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For the love of dogs
  1. Shaun Opperman

Abstract

Battersea Dogs and Cats Home is featuring in a seven-part documentary this autumn. The charity's onsite clinic team of five vets and 20 nurses is often at the heart of the Home's most emotive stories and was of particular interest to the TV crew. Veterinary director, Shaun Opperman, explains what was involved

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A DOCUMENTARY series, ‘For the Love of Dogs’, presented by Paul O'Grady, will begin on ITV1 on September 3 at 8 pm. The series will illustrate the daily challenges of caring for an average of 240 dogs. Camera crews spent seven days a week at the Home earlier this year capturing the journey the dogs embark on when they come through the charity's gates until they leave with their new owners.

The ITV crew were very easy to work with, although there was inevitably a certain amount of disruption. Filming is always more time consuming than you think: it takes time to set up shots, fix microphones, etc, and there is always an element of repetition to contend with as they often want to repeat shots from different angles. You also have to remember that the producer and film crew have a particular agenda that may be at odds with your own. Jeopardy and emotions make good television and so you need to be careful not to compromise your actions or be drawn into saying things you may later regret! On the other hand, you want to help them to make a programme that people will enjoy watching.

Every morning began with a meeting between the Battersea communications team, the ITV crew and staff from each of Battersea's key departments. Timings were coordinated, availability of spokespeople was checked and schedules were married up to maximise everyone's time.

But, on occasions, of course, all that planning goes out the window. One afternoon, a severely emaciated Staffordshire bull terrier was rushed into clinic. The Staffie, who staff called Sparkle, was one of the worst cases of neglect that I have seen in my 20 years at Battersea. The TV crew team were alerted so that the beginnings of her treatment could be captured on film. The programme will follow Sparkle's story during her time at Battersea.

For other stories, precise planning was required. When a heavily pregnant, but emaciated, Jack Russell/chihuahua cross was brought into Battersea by a local dog warden, it was clear that a caesarean was the most likely outcome if the pups were to survive. The TV crew were on-call for when she went into labour so they could film this part of her story, which inevitably happened in the middle of the night.

The range of clinic stories depicted in the programme reflects the variety of cases that we deal with here. We had occasional disagreements with the film crew over which cases should be filmed or what aspects of a case could be emphasised. They can be very persuasive! Ultimately, you have to build up trust in the crew and the producer, because you have very little say over the final edit. I did ask for editorial control over one sensitive case and they agreed to this.

Paul O'Grady became a regular sight at the centre and viewers will see that he was not afraid to get involved with helping out around the Home, including hand-feeding puppies, bathing dogs and donning scrubs in theatre. Paul is genuinely funny, but he also puts people at their ease when filming, which brings out the best in everyone, especially those who may not have been involved with filming before. He genuinely loves animals – that is not something that you can fake. I think this is why all the staff warmed to him so quickly. Often he would just wander off in the middle of filming, having seen a dog down the corridor that he wanted to go and say hello to. He seemed to take to Battersea as well, even coming in on his days off to help out. We have had some lovely mentions on his radio shows too.

Being filmed is strange at first and you inevitably feel self-conscious, but you do get used to it. You are almost always doing something you would normally be doing anyway, which helps to take your mind off it. I think it helps to imagine the crew or the camera as an owner who just wants you to explain something to them. The only advice I would give would just be to be yourself, act naturally in front of camera and don't say anything you are not comfortable with. The thing that sometimes worries me is how the footage will be edited and wondering what other vets/colleagues make of what you are saying. However, ultimately, you have to be aware of the audience's level of understanding as they are the ones watching, and try not to take it too seriously.

This is not the first time that life at Battersea has been interrupted by TV cameras. In 1998, the BBC filmed a documentary series, which was aired to audiences of around seven million people. The impact on the Home was huge, with soaring visitor numbers, telephones ringing off the hook, a rise in donations and many more animals finding new homes. A second BBC series and accompanying book soon followed.

The BBC filming was extremely hectic and time consuming, but great fun. They needed a huge amount of footage for 30 episodes and were virtually camped out here for six months. At any one time there would be four crews filming different stories at once. No-one could have predicted just how much impact the BBC programme could have had on the Home. It changed every single aspect of life here. Soon, it became almost commonplace to see people queuing around the block to visit the Home and rehome one of the animals in our care. We shall wait and see what this new ITV series does for us, but we're sure it will be a positive way for more people to find out just what we do to rescue and rehome the thousands of animals who come into our care every year.

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