- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

If I knew anything about Chinese astrology, I’d swear this was the year of the dog.

“Hollywood has gone to the dogs,” says CBS spokeswoman Colleen Sullivan, laughing. “How many times have I heard that before?”

Only this time, it’s quite literally true.

Miss Sullivan is flush with high hopes for the network’s latest reality show, “Greatest American Dog.” Hosted by the zoologist and frequent television personality Jarod Miller, the show tests dog owners’ ability to train their dogs for a variety of challenges.

It garnered 9.4 million viewers with its premiere last week, and Miss Sullivan sees steadily building, “Survivor”-like potential for the show.

Over on the cable channel We-tv (Women’s Entertainment), one can find “Adventures in Doggie Daycare,” “America’s Cutest Puppies” and even, for those with a perhaps excessive reservoir of sentimentality, “Puppy Weddings.”

Last year, Animal Planet, another cable channel, picked up the popular United Kingdom series “It’s Me or the Dog,” starring dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, lately of “Greatest American Dog’s” panel of judges.

The big screen is about to start barking, too.

Regency Enterprises and 20th Century Fox are planning a Christmas Day release for “Marley & Me,” starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in an adaptation of former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Grogan’s family memoir of the same name. (Marley is the incorrigibly naughty and, of course, irresistible yellow labrador who’s there through thick and thin.)

Slated for January is “Hotel for Dogs,” a DreamWorks Pictures production about a pair of siblings who secretly shelter stray dogs in a vacant house. (It’s based on a 1971 novel for young adults by Lois Duncan.)

Is this one of those - here the cliche is, for once, unavoidable - dog-bites-man stories? A news item that isn’t particularly newsworthy?

It’s not like our entertainment culture didn’t already claim adorable icons named Lassie, Scooby and Benji, right?

One possibility, says Mark R. Levin, a syndicated radio talk-show host, is that the nature of today’s media, with its wall-to-wall coverage, is making an age-old love affair between dogs and people seem newly intense.

“Human love for dogs has been around for as long as humans and dogs have been around,” he says.

More likely is that TV programmers and movie developers noticed that books about dogs have been flying off shelves - and responded accordingly.

In addition to Mr. Grogan’s “Marley & Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog,” which has sold an astonishing 1 million copies since its 2005 release, is Ted Kerasote’s “Merle’s Door: Lessons From a Freethinking Dog”; Martha Sherrill’s “Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain”; and Mr. Levin’s own “Rescuing Sprite: A Dog Lover’s Story of Joy and Anguish.”

“Sprite,” published in November, has sold 350,000 copies with little help from the mainstream media. (When he’s not on the radio, Mr. Levin runs the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative legal advocacy group - not, to be sure, the kind of gig that endears you to the major broadcast-media shows that increasingly drive book sales.)

Dogs have figured in recent literary fiction efforts, as well. Starbucks Coffee shops for months have been spotlighting Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” narrated by “dog-philosopher” and autodidact Enzo.

“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski is also told partially from the point of view of a canine. Released in June, the book is in its 12th printing, for a total of 170,000 copies in print, according to USA Today - highly impressive for a 48-year-old, unknown first-time novelist who didn’t appear on “Oprah.”

Mr. Levin isn’t surprised at the success of canine-related entertainment. “Dogs bring out the best parts of our humanity. They’re a bottomless well of joy,” he says. “And when you lose one, it’s absolutely terrible.”

Dog lovers, in fact, may be an underserved demographic that entertainment marketers are learning anew how to exploit.

CBS’ Miss Sullivan points to the vast level of dog ownership in America. Around 45 million households include about 75 million dogs, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

“If we could reach just a fifth of that …,” she says. “The reaction I’ve been getting so far is, ‘Why hasn’t this been done before? Why did this take so long?’”

Mr. Levin, for his part, hopes the upsurge of dog TV shows, books and movies doesn’t prove to be merely a trend. There’s a message he hoped to convey with “Sprite”: the plight of the millions of dogs who live in shelters under the threat of euthanization.

“There are dogs out there who need help,” he says. “If they don’t get it, they’re going to be destroyed.”

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