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Shelter dogs turned stars in '101 Dalmatians' musical

October 10, 2009 |  2:36 pm

DalmatianRescue shelter dogs now can hope for more much more than just being placed into safe, happy homes -- they can hope to be stars.

The cast of the musical "101 Dalmatians," which our Culture Monster blog recently wrote about, includes 15 Dalmatian dogs that animal trainer Joel Slaven oversees. Most were brought from shelters to Slaven’s ranch home in Florida.

And there is nothing but star treatment for these pooches: During the tour, they are transported in a rock star-style tour bus, and rehearse just like the rest of the cast for their very own time in the spotlight -- sans any upstaging humans -- at the end of the show.

That's because this musical, which begins its national tour this month in Minneapolis, finishes with a three-minute finale of all dogs and only dogs. Composer Dennis DeYoung, a founding member of the band Styx, wrote the song-and-dance finale for the four-legged stars.

Slaven began looking for the Dalmatians in shelters and rescue groups in January.  "The toughest thing I've ever done is finding the dogs," he said.

"When [Disney's "101 Dalmatians"] movies came out, they were overbred and that made the breed, which already has some health problems, even worse. People got the dogs, couldn't afford vet bills, found the dogs untrainable, or didn’t get along with kids. Shelters, Humane Societies and rescue groups don’t want anyone to use these dogs for entertainment, and they don’t want to help someone who’s going to do this again."

Dalmatian Because of this, the dogs in the show were chosen for different qualities than most parents and kids would want in their pets, like attention-seeking stage presence and a desire to live and play with other dogs.

"These are the outgoing, playful, confident dogs -- the dogs that aren’t going to be happy laying on someone's couch each day," he said. "They're the ones chewing and barking because they want to be doing something." [More photos after the jump.]

Though the finale is the only stage time for the real dogs -- the rest of the show humans are portraying the dogs, like in the musical "Cats" -- these dogs are kept busy. Before final rehearsals, the dogs went through days of exercise, confidence-building classes (so they wouldn’t be afraid of riding on moving vehicles), and "fame training," to desensitize them to bright lights, wheelchairs, and noise.

Now, there is less rehearsal time and more time to play, but media appearances and grooming sessions keep the energetic Dalmatians busy.

At the end of the tour, which is slated to run through at least June 2010, the 15 dogs will need to find permanent owners. But if that doesn’t happen, don't worry: Slaven, who already has two yellow Labrador retrievers, will bring back any dogs who can't find homes to his ranch.

The musical is set to open at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre on June 8 for two weeks.

Dalmatian

Dalmatian

-- Kelsey Ramos

Photos: Dalmatians during a rehearsal at Joel Slaven's Professional Animals training facility in St. Cloud, Fla. Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press.

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