national geographic

Reality TV in Durham

TVRH Reality TV Filming

Last year I received this email: 

I am a Producer at Authentic Entertainment. We are a television company based in Burbank, CA. Currently we are working with Dr. Brian Hare, a professor at Duke University, co-author of The Genius of Dogs, and co-founder of Dognition, as well as other renowned professionals, to develop a series for National Geographic Wild based around the genius of our dogs.

We're planning to film in Durham late June or early July and will need interested owners and dogs who would be willing to play dog games while being filmed. I thought perhaps someone in your office, or one of your patients you know might be interested.

“Cool!” I thought to myself, “I bet our clients and staff would be excited about this.”  I did a little snooping to make sure that everything seemed legit, and then called the producer to offer my help.  As it turned out, they had already had an overwhelming response and so didn’t need me to post information about the program.  But during our conversation, we talked about my own dogs, and she urged me to fill out an application.

When we made it through the first round of eliminations, I was pretty excited.  Eventually we were asked to participate in a Skype video interview – my small-town, low-tech self thought “How Hollywood!”.  (Yes, I’m a nerd.)  And we finally got the news that we had been chosen!

Spencer TVRH triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital
TVRH Dexter Reality tv

The show producers were interested in comparing the two dogs in my household because they were so very different.  Spencer, a border collie rescue, lives to please and bases his moods on mine.  Dexter, a rescued Doberman pinscher (a failed car lot guard dog) lives to eat, and everything he does is about obtaining more food. 

 I set up our profiles on the Dognition website and we went through the exercises at home;  Dognition uses a series of “games” that are fun for the dogs that are designed to evaluate various aspects of canine cognition.  A few days later, the crew from Authentic Entertainment showed up for our scheduled filming.

We spent from 9:30 am to 8:00 pm with the friendly, professional, and fun crew (Dexter, the guard dog, slept through much of the set-up while 8 strange men brought in massive amounts of equipment and moved our furniture around).  There was a moving truck full of equipment, a tent in the front yard, a 12 foot  x 12 foot reflector screen in the back yard, lights, cameras, microphones and microphone booms, and a total of about 12 people in and out of my tiny house (the cats hid under the bed the whole time). 

TVRH Reality TV 1
TVRH reality TV

After some “B roll” footage and interviews were completed, Dr Brian Hare from Dognition joined us for additional on-air exercises with the dogs and then to discuss the results of the testing.  Dr Hare is genial and charismatic, and I enjoyed chatting with him so much that I think our producer got a little frustrated at repeatedly having to get us back on track and on topic.  In true “reality tv” fashion, the very last thing we filmed was Dr Hare walking up to our door and introducing himself.

The test results were unexpected; Dexter scored very highly on empathy, which surprised us since we had decided that Dexter’s main focus was on being able to mooch more food.  I think that’s largely why the producer decided to use him exclusively in the program, which aired during Nat Geo Wild’s Barkfest that aired last weekend.  Now that he’s a television star as well as an unofficial spokesdog for TVRH (if you attend any of the events that we participate in like the DAPS Walk for the Animals, Music for Fences, or Woofstock, you’ll see Dexter and Spencer there), he lives the life of a celebrity…... nah, not really.

 Written by Sharon Zeigler, manager of the Hollywood stars Spencer and Dexter

If you’d like to see Dexter being tested, you can watch the three night series ( if you have  On Demand through Nat Geo Wild.  Dexter’s premier is on the second episode, “Who’s Your Doggy?” (