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Has Theatre Gone To The Dogs? Why Else Would Dogs Be Going To The Theatre?

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Did you hear the one about the dogs that went to a musical? An opening line like that could take a joke anywhere, but this was no joke. In the summer of 2019, media and the Internet were bursting with stories of a dozen dogs who went to see “Song and Dance: Billy Elliot The Musical” at Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. “Snoopy! The Musical” would make some sense, but “Billy Elliot”? What gives?

‘Song and Dance: Billy Elliot The Musical’

“Billy Elliot” is the story of a working-class boy, Billy, from a mining community in northeastern England in 1985. Billy didn’t want to be a miner. He wanted to be a dancer. The Stratford Festival is a theatre festival in Stratford, Ontario, about 90 minutes West of Toronto. It runs from April to October annually and is one of the most prominent theatre festivals in Canada. It is best known for productions of Shakespeare’s plays, but also puts on a wide variety of other offerings, including “Billy Elliot” in its 2019 season.

Almost every Stratford Festival performance is for humans, but not a certain performance in August 2019 that caught the attention of the media all over the world, including CNN.

These Future Service Dogs Were In The Midst Of Training

The dogs who attended “Billy Elliot” were part of the graduating class at K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs. K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs provides training for service dogs for mobility, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and autism. Their goal is to help first responders, veterans, and civilians with PTSD to gain independence and improve their quality of life.

Dogs at K-9 undergo a two-year training program led by head trainer Laura MacKenzie. Part of service dogs’ training involves exposure to unfamiliar lights and sounds, and fast-moving environments. K-9’s service dog trainees tour zoos, subways and fairs to become acclimated to environments where they will be expected to support their handlers.

The theatre — including Stratford Theatre — is one such environment. Stratford is used to theatre-goers attending performances with service dogs. It’s also used to accommodating patrons who struggle with the lights, sounds, and noises that may be part of a theatrical production. Stratford is one of many theatre companies that host “relaxed performances” for a wide range of audiences, including “those with intellectual or learning disabilities, sensory processing conditions or autism.” A relaxed performance of Billy Elliot was also the perfect training and assessing ground for K-9’s trainees. Head Trainer MacKenzie wants service dogs to sit under the seat or curl up at the handlers’ feet while the handlers enjoy a show.

How Did They Do?

If that was the goal, how’d they do? Reviews were positive. Stratford’s Ann Swerdfager says the Festival was thrilled to host the trainees, and that “the dogs were extremely well behaved. We hope they will join us for years to come.” Another class was scheduled to attend a different production in October.

If the photos online are any indication, the dogs were really well behaved and really attentive. No word on what the dogs thought of the performance. According to CNN.com, “the audience didn’t make a single sound — not even a woof” after the final curtain. That might be an unusual end to a performance for the performers and human attendees of Stratford. But Head Trainer Laura MacKenzie of K-9 was probably pleased. It bodes well for these dogs’ supportive relationships with their handlers in the future.

As for Billy Elliot at Stratford during the 2019 season, reviews by human theatre-goers have been positive. According to broadwayworld.com, “BILLY ELLIOT is a beautiful combination of a fascinating and at times heavy story, delightful humor, and glorious dance. It should not be missed!”

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