Mark Evans talks about Dogs: Their Secret Lives and his work as a vet-meets-science explorer. The show returns to Channel 4 on Thursday 18th June at 8pm.
Dogs: Their Secret Lives is back – for those who’ve never seen it, what’s the premise?
My tagline for it is “It’s not easy being a modern dog”. We’ve lived with dogs for 15-20,000 years, and actually, today the world we expect dogs to function in is frantically crazy, and potentially incredibly frightening, but also has huge opportunities for dogs and dog-owners to have a great time together. And science can drive our efforts to give dogs the best quality of life and to give dogs and dog owners the chance to get the most out of their relationships. So many times this doesn’t happen, due to a lack of understanding – not a lack of love or a lack of care, simply the fact that owners don’t know. I think television has a great opportunity to influence that. There’s no point in scientists generating science about dogs unless there is a mechanism to make sure that science is communicated to dog owners, who can turn that science into helping improve animals’ quality of life.
Can you give us an idea of the kinds of cases you examine in the series?
Yeah. It’s a diverse bunch of cases, there are fewer in this series, but they’re more complicated, and normally have quite a big emotional component to them. So for example we meet two German Shepherds, sisters who, if they were left in the same room together, would fight to the death. Their owners, Pat and Dave, have divided their house up completely. The two owners basically live in separate halves of the house, and have been for the last two years. So there’s a dog issue to sort out, but also two very unhappy people. And by working with the owners and the dogs, the transformation in the owners was remarkable. Six weeks on, Pat was a different human being. The dogs are happier - we have only just started in their treatment, but the dogs are happier and Pat and Dave have their lives back. It’s not just me though. My colleague, clinical animal behaviourist Dr Emily Blackwell from the University of Bristol is in charge of all the cases in this series and we have also brought in Tamsin Durston as a rehabilitation trainer to help Emily with some of the training.
That change to the owners’ lives must mean a lot to you?
Absolutely, of course it does. We are very genuine, we are very authentic. There are no bells and whistles on this programme. Television, for very understandable reasons, is obsessed by dog gimmicks – stunts, tricks, Britain’s Got Talent is an example of that. But I believe really, really strongly that you can celebrate how brilliant dogs are, you do not need to get them to do stunts. They are amazing. And the relationship between dogs and their owners is amazing too. It’s a relationship between species like no other on planet Earth. Dogs are so unbelievably tuned into us and, as anyone who owns a dog will testify, it is unbelievably special.
Why do you think it is that dogs hold such a place in our hearts?
It’s summed up, I think, by a keyring that my wife has, which says “The more people I meet, the more I love my dog”. In a world that’s increasingly high-tech and pressured, dogs represent a type of connection that is totally different from anything we experience anywhere else. It’s a relationship that’s unbelievably loyal and trusting. They don’t care who we are or how much money we’ve got. All they see is a relationship, the material world doesn’t matter. And in a world where we are wrapped in materialism, that’s so valuable.
Dogs are also a social solvent. If you walk through a park with a dog, you are ten times more likely to make contact with another human being. There is evidence that people who own dogs visit the doctor less. They help us live longer. The benefits of dog ownership are massive.
Your mission is to boost our understanding of dogs, then?
Yes. There may be 10 million dogs in the UK. About one-in-four households have one. But most people have no idea what is going on inside their dog’s brains. We can attribute human emotions to them. Lots of people think “My dog gets jealous when I interact with another dog.” Most studies now indicate that dogs do experience some form of jealousy, but do they experience it like we do? That is very unlikely, because the way we experience jealousy depends upon some very highly developed cognitive functioning. Owners also quite often say they can see when their dog has done something wrong, because the dog looks guilty. But the likely answer from studies that have been carried out is that dogs don’t feel guilt.
Speaking of scientific research, is it true that you’ve set up a website to help scientists meet subjects?
Yeah. There are two ways that we can learn about dogs in the 21st Century. One is all the technology and the functional MRI scanning and the incredible science trials we’re able to do with dogs. The other side is the citizen science side – by sharing with scientists the experiences of people who live with dogs. When [dog behavioural expert] Emily [Blackwell] and I ran surveys in the past for this series, we were really surprised to have 20,000 people fill in quite detailed questionnaires. So we have launched a free online service that will bring together dog owners who would like to be dog citizen scientists, with actual dog scientists from all over the world who are running projects that need their help. So the public can join up, and we’ll then send email alerts of projects anywhere in the world that are looking for dog experience. Hopefully this will help improve our understanding of dogs, and improve the welfare of dogs. I’d love people to sign up for it. It’s at http://www.dogsciencegroup.org/ (opens in a new window)
As a high-profile vet, are you allowed to have a favourite species of animal? Can you say that dogs are your favourite animal, or will that get you in hot water?
It can get you in hot water, but what gets you in even more hot water is if, within and amongst dogs, you select a breed as a favourite. Dog people are unbelievably tribal. There is no species on planet Earth that is so physically diverse as the dog. Worldwide there are about 450 breeds of dog, everything from a Chihuahua to a Great Dane. And owners are quite tribal: they tend to say: “I’m a Labrador person, or I’m a Poodle person”.
Do you still think of yourself as a vet?
It’s a difficult one. I’m not a vet in practice now, I haven’t been in practice for 15 or 16 years. I wear a number of hats. I suppose. One is vet, one is science explorer, which is a lot of the stuff I’ve done for Channel 4 over the last five or six years; and the third is petrol head. I’m split very much between animals and engineering. My family’s background is in engineering, but linked to farming. That’s how I got my interest in both animals and engineering. I spent my whole childhood working and growing up on farms, and they are some of the best engineering workshops in the world. And they are full of animals. And it’s interesting that 30-odd years on, my life is still split between engineering and animals.
Are there similarities between the disciplines?
What fascinates me about animals is what I call their biological engineering. When you learn how a dog sniffs, it’s an incredible mechanism. When you look at it from an engineering perspective, it is utterly incredible. People might argue that I can’t call it engineering, because it sounds like it’s been designed, and I believe in evolution. But the bottom line is that evolution is the most extraordinary engineer. Modern engineering tends to look at biology for solutions to problems. Biomimetics is a big interest areas of mine, and it kind of merges those two things.
At one point in the past, you dreamed of becoming a farmer. Do you ever regret not going into that field?
What’s the point in regretting? You can’t go back. But there is rarely a day that I don’t get up and think “I wish I was farming.” People find that extraordinary. I feel incredibly lucky to do the job that I do, flying all over the world to make some great TV shows. Yes, it’s been incredibly hard work, and I probably would have had a different lifestyle and been better off, financially, if I’d stayed doing what I was doing and not got into TV, which is a highly fickle world. I’m not a very confident person, and I find the spotlight, and people thinking they’re free to say what they like about you on social media, I find that incredibly hard. It’s a side of doing what I do that I don’t like./ I’d love to walk away from that. But the opportunity to be able to do these things is amazing. And when people get in contact with me for something positive it’s such a buzz.
What sort of thing are you talking about?
I had an email today from a 13-year-old girl in Wales who, as a result of watching Inside Nature’s Giants, started a collection of skulls. She now has 300 skulls, and has just been in her local paper in Wales because of her collection. She’s now obsessed by biology, and she just said “I wanted to write to you to tell you that your show was the inspiration for me to get that excited about biology.” That, for me, makes all the hassle about working in television completely worthwhile.
Courtesy of Channel 4