After a brief introduction, four dogs ran out onstage to blaring rock music, taking their places on four wooden crates in a line upstage.
Dog-loving families had packed the seats of Hall Auditorium to see Mutts Gone Nuts, a traveling comedy dog show, at 7:30 p.m. last Friday. Founder Scott Houghton entered in a red velvet blazer, introducing the dogs to the audience. Their lead trainer, Samantha Valle, stood behind the mutts, directing the tricks and sneaking them treats from her pocket.
The dogs had the audience's full attention instantly. They darted through a short tube placed on its side, then stood on their hind legs and pushed it across the stage. After five minutes, all four dogs were walking in formation on their hind legs in a sort of conga line, dancing across the stage to tremendous applause.
“And they went to public school,” Houghton joked.
Houghton and his wife, Joan, started Mutts Gone Nuts in 2005 after 20 years of performing together in a juggling act. They knew they needed a change of pace but still wanted to stay in the performing arts for years to come.
“We were looking for an act that we could do as we got older,” Houghton said.
A friend of theirs had a dog act in a circus and helped them train their dogs and set up the act. It’s a change that Houghton doesn’t regret in the slightest.
“It’s a lot more fun having a dog act. I like it a lot,” he said. “People love dogs, and I love working with dogs and playing with dogs.”
Houghton, a dog lover, likes to use his platform to encourage his audience to feel the same. Interspersed in his routine were bits of advice for the audience on how to pick the right dog and the show’s program includes advice and encouragement to consider adopting from pet shelters. All nine of the dogs in the show are rescue animals and Houghton doesn’t hide how proud he is of that fact.
The high-energy show went full throttle as the heavily-choreographed stunts were punctuated with jabs of comedy. At one point, Chuck Taylor, a border collie and the show’s designated “naughty dog,” knocked Houghton off balance, snatching his hat as it fell off.
The crowd lost it.
Later, a high-jump bar was set up and a long, slender Italian Greyhound called Feather tiptoed out. She leapt over the bar multiple times with ease and grace, and as the height was increased incrementally up to 62 inches, the crowd roared louder with each jump.
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Houghton revealed that Feather set the Guinness World Record for dog high jump in February 2019 after leaping over a 75.5 inch bar. The audience applauded Feather again, starstruck in the presence of such a world-class talent.
At times, the dogs would leave the stage and comedian Johnathan Burns would step out. Sometimes he entered in a dog costume. Other times he would perform contortionist stunts or silly magic tricks.
In a mock-dramatic routine complete with pounding music, he squeezed his body through a toilet seat, an unstrung tennis racket and a picture frame. He had the crowd in hysterics but never stole the show away from the main stars: the mutts.
The dogs dug their way into the hearts of the families who watched from the floor. Miami recreation center staffer Eric Gilkey and his husband, Josh Centers, brought their young daughter, Alison. They thought it was a great show.
“This is the first time we’ve ever taken her out to an event before,” Gilkey said.
“She had an amazing time,” Centers added.
The show ended with an energized dance routine from Valle and Chuck Taylor. As Valle stomped back and forth across the stage to the beat, Chuck slithered in and out from under her legs.
Valle then laid on her back and stuck her legs up, and Chuck hopped on top of her feet, balancing on his hind legs. After posing for a bit, he jumped off, pranced around the stage a bit more, and leapt into Valle’s arms as the song finished.
The crowd, appropriately, went nuts.