Stage dogs are acting, dancing and barking their way into the theater.
When we think about watching our favorite actors on the stage, we typically picture elaborate costumes, hilarious dialogue, and action-packed scenes. But one local actor—and an increasing number of them across the country—has four legs, a wagging tail, and an enthusiastic woof.
Meet the Dude, a 3-year-old Chihuahua who’s just getting started in his career as a stage dog. He debuted last year as Bruiser, the main character’s cherished pooch, in a production of Legally Blonde: the Musical. Dude’s owner, Woodbury’s Tricia Wood, owns Dance and Entertainment Studios, where she works as a ballroom dance instructor. She’s the perfect “dog mom” for this pint-sized performer.
Wood stumbled across the opportunity for Dude on Facebook, of all places. The Artistry Theater in Bloomington was searching for a small dog breed to play Bruiser in their production of Legally Blonde. After one of Wood’s ballroom dance students saw the post, she immediately tagged Wood, and the audition process began. Wood contacted the dog handler for the show, Ryan Halliday, and sent him videos and pictures to showcase Dude’s personality. Halliday invited Dude and Wood to spend a day at the theater, so they could evaluate how Dude interacted with the cast and crew. Dude spent time meeting the cast and crew, and exploring the theater space off-leash, which he did extremely well, Wood says. In fact, he was so professional that the crew decided not to audition any other dogs for the role and chose Dude to be their Bruiser, right then and there. “They were all impressed with his non-stereotypical Chihuahua personality, and said they wanted him, and weren’t going to contact any other dogs for the role,” Wood remembers. “It also helped that Dude had worn dog clothes and been carried in a bag occasionally before,” she adds, which are two elements of Bruiser’s character in the show.
So what makes a good canine actor? Wood says a stage dog needs to be smart, calm and attentive to handlers. Handlers and cast members also use little treats as rewards, when the dog does what they’re asked and hits their marks. Dude’s personality makes it especially easy for him to succeed as an actor, because he responds so well to positive reinforcement. He likes the treats and praise after he performs commands—like entering the stage from the wings and running to the correct person.
Hollywood Paws is an organization based in Los Angeles that trains pets for stage and film. According to their experts, acting dogs need solid off-leash obedience even with “heavy distractions,” and need to be able to respond to commands like “go to a mark,” “head down,” “speak,” and more. While smaller productions might not require so much rigor, Hollywood Paws says there’s no such thing as too much training when beginning an acting career.
Dude, for his part, loved his time on the boards. “The entire cast referred to Dude as ‘the diva,’ which is funny, because I named his Facebook page that, three years ago when I bought him as a puppy,” Wood says. Since his star turn in Legally Blonde, Dude has also appeared in a Mall of America sponsorship video.
Will Dude appear in further shows? It’s a definite possibility, says Wood. “He absolutely loved the routine, and got very used to it. I could tell he missed it when the show was over. He was treated very well, and he always came home tired,” she says.
In his free time, Dude is very much a typical dog. He enjoys going on adventures in the car with Wood, playing fetch, going for walks and even chasing a few chipmunks. He lives up to his “diva” nickname when it comes to his diet: he’ll gladly accept a Starbucks puppuccino but scoffs at the sight of a plain Milk-Bone, Wood says with a laugh.