It’s the dead of night, under a gritty urban overpass. Thunder crashes and lightening flashes. As the lightening illuminates the sky, a woman becomes visible. She’s alone, in a blue dress and covered by a long overcoat. She’s leaning up against one of the concrete columns that hold up the freeway; she’s hiding. In the distance, there is the sound of dogs barking. A large, muscular brown dog runs by in a blur, followed by another. They are hunting the woman.
The dogs are now heading right for me! I’m directly in their path as they bear down. I try to move out of the way. The first dog runs right for a woman standing near me and leaps through the air as he chomps down on an object in the woman’s hands. She catches the big creature, spins a bit, but doesn’t let go. Now the second dog is coming! His mouth is open and he runs right past me as a man grabs the dog and … pulls out a toy and proudly praises the dog for a job well done. I can still hear the thunderous roar of the hunt, but all around me everyone is smiling. Even the dogs. They are wagging and being loved up, rewarded for yet another perfect performance. I am back stage at the San Francisco Opera.
I’ve written about working dogs in this column several times over the years. I relish the idea of dogs with jobs. Most dogs were bred for a purpose, and very often, that purpose has them working in conjunction with humans who use the dogs’ extraordinary skills to help us achieve our goals. In this case, the dogs are actors.
The dogs are Finn and Fubar, two male Belgian Malinois, and during their run at the SF Opera, performing in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre (the second opera of the epic Ring cycle), they’ve been consummate professionals. The boys were accompanied and trained by their owners, Renee and Pat, respectively. Pat is a professional dog trainer and runs his business, Barkeley K-9 University out of the East Bay, where he helps people and their pets to live harmoniously. This was the first acting gig for all four of them.
Pat generously invited me to come and check out the performance. Such a privilege. I’ve watched many dogs perform for television or film over the years, but I’d never before been behind the scenes at a live performance. It was truly a magical experience.
As you can imagine, a production at the War Memorial Opera House is on quite a grand scale, and Wagner’s Ring has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. The performance I attended was sold out, all 3,200 seats. This is the only opera production in which the dogs are loose and performing independently from their handlers on stage. No pressure there, ha ha! But no matter, Finn and Fubar were confident, clearly having a blast and beloved by stage crew and actors alike. Walking with them backstage was like walking in the entourage of Brad Pitt and George Clooney. We couldn’t get but a few feet at a time without somebody stopping us to give the boys a pet or even to ask for their “pawtograph.”
Both handlers told me they had the time of their lives, too. They were so proud of their dogs and agreed the experience was well worth all of the rehearsals and homework to prep Finn and Fubar for their roles. And they should indeed be proud of the boys. Finn had to learn to bark and shush precisely on cue to add some intensity to the scene. Finn also had to learn not to interrupt the orchestra and upset the conductor at the wrong time.
Both dogs had to learn how to work with extra handlers (assisting stage crew), hit their mark, and run from point A to point B without veering off course at all. No improvisations allowed.
They also had to ignore completely the fact that one of their favorite performers was on stage at the same time as they were, hiding from them. No running up to her to enjoy the ear scratches, cuddles, and cookies she shared with them back stage.
Not just any dog could handle being part of such a big production. A canine actor must be social and environmentally confident to the extreme. The stage, both front and back, is very busy, people bustling all over the place. There’s also a large orchestra playing and the acoustics, while wonderful, only enhance the sound to a dog’s sensitive ears. The floor of the stage is made of metal grates.
There are also distractions: the aforementioned human fans, rolling carts, curtains, bright lights, and even furry animal pelt props for another scene.
Thankfully both dogs have very solid, stable temperaments. They have both lived with children. Finn used to assist in police dog training, and Pat routinely seeks out urban environments for fun training challenges for Fubar and his clients as well. It’s as if they’ve been training for this opportunity their entire lives.
Renee and Pat said all four of them have been bitten by the acting bug and hope to find more work for Finn and Fubar now that they are local celebrities.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: Courtesy Kelly Gorman Dunbar