Posted: 02/02/2006


PBS Nature: Underdogs


by Parama Chaudhury

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For humans, the wonderful folks at ABC gave us Supernanny, who teaches errant children to mend their ways. PBS now presents us with the canine version: Larry Allen and Barbara Sykes dish out some tough love to dogs that can be potential police searchers or even sheep dogs, but are having trouble adjusting to a life with rules. Underdogs follows the lives of Holly, a bloodhound who hasn’t managed to be a very good domestic pet, and Herbie, a bearded collie whose favorite activity is to attack the sheep he’s supposed to be herding. Their trainers intend to put the dogs to work, but in the meantime, Holly needs to be taught how to search for a fugitive, while Herbie needs to learn how to curb his naturally exuberant tendencies.

At the start of Underdogs, we see how dogs like Holly and Herbie are abandoned by successive owners, as they seem to have behavioral problems. Holly quakes with fear at loud noises, and seems malnourished and neglected. Herbie is fine when he’s by himself, but doesn’t want to listen to any commands. Allen and Sykes are continents apart—he’s in the U.S. and she’s in the English countryside—but they’re convinced of the same thing. These dogs can be just as well-behaved and productive as any others, if they’re trained properly. So Allen starts by exposing Holly to the sound of a detonation, and then teaches her to nose through a plastic bag in search of her quarry’s scent. In England, Sykes has her hands full just trying to get Herbie to walk behind her, rather than run helter-skelter after the sheep.

As we see the trainers go through their paces, it’s tempting to worry about the animals’ welfare—they are after all being trained to help humans, not being allowed to just be dogs—but you can clearly see that Allen and Sykes mix in a lot of love and appreciation into their training regimens. As Herbie gets his first taste of the open meadow, Sykes runs after, alternating between hugs and praise, and sharp rebukes. Allen seems more laidback, but then Holly is much less of a challenge than the collie. In the end, Holly’s story is much more a fairy tale than Herbie’s but even this temperamental, rambunctious dog seems on his way to becoming a well-adjusted sheep dog. Underdogs is as much a story about the trainers and their methods, as it is about the evolution of the dogs from social rejects into productive animals. It’s remarkable to see how quickly Holly learns how to track down her subject, and how easily Herbie figures out how to keep the sheep corralled in between him and Sykes. One hopes that all abandoned animals are on the receiving end of such good rehabilitation efforts.

Parama Chaudhury is a film critic and economics professor living in New England.

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