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The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 28: Onstage at the Kodak, Part II

January 26, 2009 |  7:37 am

THeidihis is Heidi. Last year, she was "discovered" in the park by a pet talent agency; since then, she has embarked on a one-dog quest to break into the business. This is her Hollywood story as chronicled by Times staff writer Diane Haithman. And this is her “head shot”: That longing look was achieved by placing a biscuit just out of reach.

Mikey, a cute lop-eared terrier mix who was removed from an abusive home, plays the role of Sandy in the 30th anniversary tour of the Broadway musical "Annie," which recently passed through the Kodak Theatre. It's a rescue-to-riches story. "We have a million-dollar investment in this dog," said Bill Berloni, who has trained rescue dogs to play Sandy since the show opened in 1976.

I had brought Heidi to meet Mikey -- coincidentally at the park where Heidi was first "discovered" by a pet talent agency -- to make sure the two could get along before Heidi arrived at the Kodak for her walk-on appearance in "Annie" the next day. Heidi's big break was facilitated by Bill, who loves to give rescue dogs a chance. Mikey arrived in an official red "Annie on Tour" van with Bill and Patrick Peavey, a former software engineer turned dog handler who also appears in the ensemble onstage.

Since we were meeting a million-dollar canine, I thought it best not to mention that Heidi -- who as yet has received no salary for being a dog -- had suffered a "Marley" moment and gotten herself sprayed by a skunk the night before.

It's a scientific fact: Dogs who have been skunked show an increased tendency to want to cuddle up real close to you almost immediately after. A frantic bath had restored Heidi to her usual fluffy freshness except for few hot spots around the ears, but I prayed that Bill would not get too close downwind.


But when Patrick led the Mikey out of the red "Annie" van, it seemed that Heidi's stage career might be over before it started -- not because she'd dabbed a little eau de skunk behind her big ears, but because the dogs immediately started to bark and lunge at each other, straining against their leashes. Nothing at all like Heidi's friendly encounter with Jonah, one of the 22 dogs used in "Marley and Me," just weeks before.

Yes, by now I should be able to control Heidi in all circumstances. But Bill said that, for a variety of reasons, Mikey's not the easiest dog for another dog to get along with, either. Besides Mikey's history as an abused dog, any dog who can perform in eight shows a week "can't be a shy dog, so tends to be an alpha dog; aggressive," Bill said. "A dog who is submissive and scared can't be a star."

Unruffled, Bill defused the situation with treats for both, and soon they were walking together on the park path, Mikey on leash and Heidi playing alpha-girl brat, skipping around him off-leash, nyah nyah nyah.

Mikey never gets to play with other dogs in a park because of the risk of injury or disease. During our walk, Mikey's small body quivered as he resisted the temptation to dash off to join another canine who was playing ball with his owner on the grass. That's what a well-trained dog is supposed to do.

Of course, just in case the lunge-and-bark situation didn't provide enough embarrassment, Heidi did just the opposite, taking off in a joyous blaze to share toys with the newly arrived playmate.  She, too, knows how to "stay," but considers it optional if a ball or squirrel -- or skunk -- is involved.

While they never became pals, exactly, Mikey the star and Heidi the brat tolerated each other well enough to keep Heidi from being fired from the next night's gig at the Kodak Theatre -- and they even posed for the group-hug photo above. They'll probably never share a dressing room, but Mikey would at least be familiar with Heidi's scent backstage (not skunk, her regular doggy odor).

And Bill gently reminded me that, onstage or off, I'd be doing Heidi a favor by letting her know who's in charge, setting her up for the kinds of juicy distractions a park can offer and rewarding her for resisting them. In New York City, Bill takes dogs to bustling Times Square for training because -- well, if they can make it there, they'll make it anywhere.

"She is very well-balanced. You have a great relationship with her," Bill said. "The only thing separating her from being a well-trained super-dog is that extra layer where you are the real alpha, and she always defaults to you.

"People always say, 'Your dogs are so well-behaved' -- well, it's not a secret, we're not psychic, we don't 'whisper.' " continued Bill. "It's just the pecking order you see with our dogs: She needs to be looking to you and asking, 'What do you want me to do?' "

-- Diane Haithman   

Photo, from left: Patrick Peavey, Mikey, Bill Berloni and Heidi. Credit: Diane Haithman/Los Angeles Times

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