Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Circus Life

I drove to Miami a few weeks ago to hang out with my friends and watch them perform in the DOGS Circus show. I'd actually been invited to join DOGS for their February 2011 tour in Mexico as part of the flyball act, but the timing had been bad and I had to turn it down, so I was really looking forward to finally seeing the show and meeting lots of people I only knew from Facebook.

I brought along three of my lower-maintenance dogs (Sky, Kraken, and Fringe), just for kicks. Figured it would feel weird to be surrounded by lots of dog trainers and living in a dog-friendly place for two weeks without any of my own dogs. My friends -- Todd Murnan, Michelle Largent, Travis Hallman, Mary Page, and Kendra Childs -- had already been in Miami for three weeks, so when I got there I brought the total in our rental apartment up to 6 people and 16 dogs. (It was a nice executive rental apartment, but we were on the 2nd floor, with parking in a gated basement. You guys know what a pain it is to stay on the 2nd or 3rd floor of a hotel on a flyball weekend, especially when they have no exterior room entrances and security doors to get in and out. Ugh. Plus it rained almost every day! ... Uphill! Both ways!)

I arrived on a Monday night, we went bar-hopping in Key West all day on Tuesday, and on Wednesday night we drove to the show (there were performances every Wed-Thurs-Fri at 7:30pm, then three shows spread across Saturday, and two more shows on Sunday. Mondays and Tuesdays were "weekends."). We arrived for an early rehearsal that Wednesday to learn that the show was switching things up (aka staff reductions to cut costs) and the flyball act was suddenly short three dogs. My friend Michelle had her three flyball dogs and that was it -- how could the act be salvaged (in two hours)?


So we quickly got my border collies Sky and Kraken and warmed them up with the other dogs and practiced them on the box (it was a Miller box, which my dogs had never used before). Sky did great, Kraken lost his brain and had to be put away (talk about stimulating is hard for a dog who attends Control Unleashed classes). So we had four reliable flyball dogs for the show. We decided to run two teams of two, but re-run the start dogs at the end to kind of fake three dogs running and make it look more exciting to the audience. Ok, cool, no problem.

Our first night
They gave me a blue DOGS shirt to put on and before I knew it, it was time for the flyball act. I have never done a big demo in front of lots of people, so it was really overwhelming to be introduced over a loudspeaker to a big crowd of people, with loud music and bright lights and screaming kids and the whole bit. I was supposed to wave and smile at the crowd but I froze up a lot.

The setup in the tent was definitely different than a flyball tournament. We were running the dogs on some type of astroturf, and there was just enough room for 4 jumps and about 10 feet of runback. There were people seated close to the ring on 3 sides, and there was LOUD music thumping the tent, and all sorts of lights flashing -- red lights, blue lights, spotlights. 

The act went okay, but Sky's partner/teammate was going around the last jump because she didn't like being passed into by Sky, who was running in start and then re-running as the "third" dog. (The crowd cheered anyway, I'm not sure how much they understood about what was going on. :))

16 demos in 14 days

The ring during the Jack Russell Terrier racing act

For the next show (on Thursday night) we decided to just run two dogs vs two dogs, with no dogs re-running at the end. Ok, no problem! And then, during the act, Sky started running around all the jumps on the way back up the lane. What the hell? (Again, the crowd cheered anyway :))

On Friday afternoon we got to the show site early so we'd have time to practice. Sky ran flawlessly during practice. And then, during the show, she ran around the jumps every time. (The crowd cheered anyway.)

On Saturday morning, we switched Sky from the right lane to the left lane, hoping the right lane would provide enough peripheral pressure to keep her in the jumps (she turns to the right). Nope.

I felt like one of those annoying people making excuses for my dog, but it was baffling because this is a dog who has played flyball for 10 years and has over 27,000 NAFA points. Plus she was doing everything right in practice.

The only thing we could think of was that there were several sets of very bright spotlights shining into the ring during the show which weren't on during practice, and when the dogs turned off the box the lights were shining right into their eyes. Which didn't seem to be bothering any of the other flyball dogs, but Sky has blue eyes and she can be sensitive to stuff, so maybe that was it. The lights were also bothering a bulldog in one of the other acts -- they were actually dimming the lights for him, but that wasn't really going to work for flyball, so we adjusted.

The perfect prop. (photo by Nicole Pierce)
We put one of the plastic DOGS signs right next to the first jump like a prop, to push Sky back into the center of the lane -- to the crowd it probably just looked like promotional sign placement. It worked great. Sky stopped going around the jumps. And then she started dropping her ball. Usually at the last jump...which messed up her partner/teammate, who wanted to pick it up off the ground instead of running down the box. It took me a few more shows to figure out how to fix the ball dropping thing -- I tried standing like a potted plant and clapping while hiding her frisbee, and running way off to the left (since I couldn't back up) so I'd be farther away from her. Didn't work. Finally I switched to a lower value reward-- instead of her floppy frisbee, I started bringing in a tug. Finally. A perfect show. I think that was probably a week and a half into it.

