Anna Llewellyn, the series producer of HBO Max's heartwarming new show "The Dog House: UK," says that she wanted to create a docuseries that used dogs as a prism through which to better understand people and their stories.
"I started just going around rescue centers in England, trying to work out what stories were there and how we might make a series," Llewellyn told Salon. "And then I came to Wood Green, the animals charity in Huntingdon. They had set up this brand new building and it was entirely dedicated to re-homing and matching members of the public with their rescue dogs."
What appealed to Llewellyn about Wood Green is that they did things a little differently from your typical animal shelter; staff don't allow visitors to walk through the kennels of available dogs.
"They found it was distressing to the dogs," Llewellyn said. "And also they found that people were very bad judges regarding which dogs would suit their lifestyle and their home."
Instead, visitors describe their ideal furry companion to the rescue center's employees, who then compare those notes to their pups on file. Once people have determined a match based on breed preferences and personality, they meet the strongest canine candidates in the "Meeting Pen," a fenced-in grassy area with toys.
Sometimes there's an instant connection, sometimes it takes the parties a little while to warm to each other — and occasionally, it becomes obvious that it's just not a match.
"And as soon as I saw this, I was like, 'Oh, this is like matchmaking, this is like going on a date,'" Llewellyn said. "I saw the apprehension. Oh god, I remember seeing this father and son who turned to each other, and they said, 'I hope they like us.' They were worried about the dog taking to them."
This concept — that Wood Green's adoption practices almost mimic that of a dating show — is the foundation for "The Dog House: UK," which originally premiered on UK's Channel 4 network. It's a visually bright, chipper series that takes the same format over eight episodes. In each, we are introduced to three people (or couples and families) who are hoping their lives will be changed in some way by bringing a four-legged friend into their lives.
The most striking episodes are the ones in which the participants' loneliness is a motivating factor for wanting a dog; I'm thinking of one scenario in particular when a woman comes in looking for a companion after her former live-in boyfriend had gone on to marry someone else. She has the space in her life to care for something else, she says, both physically and emotionally.
It's an incredibly relatable feeling amid the pandemic where many Americans — especially the estimated 35.7 million Americans who live alone — have found themselves coming to terms with what their social and dating lives look like without the opportunity for physical interaction. So it's not really surprising that when many shelters around the country started putting out calls in mid-March for fosters so they could scale back operations and limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, a lot of people responded.
As NPR reported in May, there were "thousands of new fosters and an initial uptick in adoptions, so many that some shelters have even been posting feel-good videos of empty kennels for the first time ever."
But it led me to wonder: how are animal rescue professionals working to ensure that the adopted pets will be a good fit for their adoptive families, even once the pandemic eventually passes and life normalizes a bit?
According to Christa Chadwick, the vice president of shelter services at the ASPCA, many shelters implement the same "matchmaking" practices seen on "The Dog House."
"While each shelter is different, pets are generally assessed and then introduced to potential adopters based on the likelihood of compatibility," Chadwick said. "Every animal is an individual — even those within a specific species or breed — and shelter staff are experts at making matches that work. If you ultimately determine that now is not the best time to adopt, fostering can allow you to change an animal's life for the better and is a rewarding experience for those who choose to become caregivers."
Kitty Block, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, also highlights the importance of potential pet parents going into the adoption process with an understanding of how much time and attention they can give their new pet — something animal rescue professionals are taught to inquire about.
"We advocate for shelters and rescues to have inclusive adoption and foster policies that rely more on a conversation rather than a list of requirements for that family to meet," she said. "Conversational adoption processes are far more effective in preventing returns than long applications because they ensure adopters receive information they need to find a great match for their lifestyle."
With regards to animal returns, Block said the Humane Society didn't have any data that would indicate a spike in the abandonment or surrender of pets to shelters and rescues as COVID-19 stay-at-home orders lift. Chadwick similarly said the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City has not seen an increase in owner surrenders or stray intakes compared to the same time period in 2019.
"Overall, return rates of adopted dogs and cats remain very low, confirming our prediction that people who fostered or adopted animals would not return them when restrictions began to lift," Block said.
However, Block has heard anecdotally of shelters reporting some dog and cat surrenders due to owners being sick with COVID-19 and that her organization anticipates a significant spike in surrenders as eviction and foreclosure protections expire and pet owners struggle to find affordable pet-inclusive housing.
That said, Block doesn't think that animal returns are always inherently negative.
"Sometimes the match doesn't work out, and that's okay," she said. "The experience provides the shelter with valuable information about how the pet does in a home environment and the adopter knows more about what type of pet would do best in their home."
It also may broaden the adopter's definition of what constitutes an "adoptable pet," something Chadwick said is important.
"We always encourage adopters to keep an open mind and heart when visiting a shelter or rescue," she said. "You may walk out with a pet you'd never considered before, like a senior animal or an animal who looks nothing like what you originally had in mind."
This is a theme that deeply runs through HBO Max's "The Dog House: UK." According to series director Anna Llewellyn, many of the connections she observed between the dogs and humans were much more subtle than she anticipated.
"Rather than it being about 'Oh, you like big dogs,' or 'You like small dogs," it's much more about the personality and characteristics of both parties," she said. "There are plenty of dogs, for example, who come in, and they are anxious around people. Sometimes it's useful to have somebody come in and say, 'I don't mind taking a dog that doesn't like socializing; I don't like it much either.'"
"The Dog House: UK" is available for streaming on HBO Max.