss, grief and emotional trauma – starts to lift away. The staff seem inordinately invested in each match working, and the tension can be unbearable. In the most remarkable pairing yet, a former nurse who had been in prison came to meet Caspar, a staffie who had accidentally bitten his old owner when a domestic violence incident flared up in his home. It took a while, but when Caspar warmed to her, and we saw them living together happily months down the line, my heart almost exploded.
This is unapologetically weepie television. I have not yet managed to get through an episode without choking up. The scenes of people handing over their pets to the charity are mercifully few, but the show doesn’t flinch from showing how upsetting that is. Care is taken to show the sheer amount of commitment it takes to have a dog, and any naivety on that front is quickly deflated. And it doesn’t always work out well. Sometimes dogs refuse to engage, are too stressed, even try to do a runner. They might be too big and rough for nervous children, or too shy and small for what the owner wants or is used to. It would be easy for The Dog House to be saccharine and sentimental, but it never is. When the pairings don’t work out, it shows what happened, and why. Perhaps a sweet-looking pup developed an appetite for the family cat, or perhaps the little girl with a tentative phobia of dogs wasn’t ready to push it so far. The honesty saves it from ever being too sweet.

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Often, the staff find a dog who simply fits in with its new home, as if it was always meant to be there. But sometimes, they have to put forward a dog they suspect will be a good match to people who don’t yet know that it will be. There is a quiet power in watching people reassessing what they thought they wanted, and finding happiness regardless of what they had planned. In The Dog House, people give homes to dogs who need one, but the dogs bring health, love, support, comfort and often, simply a reason to get up in the morning. That seems like a fair exchange. There are five episodes left of this feelgood tonic; those crime dramas will have to wait.

• The Dog House is on Channel 4 on Thursdays at 8pm, and on All4.