The DOGS Circus

The show was fantastic. It consisted of about 15 acts, including performance sports like frisbee, agility, dock diving, Jack Russell Terrier racing, and flyball (which the production company mistakenly called "Fly Balls," to all our amusement); amazing trick dogs who could dance and skateboard; and true circus-type acts like clowns with poodles, a slew of Old English Sheepdogs going down a slide, and "bull fighters" vs. bull terriers. All under a huge old-fashioned white circus tent.

The short movie that opened every show (starring Ana Gabriela Guzman Velez and BC/ACD mix Jumpy) was a testament to rescue and new beginnings, and it made me cry every time I watched it.

(Ironically, my favorite act was one of the clown acts, and it didn't have any dogs in it. And I don't like clowns. But these guys pulled members of the audience into the act and "trained" them with whistles and it was hilarious -- Michelle and I would watch it together every show and laugh our asses off.)

Carrie the dancing dog getting ready
The music was great, and it was matched perfectly to each act. After the agility act, Jose Fuentes (handler of Carrie the dancing dog) and I would always be in the crating/dressing room humming "We Go Together" (from "Grease").

This was the first time the DOGS show appeared in the United States -- prior to Miami, the show traveled to the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, and Puerto Rico (where the production company is based out of).

I loved watching the show from behind the curtain, and I loved watching the audience watch the show. The audience was probably half kids and half adults, and they all clapped and cheered throughout the show. It was great hearing people gasp or seeing their jaws drop open when they saw something especially cool (like Todd doing a mouth-take with his Belgian Malinois Bella during the frisbee act :)). It made me realize how lucky we all are to share our lives with dogs, and how special our bond is with our dogs, those of us who train and compete and perform (pretty much everybody reading this post, I'm guessing).

One thing became really clear after watching the show for a while: all the dogs had good days and bad days, even the ones who were world champions or in movies and commercials and trained by kickass trainers. There were times when the bulldog didn't feel like bark-counting to five, or Bella would miss a frisbee, or an agility dog would run around an obstacle, or a Jack Russell would take a tumble over a hurdle and roll across the stage. The trainers just smiled and took it all in stride during the show (and tried to fix it in between shows, if necessary).

It was frustrating to have to just suck it up during the show when Sky ran around the jumps or dropped her ball. Things like that are hard to fix during a demo/show -- you really don't even want to acknowledge that the dog did anything wrong in front of an audience. And you just hope they aren't developing bad habits in the meantime.

Fringe and I are under the red arrow somewhere
At the end of every show, we each brought in one of our dogs for an audience meet & greet. I couldn't bring Sky or Kraken in, because any time they approached the tent they thought they were going into a flyball tournament (bark bark bark!). So I brought my little Border Staffy Fringe in and she did great. We were SWARMED by children, all wanting to pet the dogs and take pictures with them. I shoved a lot of food into Fringe's mouth during those meet & greets (and let the kids feed her, too) and she did great.

Things I learned in Miami

Fringe & Sky hanging out before the show
* Older, experienced dogs do a lot better in shows because they know their job so well and aren't easily distracted or freaked out by crowds, noise, etc. It's okay if they're slower than some of the younger whippersnappers -- the crowd can't tell the difference between a 3.8 flyball dog and a 4.8 flyball dog (especially on astroturf with 10' of runback).

* Even older, experienced dogs screw up.

* Flyball dogs don't care if it's a demo, they still bark all the way in.

* You really can train an Old English Sheepdog.

* It is hard to learn Spanish when you're a 42-year-old American who has never had to roll your R's.

* It rains a lot in Miami. And people like to honk.

* Yellow rice, roasted chicken and plantains are delicious until about the fourth time you have them that week.

* A bad cold travels around a circus cast faster than a kindergarten class.

* You learn a lot about your friends when you live with them for two weeks in cramped quarters.

* Walking three dogs at once sucks, but it's better than walking two dogs THEN one dog, especially when it's raining and you're going up and down several flights of stairs.

* You can order 880 poop bags from Amazon for $24.

Michelle and me with Popeye
Being part of DOGS was hard work, and it was stressful at times, but it was also an amazing experience. By the last few shows, I was even smiling and waving naturally.


Patty said...

Great post! We used to compete with Michelle in flyball. Her dogs are awesome!

sheyla said...

Love it Lisa!!!! Too true, and FYI amazingly, my husband Dennis is the only cast member to have escaped the flu! He keeps telling me its his vegan diet - I swear I'll never hear the end of it :-) It was great finally meeting you and we were all super grateful that you were able to join us!

Todd said...

Great write up LisaP! You can come on tour with me anytime!!!!
DOGS was lucky to have you and your dogs available and willing to be a part of the show. Everyone there enjoyed what you brought to the family! Me just a whole lot more!
6 people,16 dogs and 1 apartment should have been a reality TV show. We had some good times!

Anonymous said...

Nice, Al

Ninso said...

My favorite part of this post: "you really can train an olde English sheepdog" Sounds like fun!

Anonymous said...

Glad you're posting again!

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