It’s adorable chaos to drop in on Darren Peterson, his six dogs and his one parrot on a recent morning.
Peterson — animal trainer, juggler, unicyclist and performer — tries to hang a red-and-white striped backdrop that’s emblazoned with “Circus Chicken Dog” across the stage at the Institution Theatre, a South Austin warehouse theater where Peterson often performs Saturday morning children’s shows.
Meanwhile Jingles, an itty bitty Papillion, is barking and literally bouncing with excitement. So are Skeeter, Squirrel and Coyote, equally bouncy and big-eared Papillions.
Moose and Mouse — a pair of cream-and-tan-colored medium-sized dogs, littermates adopted from a Hurricane Katrina evacuee — act comparatively calm, sitting atop a box-like stand that’s also draped with the same red-and-white striped fabric.
At the moment the dogs are supposed to be rehearsing for “The Mutt-Cracker (Sweet)!,” Peterson’s family-friendly show that opens Friday for a 10-night run at the Vortex Theater, a warehouse theater in East Austin.
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However, the “Mutt-Cracker” cast is having a little trouble focusing.
The Papillions bust out of the temporary pen set up on the stage. Coyote winds his way between Peterson’s legs, causing him to trip as he tries to set up the show. Skeeter jumps into the lap of a visiting reporter. Squirrel finds the lap of another visitor.
“C’mon Squirrel, c’mon Jingles,” Peterson coos, reaching into his pocket to pull out a small handful of dog treats. “Let’s try that again, OK? One more time, please?”
Peterson’s style is anything but slick. After all, the half-dozen pooches — all rescues of one sort or another — are his beloved pets who crowd him out of bed at night.
And if the dogs don’t always do their tricks exactly on cue, therein lies the charm of the good-natured show.
As a trainer, Peterson believes in free-shaping — encouraging a dog’s natural ability and good behaviors. Once a behavior is identified, Peterson begins to shape the repetition of that behavior with clicker training, marking the moment with a click that’s followed by a treat.
“Your dog naturally wants to find something to do that gets it a reward,” he says. “It may not be the behavior you originally had in mind, but if it’s a good behavior than you can cultivate it.”
Coyote, for example, exhibited a habit of sticking his nose into Peterson’s shoes when he took them off. So Peterson cultivated Coyote’s shoe-sniffing fondness into a trick and now the dog performs it on cue.
“The dogs are doing exactly what they want to do,” says Peterson. “They’re having fun.”
Other tricks the canine stars do include jumping into Peterson’s arms, running through a tube, walking backward, rolling over, standing on hind legs and turning around in circles, jumping on to Peterson’s shoulders, and staying between Peterson’s legs while he walks around. (The tricks involve a lot affection between Peterson and his dogs.)
The so-called rehearsal of the “Mutt-Cracker” looks like a fun-loving crazy doggie play session.
But Peterson works with his dogs daily, reinforcing their abilities with several short training sessions.
“Keep a training session short, like no more than two minutes at a time,” Peterson advises. “It’s got to remain fun for the dog at all times. It’s all about positive reinforcement of good behaviors. Negative reinforcement never works.”
Peterson packs a lot into his hourlong “Mutt-Cracker” — juggling, unicycling, puppets, parrot tricks, accordion music, magic tricks, live music, rope tricks and of course, the six amazing dogs.
Dane Dawson — also a juggler — plays the part of the ringmaster, unleashing plenty of corny jokes along the way. Live music comes from Jungle Jill and the Jaybirds, a trio of musicians — Jill Jarboe, Bruce Newman and Kirk Williams — who use puppets with their original children’s songs that spin an environmental message. Then there’s piano player Bowman Maze, who pounds out a jazzy version of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.”
The show is, after all, loosely based on the Nutcracker story. The six doggies — along with Lauren Macaw, an 18-year-old sacrlet parrot — journey to the land of the circus, with tricks woven into the offbeat storyline.
This run of the “Mutt-Cracker” also benefits rescue organization Austin Pets Alive which will be hosting adoption events at some of the shows.
A native of Houston, Peterson, 47, landed in Austin years ago to major in mathematics at the University of Texas — until he ran away with the circus, that is. Peterson had picked up juggling as a child (a means to show off at a family reunion) and grew his skills to a professional level by the time he landed at UT.
“My story would be a parent’s worst nightmare because I left for the circus just eight credits short of finishing my degree,” he says. “But I did go back and eventually graduate.”
He spent a year or so traveling the country with the tiny (and often cash-strapped) Royal Lichtenstein Quarter-Ring Sidewalk Circus as a unicyclist and juggler.
Once back in Austin, with his degree completed, Peterson was making a living editing math textbooks, his circus days behind him, though he still performed as a juggler, including gigs at Austin’s legendary comedy club, Esther’s Follies.
Then Peterson’s girlfriend at the time came home with a jittery, nervous rescue dog, a Dalmatian/blue healer mix. The dog was promptly dubbed “Chicken Dog.”
Five homes had already given up on the high-strung pup. But Peterson came up with a plan.
Noticing Chicken Dog’s natural inclination and ability with disc and Frisbee catching (not to mention endless energy), Peterson began to cultivate her skills with positive reinforcement training techniques.
Soon, a canine star was born. Chicken Dog (and Peterson, too) began winning disc dog competitions and incorporating new tricks into performances such as jumping rope and sneezing on command.
Chicken Dog’s amazing talents landed her and Peterson on a “Stupid Pet Tricks” segment of the “Late Show With David Letterman,” along with appearances on Animal Planet and a few commercials. (Chicken Dog as well as Jumpin’ Jack, Peterson second performing dog, both died within the past couple of years.)
After “Mutt-Cracker” is over at the Vortex, Peterson will return to doing shows at the Institution Theater.
But in the meantime, it’s all about trying to get Moose to do her “ribbon dance” — spinning around while holding a long cloth ribbon in her mouth. A ribbon can’t be found at the moment, so Peterson offers Moose a small blanket.
“Please, Moose, please,” Peterson pleads. “Just try it with this. Please?”