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Unleashing Their Talent

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By Kathy Blumenstock Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

Without the help of choreographers or voice coaches, Leroy, Andrew and 10 other contestants have been preparing for stardom on a new reality show. They're intensely training by running, jumping, fetching, and just looking adorable.

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The doggy dozen includes two dogs from Virginia. They're all vying for the title of "Greatest American Dog," CBS's new unscripted series hosted by pet expert-zoologist Jarod Miller. With weekly challenges and a three-judge panel, the program offers a grand prize of $250,000 for the winning dog-and-human team.

"Leroy has been getting ready for a show like this since he was a baby," said Fairfax resident Teresa Hanula, a former high school Latin teacher whose border collie is poised for his close-up. Leroy, a 5-year-old with mismatched ears, is "obsessed with Frisbee and loves swimming," Hanula said.

To prep Leroy for life on camera, she said, she once held a puppy shower "with people, piƱatas, kids, music and noise, everything he would find remotely distracting. And he loved it. He knows when it's showtime."

Hanula said she's anxious about being on the program: "I feel it's a big opportunity, and if we mess something up, it will be me being nervous or putting too much pressure on him."

Laurie Williams, a Stafford dog trainer, said Andrew, her purebred Maltese, has a calming effect on other dogs. At the Fredericksburg dog day-care center she runs, Andrew "will walk among larger, more active dogs, and it's the coolest thing in the world," she said. "Andrew shows that you can have a well-mannered dog that you can take everywhere, can learn anything and looks fantastic as well."

Andrew, a therapy dog, also visits area nursing homes, where residents' hands eagerly stroke his soft white coat, Williams said. "He is very good at making people smile," she said.

Although Andrew is a tidy eight pounds, Williams stressed that she does not "treat him like a fashion accessory, although I have put him in a stroller when we've been in parades."

Like some human reality shows, "Greatest American Dog" requires the participants, both four- and two-legged, to live together during the competition. R.J. Cutler, the show's executive producer, described the "canine academy" as a shared situation that is fun for the dogs and homelike for the people.

"But you also find there are issues, not just with dogs eating others' food and playing with their toys," Cutler said. "You have 12 different approaches to training dogs, with 12 people who are certain theirs is the best way to have a relationship with a dog. And you'll see how the dogs work and perform beyond what anyone could ask."

The weekly challenges go beyond high-flying tricks and standard obedience commands. Each episode tests a specific quality, such as loyalty, courage or intelligence, Cutler said, and is designed to show how humans and animals cooperate.

"Although the dogs are beautiful, this is not a beauty contest," Cutler said. "The dog-owner relationship is the central part of the show."

Taping a show with animals requires a production balancing act, Cutler said. "You can't work them too hard or too long; you have to make sure they've got lots of time for rest and relaxation in addition to competition." The American Humane Association oversaw production and a veterinarian was on site 24 hours a day, he said.

Cutler is counting on animal attraction for ratings, citing the millions of dog owners in the United States. "People are passionate about their dogs for good reasons," he said. "They're great souls, fun to watch, and they make great TV."

GREATEST AMERICAN DOG

Thursday

8 p.m., CBS


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