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One of the best reasons to see a live performance of The Wizard of Oz or Annie is to experience the moment when a real dog trots on stage and leaps into the arms of Dorothy or Annie.
Sometimes, Toto and Sandy are played by a stuffed toy, or—even worse—a human in a furry costume. But when a director has the guts to cast a real dog, it ups the excitement factor and “adds a realism and relatability to the production,” says Janet Beatty-Payne, a director and board president at Las Cruces Community Theatre in New Mexico. For shelter dogs with a little ham in them, it has an added benefit: It can help them find new homes.
With that in mind, in 2015 I contacted the Las Cruces theater company and pitched the idea of using animals from local rescue groups in its productions. I’ve been involved with the troupe (acting, directing, costuming and serving on the board) for about 20 years and volunteered my services as a professional dog trainer. Then I reached out to a local rescue group called Uncaged Paws and started searching for two dogs to play Toto. (It’s a good idea to have an understudy, and why not find homes for two dogs instead of one?)
From shelters in nearby Roswell and Artesia, we acquired two small black dogs, Tori and Moto, and I started training them for their performances. After about four weeks, Tori surprised us with a burgeoning tummy. She’d come from the streets and turned out to be pregnant. Tori went on maternity leave, and after her pups were adopted, she returned to her stage career.
Both Tori and Moto were wonderful in their roles. Before each of the 10 performances, the director’s “curtain speech” included a mention of the dogs’ availability. They were adopted to loving homes, and Moto even got to stay with his Dorothy—her parents adopted him as a Christmas Eve surprise!
For the company’s Annie, I reached out to the Animal Service Center of the Mesilla Valley and Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary. The summer before the play’s December 2017 debut, I found our first Sandy, a blonde red heeler cross I named Sundae.
But once again, we were thrown a curveball. Sundae was an obedience ace and loved being with the people in the cast, especially the “orphans,” but every time she stepped out onto stage, she promptly laid down on her side. And stayed. There comes a point when encouraging a dog to perform becomes forcing, and that’s against my training philosophy. So Safe Haven went to work finding a home for Sundae, and I went back to the shelter.
This time I pulled a yellow terrier mix I named Andy, and he moved into my house to start his training. With the exception of his second performance, during which he threw up on stage—twice—Andy was a star. (Life lesson: Don’t give your canine actor a “poochie cone” from Caliche’s Frozen Custard on the way to the theater.)
Now that his star days are over, Andy is free to receive as many poochie cones as he can handle in his new home.