While all of us in the Legally Blonde Company adore the work we do, the people we get to do it with and that it makes so many people laugh and feel good, three whole days off over Christmas was a wonderful chance to catch up with our family and friends and rest. Having said that, there may have been one cast member who was a wee bit keener to get back on the boards than any other. She is one of the most beautiful ladies of the company, loved by us all. Her name is Luka Cole and she plays Rufus.
Luka is a three year old British Bulldog, bred by the wonderful Marcia Mcadam. She was a show dog for many years, but with a slightly crooked jaw, she was not the perfect specimen of the breed good breeders breed from. It gives her a little lop sided grin, sometimes makes her tongue lol out to the side and generally kinda makes you want to tilt your head to try and straighten her up when you look at her. But what makes her not so great for the dog show ring is one of the things that makes her a winner on the on the stage.
But like human actors looks will only get you so far. As part of her audition, Luka needed to show us she could cope well with loud noises and lights, not worry about being in semi dark (as it is backstage as a show goes on) and having lots of people and things bustling past you. She passed all these tests with flying colors. After weeks and weeks of rehearsal, we were ready for an audience. How would she cope now with doing all she had learned to do in front of thousands? Unlike the human actors that know from day one of rehearsals what we are all working towards, the dogs simply know “well, today we are doing our tricks here and with this person”. While a big part of the training of stage animals is in exposing them to many different and strange things the average dog will never see and never have to see, there is no way we can find anything like an audience of the size they would have to work in front of. So, what did Luka do? She came out. The crowd oooed and ahhhed. She stopped and looked right at them looking quite surprised. The crowd laughed. Her tail started to wag, a big grin came over her face and she got on with the job. Perfect. While I will tell everyone that the dogs work for their treats and affection from their company family, the energy that comes from the audience is obviously felt and understood by them. Of course they react to it. And Luka loves nothing more than to be loved.
So do we have to give her treats? Why can’t she just work for the applause? Those treats are vital for Luka and the Chihuahuas as they are information that what they have done is exactly the right thing. While trainers often talk about food treats, toys and pats as rewards or positive reinforcers (the scientific term as the treat strengthens or ‘reinforces’ the behaviour just before it is delivered), the most important job of a well delivered food treat is as an informant to the animal, it tells them “Hey, next time you are in this situation, do what you just did then!” The treat is feedback. While Lucy, Rob, Dave and all the cast can wait for feedback from the director, for an animal the feedback has to be immediate. We can’t say to Luka; “OK, I love the way you came out of the trailer the other night, but you know how you left the stage before Helen? Well, it doesn’t work as well as if you waited and left with her.” Dogs live in the here and now, so guess what? We need to give them the information in the here and now. That’s why the timing of the delivery of the food treat is paramount. As the trainer, I rely on the actors the dogs work directly with on stage to give them the treat at the right time to ensure the dogs continue to perform correctly.
At this stage of the game, Luka also knows when her entry to stage is required with no help from me. Sitting ide of stage waiting with her usually draws in several cast who may also be waiting or heading back to their dressing rooms for a quick change and to wait for their next scene. She loves interacting with people and having their hands all over her. But without a move from me she knows when she needs to go and ready herself in the wings for her grand entrance.
Many people are surprised at how well trained she is. At stage door audience members love meeting her (but not as much as she enjoys meeting them…) and comment on how stubborn or dumb they thought the breed was. Luka shines because she is loved and appreciated and because she gets clear information about what is required of her in a non-threatening manner. If she ever does the wrong thing, I look at myself as the reason before I ever blame and label her. Like us all Luka is predominantly a product of how she is treated and Luka is treated like a Queen!