Top dogs coming to town
By Lou Fancher
Back flips and conga lines are not the first images that spring to mind when you think of street dogs rescued by a 12-year-old Chilean boy with nothing to eat.
Nor do $1 million television prizes, starring roles in films, headlining the Palazzo in Las Vegas and appearances at NBA games in New York City's Madison Square Garden slip onto the mental radar in the same blink as poodles, schnoodles (poodle/schnauzer mix), labradoodles (poodle/labrador retriever) and yorkiepoos (poodle/yorkshire terrier).
But that is exactly the life trajectory taken by Olate Dogs and Richard Olate, founder and leader of the "America's Got Talent" canine ensemble that won the show's seventh season. Olate Dogs is bringing its theatrical act Dec. 27 to the Bankhead Theatre.
"My dad just likes poodles," says Nicholas Olate, the 21-year-old son of the now 56-year-old man who continues to have a knack for training dogs.
The younger Olate won't reveal the secret behind his father's ability to churn naturally exuberant mutts into agile, attentive performers of circus tricks -- other than to say, "It's trial and error, patience and repetition."
Could it be as simple as try, try again?
If so, the formula led a poor kid with stray dogs to become two entrepreneurial brothers with a dog act traveling through South America to schools and circuses. Debuting in the United States in 1989, the family business continues to thrive. Along the way, abandoned dogs have found purpose, and the Olates have become spokespeople, donating 10,000 meals to animal shelters in each of the locations where they perform, appearing on benefit shows like FOX television's "Cause For Paws" that aired on Thanksgiving and teaming up to fundraise with Ellen DeGeneres' Halo Foods, maker of holistic pet products.
Valley Humane Society Executive Director Melanie Sadek said the organization would be honored to receive food donations. After evaluation to determine if the food suits the organization's carefully curated dietary standards, the food may go to the 50 animals at the facility. Unusable food donations are distributed to pets in low-income families through the society's Animeals program.
Sadek says the most valuable assets are financial contributions. Washing machines that need replacement will cost $12,000 and the annual $100,000 spent on medical services and care leaves the organization reliant on local support.
Olate says his and his parents' lives -- his mother, Rebecca Olate, brings her expertise as a gymnastic champion to the business -- were transformed by the "Got Talent'' victory in 2012.
"It changed everything. It opened doors, especially to meeting people open to helping us. It's been my father's dream to have his own shows. Now, he has 10," Olate says.
The 23 Olate dogs include 10 rescue dogs. Home base is property in Texas and California, but "on the road" is Olate's immediate answer to "Where's home?"
A two- to three-month training period, working with six dogs at a time in up to two-hour sessions, brings the dogs to peak performance level.
"They don't need much time," Olate says, "When a dog learns a trick, they never forget it. We can take a month off, bring them out, they can do it right off the bat."
Poodles have advantages: limited shedding, lightweight bodies, relaxed and gentle temperament, innate observation and retention skills.
"My dad just likes poodles," Olate says, repeating an earlier theme. "You only have to hug them and pet them and figure out each dog's natural ability."
But you don't have to fire them, or force them to retire.
"They actually retire themselves," Olate says. "You can tell when they become bored in performance. They look at you, wag, like, 'I'm sorry, I'm too old, and I can't do it anymore.' "
Willie is 12 years old and the eldest statesmen in the pack. When he "retires himself," he's likely to end up joining the other dogs the Olates keep as family pets. In the meantime, he'll continue to perform and, while on the road, live in the 24-by-12-foot custom trailer Olate and his father built for the dogs using some of the prize money from their television win.
"We put flooring in, insulation, windows, air conditioning, a bathtub with a water heater, individual beds mounted up on the wall so they have floor space for running around and a double-length awning and horseshoe-shaped fencing so when we open the doors, they can run around outside," Olate says.
The "Holiday Rescue Show" in Livermore will include not just back flips, rope jumping and scooter rides but singing, too. Yes, the dogs bark out Christmas Carols, and Olate, a budding musician, will present selections from his debut CD, "Think Big" from Los Angeles-based Domo Music Group.