The Muttcrackers: a perfect pas de deux

By David Dickson

For those of you who have always yearned to see a dog perform a graceful pirouette onstage to thunderous applause in the background, that day may come sooner than you think. And it’s all thanks to one bashful little dog from Best Friends.

Just over a year ago, Karen Gibbons-Brown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, was on the Best Friends website and she fell in love. She saw a picture of Perry, a seven-year-old Italian greyhound who needed a home. Perry’s profile explained how he had a hard time trusting people and other dogs. Karen and her husband, however, felt their family could give Perry a good home and believed they might even earn his trust in time. They decided to adopt.

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Perry

Karen admits the beginning was a little challenging. "He was very shy," she said about the early days. In time, however, Perry made a complete turnaround. He is now so at home with the family that he sleeps on the bed at night with Karen and her husband Jim, as well as the other two dogs in the family. "He crawls into my lap every chance he gets and enjoys burrowing and snuggling into and under the covers," Karen said.

When Perry’s one-year anniversary with the family drew near, Karen wondered if there was something she could do to help other dogs like him. As executive/artistic director of the Fort Wayne Ballet, Karen had an idea to combine two loves: dogs and dancing.

By way of background, Karen grew up on the stage and remembers traveling with ballet troops who would now and again bring along a dog or two for various productions. Sometimes there would be a scene with a pet in the storyline. Thus, a dog would become part of the cast and would hit the road along with the rest of them.

When her recent idea struck, Karen’s ballet company was planning a production of "The Nutcracker," which has an opening perfectly suited for her plan. As the story goes, there is a large parade across stage with a crowd of people heading to a party. After the parade, the curtain lifts and the people are then inside at the party. Karen figured these scenes would be ideal to sneak a few dogs in front of an audience. But not just any dogs, she decided. Karen wanted to try and bring about some happy endings if possible.

She contacted the local animal care and control group and asked if they would be willing to let her showcase some of their dogs. They were thrilled at the opportunity and, together with Karen and the cast, worked tirelessly to find dogs to showcase.

This had never been attempted before, and by the time the production was ready, nobody knew how the audience would react.

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Karen and friend

Thus, Karen did a little explaining in front of the crowd at each performance. If the canine star for the evening — the Muttcracker — was small enough, Karen would carry him or her out as she welcomed the audience. In addition to thanking sponsors, she mentioned briefly who the dogs were in the cast and why they were there.

If anybody had been nervous about how the crowd would respond, those fears were soon put to rest. The audience LOVED having dogs in the show! Loved them so much, in fact, that all 13 dogs who’d been showcased (in 10 performances and in front of 7,000 people) found homes by the end of the production. Not only that, but all 7,000 people learned more about adoption as an option. Even further, animal care and control had an adoption booth in the foyer during intermission. At the booth they had information on other dogs, several of whom found homes as well.

As for the muttcrackers, they had the time of their lives working the crowd. One dog in particular stood out in Karen’s mind. Truffles, an absolutely adorable basenji, figured out immediately how the whole stage thing worked. She would walk across the stage, stop, look out at the audience, and wag her tail as if on cue. "The audience giggled each time," Karen said. "We couldn’t have trained her to do that." Truffles was a natural star!

Karen admits she has tried other unconventional ideas in the past, some zanier than others. Usually any such departure from the norm has been met with at least a few mixed reviews. Not this time. With the muttcrackers, there was unanimous enthusiasm on all levels. "There was not one negative comment," Karen said. "The audience response was really amazing."

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The Muttcracker

Perry’s legacy will continue. Karen is already scheming how to get more dogs onstage for upcoming productions. She also plans to talk with other ballet companies in order to spread the idea. With a little effort, many dogs were able to find homes in a single production. She sees no reason to stop now. The crowd loved the performances, the cast was thrilled with the process (they were excited each night to see who was performing with them), and the message to adopt was spread loud and clear to thousands. (Um, is there a downside here?)

Bravo to all involved! And on with the show.

Photos and video by Rob Borel

If you're looking for a new (or another) dance partner, look no further. Best Friends has all the answers!