CHARLOTTE — Imagine the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance,” but the contestants are dogs, not people. That’s the premise behind So You Think You Can Bark, a competition happening live at the Knight Theater on Feb. 21.
Seven dogs and their owners will take to the stage to perform a routine they’ve learned with the help of a force-free dog trainer. Cora Dillard, a fifth-grader at Providence Springs Elementary in south Charlotte, is the youngest contestant at just 11 years old. She and her rescue dog, Domino, hope to wow the crowd with a rodeo-themed routine set to the song “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton.
So You Think You Can Bark serves as a fundraiser for Stand For Animals, which operates three non-profit clinics in Charlotte, Pineville and Lake Norman. Clinics are staffed by licensed veterinarians, veterinary technicians and assistants and provide spay/neuter services and affordable veterinary care such as annual vaccines and checkups, sick visits, x-rays, ultrasounds and prescription medication.
All proceeds from the event, including fundraising done by the contestants and ticket sales, go toward Stand For Animals’ medical fund. This fund underwrites the cost for spay/neuter surgeries, vaccines and other medical care for those in the community who need help caring for their pet.
Cora signed up to participate in So You Think You Can Bark after attending the show last year. She was excited to see if she could train Domino, her three-year-old Staffordshire Terrier, to do the complex tricks she saw on stage. But since he was a rescue, she wasn’t sure.
Cora’s father, Chad, adopted Domino from the Charlotte Humane Society in October 2018 as a surprise for Cora, who had been begging for a dog. The two quickly bonded and now, Domino is Cora’s constant companion. She described him as a bundle of energy who likes to sleep in her bed and snuggle under the covers.
“He’s really fun to just watch,” Cora said. “The stuff he does and the noises he makes are really funny.”
Domino and Cora were paired with Piper Novick, owner of Happy Dogs Training, to practice for So You Think You Can Bark. They started small with basic tricks to see where Domino was at and then slowly increased the difficulty over the last six months using praise and “high-value treats,” like cut up hotdogs and pieces of chicken.
“We didn’t know if he was even trainable, but as soon as we started working with Piper, he caught on really quick,” Chad Dillard said.
Novick is an Animal Behavior College Certified Trainer with over a decade of experience. She is also a successful agility competitor having trained and titled five of her own dogs.
She said the key to learning a routine — like the one Domino and Cora are set to perform at So You Think You Can Bark — is to break each trick down as much as possible. For instance, when Domino was learning to go through Cora’s legs, they started by teaching him to press his nose to Cora’s hand. Eventually, Cora brought her hand behind her back, then through her legs and Domino learned to follow it.
“It’s all about very small behaviors that piece together to become a bigger sequence or more complex trick,” Novick said.
Despite being a rescue, Novick said Domino hasn’t been difficult to train because he’s “really smart and really motivated.” The hardest part, she said, has actually been teaching Cora and her father how Domino thinks.
They need to understand his learning process because the majority of the training is done at home. Novick only meets with Domino once a week, so it’s up to Cora to stay consistent when she’s not there. That’s a lot for an 11-year-old who is also balancing school, piano and tumbling lessons.
Cora has to know the sequence of the tricks, give Domino the correct cues and pay close attention to the timing of rewards.
“That’s really important to getting a trick down,” Novick said. “If we’re trying to teach him to touch his nose to our hand and we reward him five seconds after he touches his nose to our hand, then he’s going to think he’s being rewarded for whatever he was doing at that time.”
Cora said it’s been fun to see Domino learn new tricks and come out of his shell, as well as become more comfortable with people and other dogs. She said his favorite trick is “sit pretty,” when he lists on his back legs and puts his paws up in the air. Her favorite is when Domino walks through her legs and the hardest trick is “the bridge,” when she bends her body backwards and Domino crawls underneath her.
“I’m surprised he could learn so fast, but it is really hard to do it over and over again,” Cora said.
So You Think You Can Bark is just around the corner, which means it’s crunch time for Cora and Domino. Recently, Novick said they’ve been working on stringing the individual tricks together with transitions to form a routine. They’ve also been practicing the tricks with distractions so Domino doesn’t get sidetracked when he’s in front of a live audience at the Knight Theater.
“I’m stoked to see them do it on stage because they’re going to do amazing and I’m really excited to see everybody else’s routines too,” Novick said.
In addition to training their dogs, all of the contestants participating in So You Think You Can Bark raised money for Stand For Animals’ medical fund.
As of Feb. 6, Cora had raised $3,115.74. The group as a whole raised $51,144.06.
“It makes me feel really happy because I know these dogs are going to be safe and it’s going to help them a lot,” Cora said.
She hopes her performance at So You Think You Can Bark inspires more kids to participate in the event and brings awareness to the importance of pet adoption.
“There are so many dogs out there that don’t have any homes and they’re lonely and they don’t have a family to go to who loves them,” Cora said.
Want to go?
So You Think You Can Bark begins at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Knight Theater at Levine Center for the Arts, located at 430 S. Tryon St., Charlotte. Buy tickets at www.carolinatix.org/events/detail/so-you-think-you-can-bark-1 or call 704-372-1000. To donate, visit https://app.mo bilecause.com/vf/BARKS.