Welcome to the world of Stunt Dog Productions — where exhibitionist dogs embrace their inner daredevil and soar through the air pulling off crowd-wooing feats of canine acrobatics.
Founded by Chris Perondi, the Stunt Dog experience has clocked up over 6,000 successful live shows since starting back in the late ’90s. You can get an idea about the level of tumbling on offer during an average show by checking out this highlight reel.
Impressed with his pack of canine thrill-seekers, I called up Chris to chat about dealing with stage fright in the spotlight, the art of training a dog to pull off a backflip, and to find out how Oprah Winfrey reacted when meeting some of the madcap mutts.
Dogster: When did you decide to start Stunt Dog Productions?
Chris Perondi: It started back in 1996 when I started training dogs as a hobby. I was training a dog to catch a flying disk and I thought it would be really cool to get him more involved, but I found out there were no disk dog clubs in my area so I started the first Northern California one. It all took off from that point.
Who was that first dog?
His name was Pepper. He was a really happy dog, very athletic and very intense and focused. He was a natural — that’s what made things so easy for me. It was like he was born to catch flying disks and learn tricks! He learned with ease and grace. Over the years I’ve trained two dozen dogs but Pepper was definitely one of my easiest. I think if it had been super challenging to train him it may have discouraged me from doing this.
When you first started, what did you find was the hardest part about training dogs?
Oh, just the patience that’s required. You have to be very repetitious — you have to keep doing it over and over and over until they finally get it. But the pay off comes when you have dogs that can do backflips, and they do handstands, and they walk on their front paws, and they jump rope, and we currently have a dog that does skateboarding now.
Do you ever get any stubborn dogs? Like say you’re trying to train a dog to jump rope, but he just stands there.
Absolutely. We try and tap into the dog’s natural talent, so if a dog isn’t a big jumper he might be a natural balance artist. Every dog has their own thing they really enjoy doing. If a dog’s not a natural jumper then you’re forcing them into a behavior, and I never want to force any of my dogs to do anything — I want them to enjoy it and have fun.
But it really helps if you have a dog who has tunnel vision and will really concentrate on that one treat or that one toy I have in my hand. Those are the dogs that are not only going to be able to be trained to do the trick but will be able to do it in front of the crowd and with all the noises.
Do the dogs ever get stage fright?
We try and find ones that are outgoing and friendly to avoid that. Once we get them focussed on that toy, they’ll stay focused on it as long as they’re comfortable. Sometimes they might get a little distracted, in which case we’ll put them in for the pre-show to get them used to a smaller crowd for a few minutes. Once they get comfortable with the audience cheering, they actually then start to get fired up — what’s happening is they get rewarded when the audience is cheering the most, that’s when they get their treat at that exact moment, so they realize that and it becomes a positive reinforcement.
Which tricks get the best reaction from the crowd?
Always the bigger stunts and also some of our signature tricks — we have a dog that does a handstand in the palm of my hand. Jumprope always does well — people love to see that and there’s a dog right now that does double-dutch jumprope.
Who’s the double-dutch dog?
That’s Geronimo, who’s a Border Collie and is just real happy.
You mentioned teaching dogs to do backflips. How do you begin teaching that trick?
We use toys to motivate something like a backflip. A lot of it is about the placement of the disk or the toys we’re using, and then pretty soon you can start to mold that behavior — at first the move is really wide and it’s not really head over heels, but then with time and vision and persistency you can get closer to that.
Are there any stunts you’ve always wanted to do, but have never been able to train a dog to complete successfully?
I’ve always wanted to see a dog walk a single rope in the show. I’ve had dogs kind of doing it but I’ve never found a way to transition it into the show. Maybe I need to get a cat to do that bit of the show!
I also always thought it would be cool to get a dog to jump through a real hoop of fire but I’m not sure — some people might not think that’s too fair on the dogs. We want to keep things safe so we use fake fire, which still looks cool and has the same effect but is safe for the dog.
If someone wants to try and start training their dog to do tricks at home, what would you recommend starting with?
I’d always begin with basic obedience — so getting the dog to sit, stay, lay down. Once you get those things down you can start working on other things, like once you have a dog laying down you can teach him to crawl or roll over. Those are easy transitional tricks to teach any dog of any breed or size. You want to start with the basic stuff first and just get that good bond with your dog.
Since you started Stunt Dog Productions, how many flying disks have you been through?
Ha ha, oh my goodness, I have probably went through 10,000 disks or maybe even more!
Who’s been the greatest ever stunt dog you’ve worked with?
My first dog, Pepper, was definitely near the top of the list. I have another dog who’s been on my team for about seven years named Flashy Ferrari, and she’s a Border Collie and she’s been on the Oprah Winfrey and Queen Latifah shows with me. She was at one time the high-jumping world record holder at 68 inches. Since then it’s been raised a bit — I think it’s at 70 inches now — but she’s also a smaller dog and the dog that set the new record is a Greyhound, who’s 10 inches taller than her, so for her to jump 68 inches, it was like the other dog having to jump 78 inches. She can definitely jump higher just based on her size. Flashy Ferrari is a phenomenal dog, a huge crowd pleaser, and she always gets great air.
Finally, how did Flashy Ferrari take to meeting Oprah?
She was really friendly with her, but Queen Latifah was just so down to earth and she was just really willing to work with us. You know how some people act fake sometimes? Queen Latifah was definitely down to earth, and it was just a great experience.
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