Review: Telling Stories Doggy Style. There's More To The BBC's Walking With Dogs Than Puppy Porn

17/10/2012 17:47 BST | Updated 16/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Watching Vanessa Engle's brilliant Walking with Dogs (part of the Wonderland series, BBC Two, Monday) made me think about my grand-dad. My grand-dad used to have a cat that disliked loud noises. My sister is a frequent shrieker and he would tell her to pipe down for the sake of the sensitive feline. Poor old BeeTee - short for Bath Tap, couldn't stand the racket apparently. The whimsically named cat actually approached life with equanimity: shrieks and whispers were all the same to him. When the cat died, grand-dad had to confess that it was him and not his feline compatriot that wanted my sister to put a sock in it.

Pets are there so that we can speak about ourselves without acknowledging we're speaking about ourselves. Which is what Walking with Dogs captured so beautifully. Who'd have thought that by patrolling Hampstead Heath and talking to people about their dogs Engle's team would unearth stories with such startling human interest.

Quarter of an hour in and Gilly, a blonde woman with collagened lips and large black shades, walks a majestic grey dog. We all know the type. She's beautifully framed against the heath, her pedigree Weimaraner Bluebell at her side. Gilly's talking about the "big, big garden" she used to have and it suddenly becomes clear that she's talking about once having lots because these days she has nothing. Nothing at all, she lives in a homeless shelter. She describes Bluebell as all she's got. Which helps her more Engle wonders the antidepressants or the dog? The answer hardly needs to be given, Gilly spends two or three hours on the heath each day walking Bluebell.

The evidence that dogs are something to turn to in a time of need marks the progress of the programme. A dog called Zen helps a recovering alcoholic stay sober and a fluffy black and white dog distracts Tony and Vicky from their loss of family member. This couple's participation struck me as generous, risking tears in front of a camera to advocate getting a dog to help you deal with a death.

What about the light stories? Well they're in there certainly, take the millionaire with his five white dogettes skipping about his heels. But even the funny stories are always just a little bit dark, a few paces behind the little white pooch parade is the man paid to follow them, picking up their shit. Then there's the wide eyed Marianne with her range of princess costumes for dogs, designed to make your pet look like a teddy from Clinton cards. When you stop laughing at the dog drag you'll be hit by Marianne's explanation of how different it is to live with a dog than a person, with the dog "you might exchange a few words, at most". As if conscious of being set up as the eccentric she flashes with rare assertiveness "obviously there is a difference [between a dog and a person], I see that".

This is something lots of the participants want us to know. Recently bereaved Vicky says that she talks to the dog knowing it won't talk back "like a one would talk to a baby". Others seem less bothered about distinguishing between a characterful dog and human companion. Take Shelia, an older woman in a fleecy coat and beige cap. When Engle asks her what her dog Millie had for breakfast Shelia tells us that she and her chubby mutt enjoy the same Benecol yogurt of a morning. Shelia also carries a photo album full of snaps of one subject, her dog. Why does she need the album when she's out with the dog? Because "things in my place get lost, badly" she reflects.

Try walking through a park after you've watched Walking with Dogs. You feel as if real insights, or humour, or secrets might tumble on to the grass any second and that all you need to do to get at them is ask someone what breed their dog is. It's a testament to Engle's skill as an interviewer that she creates this illusion, we never feel her pushing too hard for the bombshell, we half believe she is actually asking about the dog's breakfast even as this programme highlights that most of the time when you ask about the dog you get told about the owner.

Clever, spacious, compassionate and sad, it's everything you want from a drama and there wasn't a screenplay in sight. iPlayer it this minute, unless the dog's pining for a walk.