The Dog Journal

Adventures:

Dynamo Dogs

You’re never too old to follow your dreams! Running away with the circus, was mine! In 2005 I was working with ShearingPlough Pharmaceuticals, in New Jersey. The work was draining and not as emotionally fulfilling as it had been when I first started in Connecticut with Pfizer. In fact, I was in a rut.

The Dog Journal April/May 2023

I had already been actively planning on jumping ship from the pharma world and I put in my two-week notice just before leaving for the Indiana State Fair for the Purina Incredible Dog Team (PIDT). The idea was to start my own dog training facility and continue to perform with my dogs as part of the PIDT and other K9 performing companies. It was still taking shape in my head.

I found a small, one bedroom cottage on 11 acres to rent with my (then) 7 dogs in Accord, NY, which also had 3 large warehouses on it. I talked my landlord into renting one of the warehouses to me to start my new business, Rise & Shine Canines, Inc., when my life made a screeching stop and took me and my dogs down the ideal path for all of us.

Within four months, I was told that Ringling was looking for a high-energy dog act and asking if I would be interested. Simply put, running away from corporate America, and joining the circus was the best decision of my life! 

I put the New York training facility idea on indefinite hold and jumped the fence of “normal life” into this sparkling new twist in performing. The talent scout along with the owner of the Greatest Show on Earth, flew out to meet me to see first-hand what I could bring to the table/ show. I rented a nearby dog training facility, where they met me. I performed my Frisbee routines and different tricks that the dogs could do. I guess you could say it was an “audition”. After an hour of showcasing my dogs’ talents, they stopped me, talked amongst themselves, and I guess they liked what they saw, because they turned and asked, “Can you be in Tallahassee, Florida in two weeks?” By the look on my face, I gathered I appeared somewhat confused. They then clarified that they were asking me to join the show. I was offered a 2 year contract as the featured dog act for the Ringling Bros. Gold Show tour.

I had just landed my dream job! In case you did not know, Ringling Bros. had three touring shows operating at once: The Blue, The Red and The Gold. The “intimate” Gold Show was designed for smaller arenas and traveled by trucks and trailers while The Red and The Blue Shows toured larger venues and traveled mostly by trains. These trains, were over a mile in length as they raced from city to city nationwide. During this two-week preparation for changing my entire life, the Ringling talent scout, came back to NY and spent two days with me putting together my Frisbee routines (with Jet, Houston & Dallas) into a quick, five-minute, entertaining Circus-Style Dog Act. He videotaped what we came up with and sent it to the Ringling Bros. musicians for them to write a song for the act.

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This was the opposite of what we did in the earlier days of my Frisbee Dog Competitions, where you would normally choreograph your routine to the music you pick.

I purchased my first 29’ trailer and white knuckled the steering wheel while towing it behind my van. Pulling through toll booths and into gas stations, were terrifying maneuver’s and not to mention backing up the trailer. Suffice it to say, I did eventually master it and now it’s second nature, but as with training dogs or anything in life, practice makes perfect.

I talked my sister, Tina, in joining me on my excursion driving south. Arriving in Tallahassee I began the next phase of my dog life. We had a two-hour practice session in the ring with the band and then I was told to head to wardrobe, I was to be the third act in that night’s show, only 4 hours from then. I looked at my sister with a look of fear and shock and she simply told me, “You got this”

The opening act was a “liberty” horse act, six Arabian stallions led by the glamorous Silvia Zerbini.

 As Silvia and her majestic equines ended her act and headed backstage through “the portal” (the industry term for the curtained area between the ring and backstage), the performers for the high-wire act were already in place and the spotlight left her and headed 30 feet up. This was strategically timed so the animal crew (grooms) could clean up the ring before me and my dogs would be coming out. Needless to say, there were times that they didn’t get all the dropped waste and I had to be careful where I stepped. 

I opened my act by standing in front of the curtains and throwing a Frisbee 20-30 feet out to the center of the ring, where Jet would catch it. The catch was very important, as it would set the tone of my act. If caught, the crowd would erupt, and everything would go as planned.

When he missed that first crucial throw, which was not often, it would be tough to regroup and carry on. Lucky for me most people love dogs, so, people loved my act.

Before Intermission at the circus there’s always a “Spec,” essentially a first-half mock reprisal, where the performers of the acts who had already gone on parade around the ring curve to the delight of the audience. This is where I would come out with my little terrier mix, Cricket, she’d run atop the ring curve while my Border Collie, Chaps, would jump a series of three jumps set up inside the ring. Keep in mind we would be out there along with 15 other performers and had to stay focused on each of our tasks. The second half of the show would end with Finale’, with all of us performers, minus the animals, would come out for the final applause. All in all I had three different costumes and appeared five times during the course of the entire show.

Back then I knew the dogs and I could handle the performances, but I wasn’t yet entirely sure I could handle all the non-performance aspects of circus life. I was unprepared for the high-schoolish intimidation techniques and cliquishness of my first days in the circus (when new to the show, you are labeled “first of May”).

I was met by some of the multiple generation circus performers, which was more of a hazing ritual, to see if I had thick enough skin and the resolve to pair with the talent that it takes to make it in show business under the big top.

The best example of this came in form of the star of the Gold Show, Silvia Zerbini.  Right before my literal first show, Silvia turned to me and asked, “So what makes you think you can go out there and perform in front of 10 or 20,000 people. Thinking quickly, I answered, “Well, we just performed in front of 60,000 people in a football stadium.”  Circus folk expect a little attitude in their peers, and I’d just delivered.  

Once I had proven myself, everything just slid into place. I already enjoyed traveling and performing with my dogs, Ringling gave me that in spades. You almost can not form a bond with people when you travel with them in close quarters and share the same mission for two straight years. I remember thinking our bond mirrored the bond I saw on the hit 1980’s TV show, “MASH.” We soon enjoyed each other’s company outside of the ring too. I helped a few Bulgarian performers write their letters applying to get American citizenship and attended the wedding of two of my fellow performers. I made friends for life.

 The most helpful thing I did in those two years was to simply be flexible enough to adjust, be open enough to take advice and humble enough to keep my mouth shut. I honed my listening skills that first year. I got lots of advice from seasoned circus performers, and I took it all in. I learned how to pause the act for applause. It sounds silly now, but back then I didn’t know that I was supposed to stop, let the people clap, and let myself and the dogs soak in the attention for a few beats before moving on to the next trick.

After my very first performance, the Production Manager came to me and said, “The act is good, but you need styling skills. Watch Sylvia.” Sylvia taught me how to pause for applause, to look glamourous and strong while in control of the flow of the act and the dogs.

 Previous performers who ran the other animal acts were amazed that I had no problems with people coming up and petting my dogs. I encouraged it. I wanted to familiarize the Dynamo Dogs with the people and the animals they were going to be around. But I didn’t expect the level of surprise on the other trainers’ faces. Previous dog acts, and most animal acts in general, discourage this kind of thing.

 All the circus kids loved my dogs. This made my dressing room an inevitable nursery. The kids wanted to hang out there, and I and the dogs enjoyed it. After a while it felt natural, and I was appreciative of the family atmosphere the circus provided me.

 I was only one year into the two year Gold Show tour when Ringling’s owner approached me and offered another me another two year contract for my act to perform on their 138th edition Blue show, which was to be called “Over The Top”!

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Special Thanks to Bilbo Books Publishing

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