Rosanne Hall, CPDT-KA, trainer at Cold Nose Companions shares this recent experience with her own dog:
My deaf English Bulldog, Finnegan, recently “starred” in a play! My husband spotted the post on Facebook. “Chagrin Valley Little Theater needs a bulldog for Legally Blonde the Musical.” My reaction? Same as yours: oh, that would be so much fun!
At the first meeting with the producer, director, and his future co-star, I was told there was a scene that called for the bulldog to be picked up. Looking down at his heavily front-loaded 50+ pound bulk, I said “no way – either he’ll get hurt, you’ll get hurt, or both!” The result: thank you very much, but we’ve decided to go with a smaller French Bulldog. Until a week before opening night, when the frantic request came: Can Finnegan still do the play? The Frenchie suffered a back injury requiring surgery the first night he was picked up at rehearsal.
LESSON #1: Always advocate for your dog, and never allow them to be put in a dangerous position, no matter who is asking (including that person with the out of control dog who assures you “it’s ok!”).
With the scene modified to eliminate the “pick up”, we signed on the week of intense nightly rehearsals. There would be no time to “proof” the behaviors required on stage (an off-leash entrance through a prop door and an on-leash sit) against the enormous distractions. I quickly realized I had no control of what he would do onstage, other than by coaching the actors who interacted with him. But no one except me seemed overly concerned, knowing a dog’s entrance will be greeted with ooooh’s and aaaah’s from the audience, regardless of what he does.
LESSON #2: Your dog won’t always do things perfectly and it’s OK. Our expectations are sometimes too high for the circumstances.
As the week wore on, Finn showed increasing signs of stress entering the theater and backstage. He balked at the lobby doors, exhibited tense high alert behaviors and never relaxed through the nightly 3 hour wait backstage. It became dramatically worse when the orchestra joined rehearsals. For a deaf dog, the bass and percussion vibrations probably felt like an earthquake! Around the same time, it was lights out backstage, resulting in lots of shadows and movement in the dark.
LESSON #3: Think like a dog! See things from his perspective. Even what we consider fun might in fact be scary, stressful or difficult for our dogs!
Quitting was not an option – the show must go on! Carol Peter was unbelievably supportive throughout and spent a night backstage with us to observe and make suggestions. We strategized on the only thing we could affect: stress reduction to help keep him calm and turn this into a positive experience. I tried different things, including bringing his crate backstage, but settled on a mat sprayed with DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromones) and a DAP collar, a yummy stuffed Kong, brief training sessions to distract him, and moving about rather than letting him get too attached to our hiding spot backstage. A cast member started the tradition of rubbing his nose for good luck before going onstage, and I added having them each give him a treat. Over the next several performances, he began to enter the stage door willingly, settle and relax backstage, and do better onstage. Acclimation – becoming used to the surroundings – surely helped as well. He never did, however, learn to enjoy the curtain call, planting himself firmly in the wings! The only time he ventured out, a theater critic was present, resulting in this review:
Rufus was played by Finnegan Hall, the mascot of Cold Nose Companions dog training. However, he was impolite in his curtain call, turning his ample backside to the audience. They clapped anyway.
SEE LESSON #2!
Overall, the experience was a learning opportunity for ME, both as dog mom and trainer. As a trainer, I was humbled to realize I could not make my dog perform perfectly onstage. Lowering expectations was a painful reality – from hoping he would shine to just being grateful he didn’t poop on stage!! Worst of all, I was exposing him to a very stressful situation. But, as a trainer and especially his “mom”, I was determined to turn a potentially negative experience into a positive, and in that we succeeded. Ultimately, Finnegan came to solicit the attention of cast and crew, wandering about backstage for treats and petting. Over the five week run, he learned to relax, alternating working on his Kong with snoozing on his mat. And onstage, he did was he was supposed to do at least half the time. Most importantly, our bond was strengthened by the time spent working together. Resulting in . . .
THE ULTIMATE LESSON: Love your dog unconditionally. Train him to understand your expectations, but don’t expect perfection, and work with him wherever he is. Consider his welfare in all things. Do everything you can to strengthen your bond, and enjoy your wonderful dog for life.