In the Spring of 2016, my friend Polly’s dog Darwin made his theatrical debut as “Toto” in a local high school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. At the time, Darwin was a 2 year old Cairn Terrier, just slightly larger but in all other ways identical to “Terry”, the Cairn Terrier used in the 1939 film. Getting Darwin ready for the production became the focus of Darwin’s training since he first got the invitation to perform from the show’s wonderful “Dorothy”, talented actor Kayla Fuhst. Here’s a summary of what we did to prepare him for the show.
A fellow trainer called me in February of 2016 and asked if I might know of any dog that might want to play "Toto" in an upcoming high school production. I knew just the dog! Meet Darwin, a perfect candidate for the role.
Polly and Darwin, Spring 2016
Darwin’s owner and I were thrilled at the prospect of his debut. We were given a list of behaviors that Darwin would need to be proficient as "Toto". Surprisingly, our Toto did not have to spend any time being carried in a basket, nor did he have to learn how to ride on a bike - but he did need to follow along in step with "Dorothy" and her friends as they made their way along their adventurous path. My job was to prepare Darwin for this role so that the on and offstage atmosphere would not be stressful to him. We started this by inviting Kayla to visit Darwin in Polly’s home several times before rehearsals begin. These first meetings were such fun for both of them, and key to our goal in having a happy dog in the show.
Kayla and Darwin in rehearsal
For the first rehearsal. Polly and I made sure that Darwin was all set: pottied, water available (a cast member had already made a custom water bowl for him with “Toto” written on it). Since the costume designer had sewn an extra pocket on to Dorothy’s gingham dress for treats, it only took a few reps of “Walk with me” to convince Darwin that "Dorothy" was his new best friend. He seemed to take everything in stride - even the student orchestra, for which Polly and I had prepared him by playing music and applause as we trained him at her home. Still, as he trotted along with "Dorothy" to visit "Professor Marvel" in the first act, he stopped and sniffed at each one of the musicians’ heads while passing by them as Dorothy said, “Oh, Toto, that's not polite! We haven't been asked yet.” The fourth wall was broken! We were off to a great start.
"Toto" and "Miss Gulch" photo : Chester Rothstein
Polly and I needed to prepare Darwin for a potentially frustrating scenario : being tethered to a point on the set and left there while the cast performed a musical number. Many dogs restrained in this way begin to pace, bounce, and bark - but Darwin settled into a patient Sit even though his position was right next to the orchestra's percussionist. Teaching “Go to Place” was an important facet of Darwin’s training in his Skills class and he remembered that bit of his training even on stage.
Drums and Xylophones and Timpani, oh my!
The first rehearsal continued, and Darwin was handling everything very well - until the Wicked Witch stomped suddenly around the corner of his fallen house, brandishing her broom over her head and screeching “I’ll get you, my pretty!” This was too much for “Toto” and he erupted at his witchy adversary in a fit of alarm barks! Certainly this was method acting at its best, but the cast and I agreed that it was probably not wise to startle “Toto” in this way, and from then on he was surreptitiously removed from the scene before the Witch began her frightening rant.
I coached not only Dorothy, but her friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion that the rehearsals were the best time to show “Toto” that being onstage with them, and being held by each of them from time to time, was very rewarding indeed. Each actor got treats to reward “Toto” for hanging out with them, and he even enjoyed being whisked away by a Flying Monkey! He had short moments of worry and was given frequent breaks during these first rehearsals, but readily came back to work, ears and tail held high, with all of the members of the cast - especially since they rewarded him so generously!
"Toto" and a Flying Monkey. Photo : Chester Rothstein
It was such fun to see the talented actors put together a great production. Even at the early stages, it was obvious the show was full of talented kids that were fond of this beloved musical and of each other. Towards the end of the rehearsal, as Dorothy prepared to leave Oz with the Wizard, she bid farewell to each of her new friends. The actor playing the Tin Man stepped forward to give Dorothy a hug goodbye during this last scene, and then froze! The show's director boomed from the auditorium: “WHAT’S the PROBLEM - she’s leaving forever - you gotta HUG HER!” Without breaking character, the poor Tin Man cried, “I can’t. My hands smell like dog treats!”
Cast headshots in the theater lobby
A reporter stopped by the school for the final dress rehearsal, and took plenty of pictures of "Toto" and the cast that appeared on the paper’s website the next day. "Toto is played by a perky little pooch named Darwin." read the caption.
Darwin as “Toto” with Dorothy and the Scarecrow
Opening night. I took care to sit where "Toto" couldn't see me from the stage. Though he’d been confident throughout the rehearsals, we noticed that he tried to leave the stage to come to find me. I didn't want to add more stress to "Toto’s" experience - there was quite enough of that happening already, what with the cyclone, the unruly mob of Munchkins, the heat and noise of the stage, and the electric atmosphere of the show. The audience reaction during his first appearance was huge, but he wasn't stressed by all of the applause and appreciation as he stepped on to the stage.
Darwin was raised to expext positive experiences with new people and “strange” places and activities. To this day, he remains a bold dog, with an outgoing personality - not easily startled by dancing Poppies, marching Winkies, or screeching Witches (though this last was certainly where the line was drawn). A timid dog, easily worried by the bangs, crashes, and unexpected pratfalls of Scarecrows would have been miserable in this role. Darwin was perfectly happy throughout all 4 performances because he’s a confident dog, well socialized with people and happy to be part of the fun. It was wonderful to see him enjoy being part of the show, and to see the audience clap wildly for him in the final curtain call.
"And Toto, too!” Glinda, Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow and the Lion
I worked with Darwin and his owner Polly for over three years. In that time, Polly laid a great foundation for him with the training classes she took as well as private tutoring. It was especially nice to see that Polly, who is disabled and must use a walker, never let that slow her training down. “My PT and I both think it’s a good thing to do.", she says. "Anything to widen my horizons or give me a new skill to master.”
Training essentials for Darwin
#1. Socialization. Not merely exposure to novel people, places, sounds and things when a pup, but positive experiences and obvious and overt enjoyment by of the whole process
#2. Making good friends with "Dorothy" and then the rest of the cast. We were so fortunate that our "Dorothy", Kayla, is a true dog lover who understands and uses positive
#3. Good pottying habits! I know, this is pretty mundane, but a nightmare if this particular aspect of a dog's education isn't airtight.
#4. "Trainability" : any dog ready to strut his stuff on stage enjoys learning, can work through frustration, and has great impulse control.
Misa Martin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Years of attending agility seminars, workshops, seminars and camps with her first dog led to the beginning of her professional dog training career as a PetSmart Trainer in 2008. In addition to teaching at PCOTC's Family Manners and Agility programs, Misa is a staff trainer at the Mount Vernon Humane Society, active with Waggytail Rescue as a consultant for training and behavior issues, and a trainer with the Briarcliff SPCA education program. Misa owns HappyValleyDogs.com, providing reward based training to private clients. Through her knowledge, experience, and sense of humor, Misa encourages students to approach dog training as a team effort, where students learn as much from their dogs as dogs learn from their "parents," making training fun for humans and dogs alike!
Misa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org