New lead for the alienated

27th October 2006 at 01:00
The latest reality show from Channel 4 follows disaffected teens trying to train their canine alter egos. Elaine Williams reports

Victoria meets Jolene. Two drama queens; two sets of hissy fits; sparks flying in every direction. Takes one to know one, as they say. Except that in this instance one drama queen is Victoria, a 17-year-old who smokes too much dope and likes having her own way; the other, Jolene, is a "barmy"

terrier cross, an out-of-control rescue dog that nobody wants.

They've been thrown together in an experiment by the Dogs Trust and psychiatrist Dr Gareth Smith to explore whether dogs can be more than man's best friends; whether they can teach us how to be better human beings.

Victoria Hughes from Leamington Spa is one of six disaffected young people matched to rescue dogs with similar characters. For example Chanel, who has unpredictable, fiery behaviour (an attitude problem, you might say) and has been excluded from school, is matched up with a one-year-old, equally unpredictable Rottweiler called Spice. Gary, who never finished school, has no qualifications and has never held down a job, preferring to hang around the streets, is paired with Baxter, a mutt who likes to do nothing but muck about.

Dogs and young people are thrown together for five weeks, during which the dogs have to be trained to show at Crufts. The hope is that this achievement will make it easier for the Dogs Trust to find the animals a home. Teaching the youngsters how to be dog trainers is Lynn Barber, training behaviour adviser for the Dogs Trust. Her undertaking has been filmed by Channel 4 for a three-part series called Underdogs, showing next month.

Ms Barber says: "Here were young people who were being treated as a problem by society and we were saying to them that they were no longer the centre of the universe, that they couldn't do as they pleased because another creature now depended on them, indeed was utterly dependent on how they behaved. Their job was to remain calm and confident at all times when around the dogs."

The project, in fact, had a major impact on all of the youngsters. Ms Barber says: "The dogs didn't understand if the young people couldn't be bothered or were in a mood. My concern was for my dogs and the youngsters had to learn the hard way that they couldn't have what they wanted when they wanted it."

In fact, the transformation of both dog and "trainer" proved significant.

Victoria Hughes says: "I left school when I was 16 with no GCSEs. I smoked cannabis and had a boyfriend and couldn't see the point of school until it was too late. I'd never really focused on anything and I felt pretty useless and would have tantrums.

"But when I was training Jolene, I had to be patient and disciplined, otherwise it fell apart. She is quite disobedient and moody just like me but we both had to listen and follow instructions - she from me, me from Lynn - if we were going to achieve anything.

"At first Jolene hardly did anything I asked her to do but I had to keep going because she had to change if she was going to find a home. I had to change if I was going to achieve anything in life. I didn't think that training a dog would change me, but it did. You've got to be there for them. You can't let them down.

"I did feel that I had wasted my time before and this was a real project that would give me a real chance."

The film gives food for thought. Ms Barber admits that at times the frustration she felt towards the youngsters reached nightmare proportions, but she believed the project was successful.

Victoria, who has kept Jolene, now hopes to study for an access course next year and go on to university, with a view to training as a social worker.

The other young participants in the programme are managing to hold down jobs.

As Ms Barber says: "The young people could see themselves in the dogs, that they behaved as their dogs behaved and realised that they couldn't go on like that if they were going to get anywhere in life."

She adds: "If there was some way that schools could get involved in projects like this, where students are given real responsibility, where it really matters how they behave, I think it would work."

Underdogs is showing on Channel 4 November 20-23 at 9.30am daily.The Dogs Trust website is

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