A small black-and-white dog races across a performance stage at SeaWorld park in San Diego as the music booms: “Who let the dogs out? Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!”
Chili Pepper, a 5-year-old Australian Cattle Dog mix, runs to a flagpole and flips a lever, sending a flag soaring overhead.
Then the star of Pets Rule! whose stage name is Lester, sprints across the stage, summons dozens of dogs, cats, and other creatures, most of them rescues, and together they run in for their opening act.
Trainers at SeaWorld’s parks are famous for saving and training marine animals, rescuing a total of more than 18,000 orphaned, injured, or ill animals during the past four decades. But in this show, the stars, including nearly 30 dogs, have been pulled from local shelters or breed rescue groups.
Barely three years ago, Chili Pepper was just another unwanted pet, a high-energy escape artist. But she caught the eye of a trainer with Joel Slaven’s Professional Animals Inc., which says that since 1997 it has rescued more than 350 dogs, among other animals, and made them stars in animal shows around the country.
“Chili Pepper was very interested in Frisbees, so we started her on learning our Frisbee behavior,” says Olivia Bentley, manager of the Pets Rule show. “After not too long, we determined she would not be best for our Frisbee segment because she wasn’t the greatest at catching those Frisbees.
“But she was a great jumper,” Bentley adds. “Obviously we knew she was a great jumper because she had been jumping out of everyone’s houses. So we were able to get her to use that talent for our show and put on a performance onstage.”
Chili Pepper shows off that awesome jumping ability in one performance with a trainer who is wearing a karate outfit, vaulting over higher and higher targets until she finally jumps completely over her partner’s head.
Leaping is what Chili Pepper loves. “We want to make sure it is fun for all of our animals, and Chili Pepper enjoys what she does,” Bentley says.
When the animals are not performing, they live at a compound at Sea World. “The dogs live in pairings of two to eight animals,” Bentley says. “Chili Pepper lives with a yellow Labrador Retriever named Max.” The trainers take the dogs on walks, play Frisbee and other games in a play yard area, and teach them new tricks.
“Chili Pepper has learned how to turn a crank on a hot-dog cart, which releases all the Dachshunds during the show,” Bentley says.
When dogs and other animals no longer perform or are too old to do so, they are adopted by the trainers, or the SeaWorld staff can adopt them. “Once we adopt the animals, they have a home with us forever,” Bentley says.
In addition to showing the importance of rescuing animals, and how great adopted pets can be, Bentley says the show has an important message. “You can train your dog just the way we train the whales here,” she says. “Using positive reinforcement with toys and cookies, you can train animals at home to do amazing things.”