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McCallum: Smart Dog Tricks

01/04/12 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) Seeing the antics of a few new celebrities has commentator Mary McCallum thinking about their long road to stardom and how their good fortune can be a model for saving lives.

(McCallum) In mid December I became star struck by a couple of new actors. Without benefit of singing, dancing or acting lessons, they had been liberated from uncertain lives behind bars and given on-the-job training that led them to stardom. No, this was not a prison spinoff of American Idol. What set these celebs apart from their acting peers were their four legs, hairy bodies and ability to sniff out the snacks. Mutts.

This holiday season I attended Northern Stage's highly acclaimed production of Annie at the Briggs Opera House. When the wiry haired pooch with soulful eyes named Sandy nosed her way over to the feisty orphan to make friends, a collective "oooh" rippled through the audience. From that moment, no matter how magnificently the humans sang and danced their hearts out, whenever Sandy was onstage she owned it.

A refugee from a life that included time in two shelters and a stint at a prison dog training program, Sandy escaped euthanasia when famed animal trainer William Berloni adopted her at the eleventh hour. Berloni has a long list of credits for animals he trained for Broadway and film, and this scruffy stray eventually became the Sandy that ambled across the stage in the Vermont production of Annie.

Another canine Cinderella story surfaced from the film Beginners, in which award-winning actors are upstaged by an ironic Jack Russell named Arthur. Plucked from a shelter by another gifted animal trainer, the tiny thespian plays a pivotal role in a movie about love, loss and the struggle to accept who we really are. This onscreen canine is so engaging that I predict a run for Jack Russells across America by folks eager for the breed du jour.

But as an owner of a rescued pooch myself, I would offer that not all dogs are so easily lured by treats into performing what may help them ascend the ladder to stardom. While I would love my unkempt dustmop of a dog to act, fetch, and run through agility tunnels at my command, she is, after all, a terrier.
I imagine thought bubbles above her fuzzy head that declare, "Shake? Are you kidding? Real dogs don't shake hands. We don't even have hands. Get real, lady." Ah, the single-minded terrier. While charming, they don't do anything they don't want to.

But the remarkable thing that my dog has in common with Sandy and Arthur is that she too was a shelter dog, found on the street, lost and starving. And while I have rescued only one dog, I feel a kinship with Berloni, who finds his talent pool of future Sandys and Wizard of Oz Totos entirely in animal shelters.

Almost seven million companion animals enter shelters nationwide each year, and sixty percent of dogs are euthanized. Berloni says that he has no difficulty finding the dogs he needs for his theater work through shelters because there are just so many to choose from.

The good news is that with only a few of the lucky ones making it big, word gets out that there are gems just waiting to be discovered - and saved.
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