Rescue dogs perform new tricks at the ‘Mutts Gone Nuts’ variety show at Atlas

Border collie Rusty plays with owner Scott Houghton during a “Mutts Gone Nuts” show. (JoNell Franz)
Border collie Rusty plays with owner Scott Houghton during a “Mutts Gone Nuts” show. (JoNell Franz)

How are rock stars and performing dogs alike? They’re both undeniably charismatic, but if you take either one home, you’re asking for trouble, Scott Houghton says.

He would know (about the dogs, anyway) — Houghton is the owner of the eight canine stars who make up the “Mutts Gone Nuts” comedy show.

“Many of the dogs we have are too wacky for a regular household,” says Houghton, who has trained the dogs to jump rope, walk a tightwire and act mischievously — on cue. (You can catch the show Saturday during the Atlas Intersections Festival.)

Take Chico, a crowd favorite who balances on barrels and jumps through hoops. When Houghton and his wife, Joan, adopted the Chihuahua mix in 2004, Chico had already been adopted and returned to a West Virginia shelter four times. The Houghtons quickly found out why.

“Chico was a marker,” Houghton says. “He peed on everything.”

The solution? His wife tethered the dog to her waist. For four weeks, if Chico lifted his leg indoors, Joan scolded him, took him outside, and then praised him lavishly for peeing in the grass.

Housebreaking Chico wasn’t easy, but it was worth the trouble. Now he’s the well-trained star of the Houghtons’ show and the top dog around their 3-acre Damascus, Md., farm.

“He sleeps on our bed every night,” Houghton says.

Chico’s co-stars also hail from shelters, which gives the Houghtons an opening to encourage audiences to adopt dogs instead of going to a breeder. Just be sure to pick one out that fits your lifestyle.

“Our dogs are all pretty high-energy, but shelters are full of plenty of great, easygoing dogs as well,” Houghton says.

Meet the Stars

Go ahead and ogle these high-maintenance celebradogs who star in “Mutts Gone Nuts.”

Chico3
Chico

Age: 11

Breed: Chihuahua/corgi mix

Tricks: hoop jumping, barrel rolling

Rock-star alter-ego: Billy Joel

If Chico were an rocker, he’d be an upbeat entertainer with a bit of a dark side. “He’s a funny little happy guy on stage, but at home he’s a loner,” Houghton says. “He doesn’t want to hang out with the pack or go outside and sit in the sun.”

Allie
Allie

Age: 5

Breed: papillon/border collie mix

Tricks: Frisbee, dance

Rock-star alter-ego: Taylor Swift

Like the country-crossover ingenue, Allie is precociously clever and eager to please, Houghton says. “She’s a rising star,” he adds. “We have to give her a lot of attention and praise.”

Fritz2
Fritz

Age: 7

Breed: American Eskimo

Tricks: jumps rope, steals things from human performers

Rock-star alter-ego: Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Fritz, like Kiedis, is a good-looking guy with puppy-like energy despite his relatively advanced age. “He excels in being naughty,” Houghton says.

RustyCOPY
Rusty

Age: 8

Breed: border collie

Tricks: Frisbee, running backward

Rock-star alter-ego: Alan Jackson

A consummate professional and occasional workaholic, Rusty won first place in a national frisbee-dog championship in 2012. Also wholesome and hardworking, country singer Jackson’s most recent Grammy was in 2011

Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE; Sat., 1:30 p.m., $15; 202-399-7993.

The Atlas Intersections Festival

Liza Figueroa Kravinsky conducts the “Go-Go Symphony” on Friday. (Joshua Cruse)
Liza Figueroa Kravinsky conducts the “Go-Go Symphony” on Friday. (Joshua Cruse)

“Mutts Gone Nuts” is one of more than 100 shows that make up the Atlas Intersections Festival, which runs Friday, through March 8 at Atlas Performing Arts Center. Highlights include:

“Go-Go Symphony”
Composer Liza Figueroa Kravinsky has enlisted hip-hop drummers to provide new classical music with D.C.’s homegrown, booty-shaking beat. Feb. 21, 8 p.m., $22.

“Navgathi — New Directions”
The Maryland-based Jayamangala dance company will use traditional Indian dance and gesture to tell modern tales of survival and resilience. Feb. 22 , 2 p.m., $22.

“Vox Ukulele Cello: Outside the Box”
The lighthearted ukulele and soulful cello make mismatched music together in this performance by Victoria Vox and cellist Katie Chambers. Feb. 28, 9:30 p.m., $20.

“Watch Me Bounce”
Dissonance Dance Theater performs classical ballet to Afro-Cuban jazz sounds. March 1, 9:30 p.m. and March 2, 2:30 p.m., $33.

“Fabulas Mayas”
How did the rabbit lose his antlers? Gala Hispanic Theater will answer that and other lesser-asked questions in a puppet-driven, bilingual performance of Mayan folk tales. March 1, 10 a.m., and March 8, 1 p.m., $8.

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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