I’m in a chilly waiting room in a London TV studio, the one where they film The X Factor. Through the slat of the window blinds I can see the benighted blur of a rainy Wembley intersection and, in the foreground, two Jack Russells whizzing on a stunted shrub. One of these dogs, I will later learn, can play the piano.
When Ashleigh and Pudsey won Britain’s Got Talent earlier this year it transformed the relatively obscure pastime of dancing with your dog into a national craze. Everyone, it seems, wants to jive with their mutt.
Now the phenomenon has an X Factor-style competition all its own that’s expected to get a prime Christmas slot on ITV1. In That Dog Can Dance!, five competitors and their dogs will perform in front of three celebrity judges. And their dogs. No, really. The winners will get to compete at Crufts.
Ashleigh and Pudsey are obvious choices for the panel, both famous and well qualified. Sharon Osbourne and her dogs, Bella and Rocky, will sit alongside them. On the day I visit the set, there are already rumours of animosity between the judges. I am told in complete confidence that Pudsey is not well liked by his fellow dogs. Unrequited bum-sniffing is apparently the source of the tension.
Comedian Bill Bailey, the third human judge, is well known for being a dog owner and for supporting dog charities, but even the producers have not guessed at the depth of his expertise.
“I’ve danced with dogs,” he tells me. It was the ruling passion, he says, of a character he played in the E4 series, Skins. So he’s trained?
“I’ve had training,” he says. “I’ve trained with the best. I’ve trained with Mary Ray and Taz.” Mary who? He is disappointed to find I am unfamiliar with the three-time Crufts winner and leading authority on the discipline known as ‘Heelwork to Music’. “Surely you should know this...”
Bailey doesn’t dance with his own dogs (he has three, with possibly another two on the way), who all came from a Balinese rescue centre he supports. “They’re south-east Asian street dogs. They’re feral; semi-feral. They have the same DNA strain as dingos.” They don’t do any tricks themselves, but he says they will perform a vital role in the judging.
“I just think, ‘Who are we, as humans, to judge another species?’ We need a species to judge its own,” he declares.
Is he worried about how his street mutts will react to Sharon Osbourne’s pampered pets? “I don’t know,” he says. “They look a bit too much like squirrels. I’m not sure how you tell a dog, ‘No, that’s not a squirrel.’”
Bailey admits he doesn’t know much about judging dog dancing. He and his dog, Teddi, will concentrate on “artistic interpretation”. “I think Ashleigh and Pudsey will be doing the technical side. That’s not my remit.”
Even the experienced competitors are unsure what to expect from the X Factor-style judging. “It’s nerve-racking,” says Lucy Heath, a postal worker from Bourne in Lincolnshire, “but I like the judges and hopefully they’ll all be kind.” Lucy’s dog, Indie, is a bright-eyed border collie with the awww-inspiring ability to hide her face behind her paws on command, over and over again, for as long as the photographer requires.
So sensitive are the issues surrounding postal deliverers and biting dogs that Royal Mail refused to allow Lucy (she’s been bitten twice; not by Indie) to wear her uniform in her video profile, but ironic and/or touching backstories are very much part of the show.
Sandra Hallam and her King Charles spaniel Henry were becoming known in Heelwork to Music circles when their training was suddenly interrupted two years ago.
“He’s now a deaf dog,” says Sandra. “We’ve basi-ally taken time out to learn sign language.” Is there a precedent for this in dog-dancing?
“I couldn’t find any at the time,” she says. “We just make it up as we go along.”
Rachael Grylls – owner of two Jack Russells, Jacob and Jessica – has never really competed and doesn’t know anything about Heelwork to Music. “I’m a novice,” she says. “I’m really scared.” Her dog training began, oddly enough, while she was trick-training her horses. The dogs learnt to ride the horses, and she took it from there, teaching them whatever stunts she could think of. “They play the piano, they skip — just normal everyday dog things.”
Dimi Yeremenko found his dog George on death row, rehabilitated him and, when no one else would take him on, adopted George himself. At the time he was looking for a pure-bred Irish setter puppy. “Instead I ended up with an aggressive two-and-a-half-year-old Husky cross-breed,” he tells me.
Dimi and George’s routine must be seen to be believed, and I speak with the full authority of someone who hasn’t seen it. “I will go on as Woody from Toy Story,” says Dimi, “going through a chain of misfortunes, riding my – you can’t say dog – my dog-horse”. Five other dogs have walk-on parts in their act. Originally Dimi wanted 15.
Dog-dancing has been around for quite a while, so its sudden popularity may strike the uninitiated as a bit of a mystery. Resident expert Bill Bailey has a theory. “It seemed to spring to life spontaneously all around the world,” he says. “There must have been some critical tipping point. I think it was probably the Berlin Wall coming down.”
On its inherent appeal, he is more lucid. “What’s not to love?” he says. “I’ve just seen two Jack Russells on a skateboard.”
When I get home from Wembley my two dogs run down the stairs and pin me against the front door. I push them off and point at the hyperactive Jack Russell.
“Today I met two dogs that looked like you,” I say, before turning to the older dog. “And I met a dog as deaf as you are. But that, I’m afraid, is where the similarities end.” They aren’t even paying attention to me; they’re already off, tumbling over each other, biting each other’s ears and crashing into the furniture.
That Dog Can Dance is on Boxing Day at 8:00pm on ITV1