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INTERVIEW: Joel Slaven, ‘101 Dalmatians’ dog trainer

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"The 101 Dalmations Musical" comes to Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on Oct. 28.

“The 101 Dalmatians Musical” opens in Atlanta next week, and while I’m sure Rachel York will be fabulous as Cruella De Vil, and all the kids and cast members will be wonderful, I’m very much hung up on one fact: DOGGIES! Real doggies! On stage!

Nine of the 15 dogs in “The 101 Dalmatians Musical” came from rescue facilities or humane societies. None were purchased — six are retired show dogs or on loan from their owners — and those nine were strays that nobody claimed, or dogs surrendered by their owners.

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Rachel York plays Cruella De Vil.

Trainer Joel Slaven said they migh seek adoptive homes for some of the dogs if they seem tired or unhappy with show business. But the reasons they were cast migh be the exact reasons they wound up in shelters: they’re incredibly energetic. They bounce around, they bark, they chew. They’re not bad dogs, but it gets bad when they’re bored.

For now, they spend all day with their trainers — playing, training, eating, grooming, napping, performing and eating more.

“Are they laying on somebody’s bed or couch? No, they’re not,” Slaven said. “But how many people spend that much time with their pets?”

Here’s what Slaven had to say about selecting and training the dogs, and their lives on the road:

Q: How did you find the dogs?
We looked at hundreds of dogs. We went from coast to coast. We didn’t get all the dogs till June and we started last winter. We had to have the ones that are going to be happy. There are no dogs with their heads down, that are shy, timid. These dogs are firing out of there, bouncing off the walls. A lot ended up in shelters because people didn’t have the knowledge or ability to train them.

Q: What characteristics were you looking for?
A: We looked for high energy and what we call big food drives — dogs that have tremendous appetites. Those are the dogs that really appreciate the food treat and they’re willing to go out of their way to get it. Dogs that want to fetch, that want to carry things around in their mouth — that’s an energy thing. When we first got the dog, all we did was play, let the dogs get to know the trainers and see who was going to get along with who.

One dog, Tanner, stands up on his hind legs and likes to put his paws up. He’s the dog that pushes the lawn mower – it’s just like him. Hanna’s really fast, she’s very athletic. We have a dog that has to go in and out of the door like slalom poles. To her, this is a big game. We needed to have a dog run on stage and bark — we have a constant barker. That was a huge problem for somebody, but now that we’ve taught him to do it on cue, we’ve shaped that behavior. Now, he’ll bark when we ask him to, and when we don’t want him to, he’s calm.

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They might not be great pets, but I still want to squeeze and pet them. SO CUTE!

Q: How old are they?
From 9 months to 8 years. Rascal — that’s his stage name, his real name is Murphy — was 4 months old when we found him. Broken leg. ‘He’s not a good candidate, but we’ll take a look,’ we say.

He had the greatest, most confident attitude. He was running up and down the bleachers in the theater with a cast on. I gave him a piece of chicken and I couldn’t get him away from me. He just had an I-need-a-job attitude.

We brought him to the farm, he started sitting sitting next to me in the golf cart, watching the big dogs. The vet said [his leg] healed beautifully. We started working him with the big dogs, and he was just, ‘I can do that , I can do this, that’s no problem.’ He’s so confident about himself. Anything you want to show him, he just has a blast. He’s about 9 months now, and it’s like he’s out there showing off.

Q: Had anything like this been done before?
A: In film, it’s a different story, but for a stage show, not to my knowledge. My friends in the business aid, ‘Slaven, this is not going to work. This could be the one that takes you down.’ We’ve tried a couple behaviors that we had to tone down and modify from what we originally wanted to do.

Q: What can we expect to see?
A: One dog does a pre-show. It’s all about him getting ready — he’s turning the lights out, carrying his collar back and forth. End of first act, right before intermission, all the dogs make an appearance.

The theme of the finale is that the dogs transform this dingy looking Hell Hall into bright and colorful. They make the flowers grow, they make new awnings roll down, bring a new dog house. They’re running all over the place in and out. They transform the entire set.

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Dalmatians characters are played by humans for most of the show -- but not all of it.

Q: What are their lives like on the road?
A: Purina has built a million dollar bus for them, the Puppy Palace. Inside is their living quarters. That’s where they all sleep. It has state-of-the-art lighting, ventilation.

In the daytime, first thing in the morning, they go for a walk, then they go into their tent. They have exercise pens, 10 feet by 10 feet. They have breakfast, then they’ll take a little nap, get up, are groomed, they do some play time. They may have a rehearsal. If they don’t, they do some training. They’ll go for a walk around town – that’s been the case in Minneapolis — then come back and get ready. They’re taken into the theater and groomed, they do their performance. It’s done usually about 10:30, they have their evening meal, go for another walk and go to bed.

Q: Do you worry this will lead to jump in demand for dalmatians as pets, like after the ‘101 Dalmatians’ movies?
A: I really don’t think so. I think it’s going to promote good pet ownership. In the playbill, it talks all about the breed, and we tell the public right there, in black and white: this is not a toy. This a 10 to 14 year commitment. If they’re thinking about getting a dog or a cat, just do your homework. This isn’t like the movies. We can have a discussion about it.

We’re particularly proud of the fact that beside Murphy having the broken leg, four had heartworms. A couple of the dogs were obese when we got them, some were emaciated and dehydrated. If you could see the dogs now, they look like they’re going into the show ring.

Want to go? “The 101 Dalmatians Musical,” Oct. 28-Nov. 1. $15-$58. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 770-916-2800,

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[...] appear as the characters at some points and dogs at others. But they do have real dogs on stage! INTERVIEW: Joel Slaven, ‘101 Dalmatians’ dog trainer | Inside Access The dogs of The 101 Dalmatians Musical Most of them were found at animal shelters and rescues and [...]

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[...] Performing Arts Centre this week to meet the 15 dogs who appears in the stage show. I had already interviewed dog trainer Joel Slaven, who described what their lives are like on the road — lots of play time, and a few minutes [...]

[...] Stage: “The 101 Dalmatians Musical” continues, 8 p.m., Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Atlanta. More info. [...]

To do list: October 28 | Inside Access

October 28th, 2009
12:05 am

[...] Stage: “The 101 Dalmatians Musical” opens, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Atlanta. Dog trainer interview. [...]