Service Dogs Attend ‘Billy Elliot’ To Learn Proper Theater Behavior

At the Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario, Canada, they occasionally put on a special kind of performance – it’s called a “relaxed performance”. What is a “relaxed performance you may ask? 

A relaxed performance at the Ontario theater are for audiences who benefit from a less structured environment while watching a show.  While all patrons are welcome, these performances are ideal for those with intellectual or learning disabilities, autism, sensory processing conditions, and more.

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This theater takes relaxed performances to a new level, however. Recently, the theater put on a production of Billy Elliot for a very special audience. The service dogs from K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs were learning how to behave in the theater for handlers who might be interested in attending performances.

A dozen good boys and girls learned what it takes to sit through a theater performance. The service dogs in training attended the performance so that they could learn how to accompany future handlers both in terms of guiding them to their seats or through the theater as well as learning when they need to sit and remain quiet so as not to disrupt other audience members enjoying the show.

The goal of the program with for K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs is to prepare service dogs for any environment or situation. 

The relaxed performance was the perfect place for the dogs to begin learning about going to the theater. “There is a relaxed attitude to noise and movement within the auditorium, and some minor production changes may be made to reduce the intensity of light, sound and other potentially startling effects,” the theater company explains on its website, which includes a schedule of such performances.

“It’s important to prepare the dogs for any activity the handler may like to attend,” Laura Mackenzie told CBC. Laura is the owner and head trainer with K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs who organized the dogs attending the relaxed performance.

“The theatre gives us the opportunity to expose the dogs to different stimuli such as lights, loud noises and movement of varying degrees,” Laura explained. “The dogs must remain relaxed in tight quarters for an extended period of time.”

During full dress rehearsal for the musical, the training exercise had the service dogs and their handlers navigate a normal visit to the theater, including moving through crowds, tight aisles and getting to bathrooms. The dogs must lead their owners through all these obstacles while ignoring potential distractions from other patrons and concessions.

The photos of the dogs in the audience at the show are simply adorable. Each pooch is at a theater seat, paying careful attention to what’s happening onstage while a performance of Billy Elliot is going on.

 “About a dozen dogs came to our relaxed performance, and they were all extremely well-behaved,” Ann Swerdfager, spokesperson for the Stratford Festival, told CBC. “I was in the lobby when they came in, then they took their seats, then got out of their seats at intermission and went back — all of the things we learn as humans when we start going to the theatre.”

Ann also noted that the exercise was good practice for the performers, many of whom are child actors, and need to get used to seeing service dogs in the audience or experiencing other distractions in a live theater environment.

Both the festival and the service dogs are opening up the world of theater for those who would normally believe they could not attend. “It’s wonderful that going to the theatre is considered one of the things that you want to train a service dog for, rather than thinking that theatre is out of reach for people who require a service animal, because it isn’t,” Ann explained.

As the photos go viral, K-9 Country Inn Working Service Dogs hopes those who do the important work of training service dogs recognize the expansive spectrum of their potential. By training service dogs for any situations, the dogs  open up the world for their future handler.

The festival welcomes attendees with service dogs multiple times a week. “Everybody was so thrilled to see all these dogs at one time in the audience. It’s really exciting,” Ann noted. “And it’s thrilling to be part of something that is going to serve theatre

“All of the dogs were fantastic and remained relaxed throughout the performance. Some even watched through the cracks of the seats,” Laura said. “The dogs loved the show almost as much as their handlers.”

Laura was so pleased with how the dogs’ behavior during the performance that she plans to return with another pack of pups in training.

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