Update April 5, 2007

Scouting Trip

Barry and I went to Los Angeles last weekend to explore some of the facilities we’ve read about and thought might provide juicy material for “Dog” (our working title).

First stop was Canyon View Ranch – a swank day-camp for dogs which also provides long-term boarding for more affluent hounds. It was a wonderful site – a panoramic view of Topanga Canyon, immaculate gardens, and tucked into the landscape were two huge playgrounds for dogs – the larger one included a bone-shaped wading pool and cascading waterfall for the playing pleasure of the larger dogs. The small dogs and elderly were grouped together in a smaller area, but the activities seemed equally gleeful – except for a few dogs who had probably seen it all, snoozing in the late morning sunshine. Each playground was overseen by a human supervisor charged with keeping the dogs amused and well-mannered.

We were met by owner Randy Neece who joined us where we stood on the hillside enjoying the view of about 50 dogs leaping in and out of the pools and frolicking with various toys and tunnels. It suddenly occurred to us that this bucolic scene was missing something. Despite the number and variety of dogs, there was not one sound – not one bark or growl. Apparently, the Canyon View trainers teach all dogs not to bark when they first come onto the premises – and they gently enforce the rule at all times!

It turns out that Randy and his partner Joe have just written a book on dog training and they are in serious negotiations about doing a television series on training dogs with methods that involve understanding how dogs think. Although we all agreed that our film would be quite different in approach and intention than their training series, they were reluctant to have us film there. But we left it open for discussion, depending on what happens to their t.v. series bid, etc.

Next Stop: a doggie day care center whose name shall remain undisclosed. This place was a serious disappointment. We had visions of brushed aluminum countertops and efficient lab-coated dog groomers attending well-coiffed pedigreed pups with attitude. Instead we entered off Hollywood’s famous Sunset Blvd. into a dingy, linoleum-floored reception area lined with dust-ridden racks of leopard-look doggy outfits and some sequined collars of yester-year, replete with the sounds of unhappy dogs penned in a darkened hall just off the entryway. The “Business Manager” was clearly unhappy with her bosses who phoned to stand us up, leaving her to tour us through the facilities and tell us up front that they’d want money for filming. It was a fortunately short tour punctuated by the Manager’s ineffective scolding of one particularly whiny dog. The “tour” didn’t do much to augment our first impression. We did come upon a grim “living room” with a torn, overstuffed couch intended to make the doggies feel right at home. The fresh dog turd in the corner certainly gave us the feeling of que sera sera. We left wondering exactly which famous stars and restaurateurs actually left their best friends in a place like this. Personally, I wouldn’t have left my imaginary goldfish there for the day.

We drove off to visit another “camping” facility for dogs, this one recommended to us by the folks at Canyon View Ranch. This was apparently an urban, multi-coloured concrete knock-off of Canyon View – with a bone-shaped viewing hole in the board fence, a pond and fountain for the dogs to enjoy, and staff to mind the play areas (one with a jungle theme indoors, and a Tex-Mex theme for out-of-doors). We toured past a Mexican Hairless boarded in a dark, isolated kennel who would happily have chewed our heads off … I guess he wasn’t sociable enough to join the other dogs outside in his pseudo native land. Except for this, the place seemed to be well-enough run – with a goodly emphasis on its retail section and an ego-stroking speaker system to announce when a dog’s owner had arrived to take “Harley” home.

The facility’s collagen-lipped owner was practiced in Burbank Brusk – so we didn’t feel a great need to pursue the possibility of filming at this particular location. We went to a local dog park and saw the same sort of dog interactions, and Barry communed with a baying beagle to the bewildered amusement of the people in the park.

The next day we struck gold. Drummond Ranch and its founder Janna Duncan had the kind of authenticity and stories-in-the-making that we were looking for. We arrived at the beginning of a Tuesday morning beginners’ sheep-herding class. Janna used one of her experienced Border Collies to efficiently move a few sheep from the pasture into a small training corral and then the fun began. First up was a young couple with a dog they had gotten from a Rescue. Janna identified Mattie’s probable breeding as part Border Collie and part Australian Cattle Dog. The owners brought Mattie into the corral for an instinct test. Janna asked the owners to step outside the pen and not make eye-contact with their dog. Mattie took a moment to wean herself of her owners’ attention and then she turned toward the sheep. Without ever having seen a sheep, she immediately rounded them up and brought them toward Janna in the centre of the ring. Then, as Janna walked and talked, Mattie tirelessly kept the sheep circling her. The owners gleefully saw that this was their dog’s calling and could hardly wait to sign up for lessons. As Barry ascertained later, Mattie had been discontent at home – chewing and nervous with pent-up energy. She was obviously a great dog – but she had yet to find her niche.

Next, a novice Pembroke Welsh Corgi was brought in to work with Janna. This dog wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about sheep-herding as his owner, so Janna thought she’d try something. She brought in a Border Collie puppy who was smaller than the Corgi to help inspire him and build his confidence. The puppy kept the sheep bunched together and the Corgi took slightly more interest, but he wasn’t fit or keen enough to work for long. (Corgies, by the way, were bred to herd cattle more than sheep. Their short stature helps them avoid getting kicked.)

After working with different members of the class all morning, Janna brought out a 13 year old former U.S. Champion Border Collie to work in the large pasture. This was a story that would break your heart. The dog couldn’t hear well any more and has had a hip replacement, but he still loves to work. So they let him – just for a little while every week – and he remains spirited and as agile as his aging hips will allow.

We met with Janna after the students left to discuss filming at her ranch. To our delight she is as enthusiastic about working with us as we are with her, and she loves the premise of the film we want to make. She told us that she also works at a ranch in Malibu with a more affluent clientele, and that she’ll be judging a sheep-herding contest in Santa Barbara in early June – so there are lots of possibilities for some pre-production filming. She is going to keep an eye out for stories-in-the-making and will let us know next time she gets a call from those folks with an unruly rescued sheep-dog …

Hooray, hooray! We’re on our way!

P.S. – This just in … Barry and I found Gus at Asilomar Beach in Monterey yesterday. He’s a Border Collie/McNab Stock Dog cross and we couldn’t take our eyes off him. In the absence of pasture and sheep, he was racing around barking up at the sky, herding seagulls. After at least15 minutes of circling the beach at break-neck speed, when there were no more birds to be seen, he headed straight out into the surf and rolled, clambered up and went at it again, and again. Gus’s owner Cindy is delighted to have us film him – they come to the beach every day. We never actually got a chance to meet him – Gus was constantly on the alert for more birds. Socializing was not on his agenda. (The McNab Stock Dog is an unrecognized Northern California breed known best to ranchers and farmers in the state. A Scotsman named Alexander McNab was the original breeder about 150 years ago. These dogs are short-haired, love water and can cope with the California heat.)

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